The Problem with Liz Phair's Self-Titled Album is That It's an Irredeemable Piece of Shit
politics can shut down criticism of bad art but politics can't make bad art good
I would not have thought it possible for Pitchfork to sink lower in my estimation, but such a thing has come to pass. The self-obsessed music review site crawled even deeper into its own ass recently by posting a piece where old scores it had handed out were “revised.” This claim is a lie on its face - none of the new scores were given out by the original reviewers, which means that these are less revisions of old opinions and more allowing new hacks to give scores that better reflect the conventional wisdom.
Which they are very close to explicitly admitting is the point: not that there was some deficiency in how the original scores were awarded, but rather that the scores look less like what a cool person thinks now. One little snippet helpfully points out that liking an artist was not cool when the review was written but is cool now; honest, but perhaps this should have been removed in the editing process! (You’re not supposed to just tell people that your whole conceit is a fraud.) Why did Grimes receive one of only a couple downwardly revised scores? Because she dated Elon Musk, and that’s not cool. Lana del Rey was divisive and received a divisive score at the time, but she’s been sort of grudgingly admitted to the Cool Girl pantheon via sheer tenacity, so her score must be revised up. The idea that musical taste should exist outside of the relentless pressure of other people’s opinions seems not to even have occurred to whoever authored this mess. Imagine defining yourself by your music tastes and simultaneously being such a coward that you can’t imagine holding tastes that are out of step with the social group to which you aspire.
Which, of course, is what Pitchfork has always been about, projecting a certain kind of image of yourself to your peers. Pitchfork is the apotheosis of music purely as signifier, signifier of being the right kind of person, the cool kind, the knowing kind. There’s this old question about college - if you could keep the knowledge you gained or the diploma, but not both, which would you choose? I suspect with Pitchfork’s coterie the question is not a hard one to answer: if they had to give up ever hearing any music again in their lives, or give up signaling to others through the music they ostentatiously like and dislike, they wouldn’t hesitate. They’d cling like death to their performative tastes and drop the actual tunes without a second thought.
For example, Frank Ocean. Pitchfork has a level of devotion to Frank Ocean that’s utterly unhinged, given that Ocean is still trading on potential rather than performance ten years after his first release and has never put out anything without a handful of absolute duds. I like “Swim Good” too, but so much of what he’s put out since has been meandering, “soulful” crooning over uninspired instrumentals. But Ocean is Black and queer and was aligned with Odd Future, a late-2000s viral curio which once inspired absolutely rabid fascination in hip white strivers who saw that minor music collective and its utterly inessential music as some sort of symbol of Black authenticity. (An authenticity those white people would like to borrow, please, via liking them.) Ocean has also relentlessly cultivated a tastefully mysterious personae, and for the kind of people Pitchfork caters to those stylistic elements are vastly more important than his actual music. It’s not that Pitchfork’s reviewers want to listen to Frank Ocean; it’s that they want to be seen as the kind of people who listen to Frank Ocean. They seem to believe that, by some bizarre process of osmosis, this makes them racially progressive, a friend to queer people, and intriguingly unknowable themselves.
The real horror of Pitchfork’s revisions, though, is adjusting Liz Phair’s self-titled album up by a full six points. On a ten point scale! And the reasons they did so are, let’s say, not particularly relevant to the experience of listening to the music.
There really is nothing that can be said here that wasn’t already covered in Matt LeMay’s 2019 Twitter thread apologizing for this “condescending and cringey” review. So I’ll just quote him: “In 2019, it is almost inconceivable that there would be *any* controversy around an established indie musician working on a radio-friendly pop album with radio-friendly pop songwriters. To a smug 19-year-old Pitchfork writer (cough) in 2003, it was just as inconceivable that an established indie artist would try to—or want to—make a radio-friendly pop album in the first place. The idea that ‘indie rock’ and ‘radio pop’ are both cultural constructs? Languages to play with? Masks for an artist to try on? Yeah. I certainly did not get that. Liz Phair DID get that—way before many of us did.” –Amy Phillips
You can read the actual Twitter thread, if you’d enjoy such a thing, but you won’t find any deeper engagement with the music - engagement, it’s implied, that would justify raising an album’s rating by six points out of ten. Hey, Matt, buddy: exonerating a musician for making bad music through a tortured pseudo-political apologia is not respecting that musician. The only way a critic can ever respect any artist is by taking that artist seriously. And, though negative criticism is incredibly unpopular now, and routinely derided as “toxic,” praise means nothing if blame has been declared politically forbidden. Do you think Liz Phair, a musician whose career has been fantastically successful by any rational criteria, needs this kind of condescending white knight bullshit? Would a male musician ever be subject to such patronizing treatment? I don’t think so. But we must rescue the ladies from the awful power of male opinions. They’re too delicate for our criticism.
We should extend Phair the respect that neither Pitchfork nor LeMay was willing to and think about Liz Phair as a piece of professional work, produced by a celebrated artist who should be above getting praised for effort. And I’m afraid if you’re actually willing to engage with the music as music that 0.0 looks like a far more justifiable score than the 6.0 revision. The thing for you to understand about the album, perhaps not the only thing but certainly the first and last things, is that it’s terrible as an album. As an artistic entity, it’s trash. It’s a collection of music that collects bad music. It’s lyrically vapid, horrendously overproduced, and for a self-consciously poppy crowd-pleaser profoundly lacking in catchy hooks. There’s a deeply grating eagerness to please in the whole affair, and that’s particularly galling given that Phair’s reputation was built precisely on her willingness to represent herself in an unsympathetic light. I don’t like it when any artist puts out their lips to be kissed, but I find it especially sad when it’s someone who was always so insouciant and defiant towards being liked. Worse still is that this crowd-pleaser mentality is matched with a transparent lack of investment. It would be one thing if Phair had approached getting more commercial with flair and gusto, but she sounds embarrassed to be there on her own album.
Listen to this shit.
I am extraordinary, if you'd ever get to know me
I am extraordinary, I am just your ordinary
Average every day sane psycho
Average every day sane psycho
My ruder, less charitable self says “That’s fucking deep, man.” My more sober and fair self says “this is a terribly sad way for a musician who built a reputation as a kind of distaff feminist in a very male genre to write a cynical girl power anthem.” The song was of course incorporated into TV commercials after release, and seems to have been written expressly for that purpose. It’s only due to the fickle hand of history that this song was not the anthem of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign, in place of Katy Perry’s equally empty “Roar.” I don’t enjoy putting Liz Phair’s music on the same plane with that of Katy Perry, but then I imagine that there’s been a poptimist “rediscovery” of Perry and now we are all legally obligated to regard her as a brilliant girlboss revolutionary. Such is music criticism in 2021.
So dig a little deeper, cause
You still don't get it yet
See me lickin' my lips, need a primitive fix
And I'll make, I'll make you love me
The thing about Liz Phair is not just that it’s bad, but that it’s bad in a way that uniquely negates what was good about what she did before. These are lyrics from the same woman who so brilliantly chronicled her sexual desire in a way that was intimate and wry and vulnerable and unapologetic. That tangle of the head and heart, of the raw sexual desire of a song like “Flower” and the wounded romanticism of “Fuck and Run,” was Phair’s unique sensibility. On this album it all reads like a tired cliché about empowered women’s sexuality, with none of the ambiguity or irony that made it all so interesting. I’m not as big of an Exile in Guyville fan as some, but I recognize it as a truly landmark album in its lyrical inventiveness and the way it chronicled a quintessentially Gen X experience in sharp and nervy detail. But the self-titled album is just a lame come on, a series of ostensibly ambiguous self-descriptions (“sane psycho,” whoa dude!) that nevertheless always highlight the fact that Phair is an empowered and sexually enlightened woman. And that’s boring. A confident mid-30s woman who’s comfortable with her sexuality and unafraid to pursue what she wants is a great thing to be. But it makes for lousy lyrics, because confident and empowered people have nothing they need to say in music. There’s a reason so many musicians make great music in their early career and dreadful music in their late career.
This is not a good song. It’s crass commercialism reminds me of the old rocker dude in Love Actually setting Christmas lyrics to an old tune of his. I apologize if the political valence of a man judging an empowered woman’s music upsets the delicate sensibilities of the Pitchfork crew, but my relative identity position can’t change the fact that this is a shitty song with a terrible sing-song delivery and cynical lyrics, featured in a video where a bored-looking woman barely pretends to play guitar while affecting a playfulness she clearly doesn’t feel.
Isn't this the best part of breakin' up
Finding someone else you can't get enough of?
Someone who wants to be with you too
It's an itch we know we are gonna scratch
Gonna take a while for this egg to hatch
But wouldn't it be beautiful?
Here we go, we're at the beginning
We haven't fucked yet but my head's spinning
Why can't I breathe whenever I think about you?
Why can't I speak whenever I talk about you?
The whole album sounds exactly like an artist who achieved early accolades with a classic album responding to several middling efforts by saying “fuck it, let’s go get a townhouse” and making a self-conscious pop album designed to move units. Which would not be so much of a problem if she had pulled it off. If Liz Phair was good rather than bad, if it was an artful attempt at a soulless sellout rather than a clumsy one, I would cluck my tongue a little and then bop along to the tunes. But that’s not what she did. It’s one thing to make cynical art, and it’s another thing to make cynical bad art. I am one of the vanishingly few who still believes in the concept of selling out. “Why Selling Out Isn’t Bad/Isn’t a Thing” essays wallpaper the internet, and each is written from the transparently bullshit premise that the writer is the first one to ever come to that conclusion. But in fact I think that intentionally changing your artistic values in order to sell more copies is, in fact, a shitty thing to do. There are many reasons for that, but the most important is epitomized in Liz Phair: trying to sell out so often produces bad, disposable, passionless music, because good music springs from authentic feeling, not market calculations. But if you must sell out, do it well.
LeMay’s Twitter thread, of course, goes through the usual poptimist litany of indictments, never mind the fact that poptimism has been the dominant critical mode in music for 15 years. He recites the same tired complaints that indie rock (a genre no one has thought about for at least a half decade) was treated seriously where pop was derided as insubstantial stuff for kids. This narrative was, in fact, always a lie - Rolling Stone and Spin and all of the supposedly rockist temples published glowing reviews of pop acts and put them on best-of lists for decades. But the poptimist narrative is perfect for people who feel they have no identity but the meaningless ephemera of their pop culture consumption, as it imagines a compelling big bad (ooh, here comes the Rockist, the most villainous heel in the WWF!), pretends that your consumption of the mass produced products of giant media companies is somehow a political act, and aligns them in a perfectly stakes-free way with, like, marginalized identities, or something. LeMay at least locates his critique in the past, in the former self that wrote the original (righteous) review of Liz Phair. But on Pitchfork there is no distance from the rockist past; it’s always 2006 and some dudebro dude is engaged in the sin of liking a song performed by white guys with guitars, and somewhere a college kid is getting inspired by a Lester Bangs review of a Zeppelin record, and justice needs to be done. I’m sure that not a single soul at Pitchfork thought for one moment, “maybe we should listen to the album again before we change its score?”
The only respect for artists that matters is artistic respect, respect for what they produce as artists. We have an entire industry of busy young writers coming up with ways to praise women artists and Black artists and queer artists for everything but the art they produce. That isn’t respect, but respect’s opposite. It’s a consolation prize, a simulacra of critical praise that abstracts musicians away from music until the laurel you’re giving out is utterly vague praise for existing as a particular kind of individual. I watched that movie Promising Young Woman. You know what that movie is? It’s a homework assignment; it’s bad fan fic scrawled in the margins of a gender studies textbook. But it received dutifully positive reviews from a critical corps that’s terrified of getting canceled and that has devolved to assigning Representation Units to every piece of shit movie and show that crosses their transom and determining their opinion based on that. Meanwhile Her Smell, a vastly more insightful and compassionate and difficult and wise movie that spoke far more effectively to some of the same themes as Promising Young Woman, received vastly less attention - precisely because in its light-handed wisdom and refusal to preach, its ambiguity, it provides less signaling power for those who might champion it. That’s where criticism is, in 2021, the same place where the most influential music review site in the world decides to praise a wretched mistake by a decorated musician in a way that has literally nothing at all to do with the music. I keep thinking the state of pop art criticism can’t get any worse, and invariably it does. I am praying we hit bottom soon.
Also, I love Prince, but I know Musicology sucks and so does every last soul at Pitchfork. My God. Musicology. Who the fuck do you people think you’re fooling?
Re-rating the Grimes album that came out literally 17 months ago is the most hilarious part of this ill-advised exercise.
As a GenX metalhead I've always hated Pitchfork and know exactly one Liz Phair song (Rock Me - it was DLC in Rock Band). Despite that, I really enjoyed this. Especially this part: "We have an entire industry of busy young writers coming up with ways to praise women artists and Black artists and queer artists for everything but the art they produce. That isn’t respect, but respect’s opposite.". I feel like I can't get an honest review for anything these days.
Also, after reading this and the comments, I'll have to check out Exile in Guyville. I probably won't like it but I've been surprised before. My tolerance for non aggressive music is much higher now than when that album originally came out.