Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Liz Phair Week continues...
While Liz Phair has always gotten props for her blistering live shows and her insightful interviews, few credit her for her most important innovations. She was the first female singer to use a flat, affectless voice, a move that was copied endlessly by lesser talents who followed her. A singer named Lou Reed had attempted something similar back in the 60's with so-so results, but Phair perfected the technique, allowing her to create an aura of detachment from the words she was singing. One more weapon in her arsenal.
She also was the first woman to pull off the trick of writing songs that were simultaneously intimate and non-confessional, with ramshackle arrangements underplaying her early work's pop hooks (such as they were). And unlike other "grrrrl" artists in the 80's and 90's who clung to a predictable set of folky and/or female influences, Liz wasn't afraid to take inspiration from masculine groups such as The Vapors (whose minor hit Turning Japanese she claimed as her own on an early single).
As for language, Liz Phair broke down walls there as well. Prior to her, female singers might have occasionally sung "goddam" or "bastard" but Liz was unafraid to use direct language such as [edited] and [edited]. This initially shocked male critics who weren't used to hearing these kinds of words from a woman, especially one who they related to, at the time, as a simple folk singer.
And lastly, Liz Phair pioneered the use of "writing in character" and "unreliable narrators." Let me explain. In general when someone writes a song, they sing about things that actually happened to them, or that they wish had happened to them. So, for example, when Kiss sang, "I want to rock and roll all night and part of every day," the listener knew that either Kiss had done that, or that they wanted to.
In contrast, Liz Phair wrote songs about things that she herself hadn't done and didn't want to do, but that might have happened to someone else or that someone else might have wanted to do. This occasionally lead to misunderstandings. One of the funniest involves her first meeting with Gerard Cosloy, head of a small "indie" label called Matador (this took place back at the beginning of her career). Liz arrived for the meeting expecting to talk about her contract, but when she walked into Gerard Cosloy's office, she found him sitting on a couch with no pants on! When she asked him why he was dressed like that for a business meeting, he said that he had assumed from listening to her songs that she was "easy" and that she would perform oral sex on almost any man she met. Liz was shocked, but explained to him that she often "wrote in character" using "unreliable narrators" and that she personally did not behave the way her characters sometimes did. Luckily, Cosloy wasn't angry, and he did end up signing her to his label.
Druscilla Penny by World of Pooh
Straw Man by Barbara Manning
Mark E. Smith and Brix by Barbara Manning
Turning Japanese (Live) by The Vapors
Your Dragon by Suckdog
Jokes About Women by Suckdog
Chicken Pussy by Bongwater
Stay tuned for more of Liz Phair Week! Tomorrow we look at Liz's early days...