It seems fitting to describe Liz Phair’s recent show as orgasmic. But at the risk of veering into alert-level NME hyperbole, it was the best show I’ve seen all year, and so totally worth the hours and hours on a train it takes to get to and from Philly and still be at work the next morning.
The show was billed as “Liz Phair plays Exile in Guyville,” and that’s pretty much what it was, her groundbreaking, critically acclaimed 1993 album, start to finish, mostly in order. She switched “Johnny Sunshine” and “Flower” but otherwise stayed true to the original tracklist.
Phair took some heat earlier this summer for being unprepared and clumsy on-stage, but she’s gotten over those problems since the first round of shows, and was tight, professional, and comfortable. She slipped up here and there, but chances are I only noticed because I’ve listened to the record hundreds of times throughout my high school, college and post-college life.
In an era when many female musicians either play girl gone wild with little sense of irony or history (Katy Perry kissed a girl – hope her boyfriend doesn’t mind! Tee-hee. And when the Pussycat Dolls grow up, one of the highest callings they aspire to is “hav[ing] boobies.”), or play down their sexuality to the point of being asexual (MIA, Feist, and their ilk might sing the occasional tune about boys, but they keep the cleavage covered), Phair’s re-release is a reminder of a time women could sing about sex, power, and conflict, and be taken seriously. In retrospect, Phair is the indie-rock Madonna – a powerful, forthright woman who voiced her own desire before becoming a caricature of herself.
So when everyone in the crowd last night sang along with “Fuck and Run,” the moment was both beautiful and depressing: Beautiful, because I’ve been waiting to hear that song live since I was 15, and depressing ,because teenage girls don’t have songs like that anymore. Phair acknowledges the compulsions that lead her to fuck and run and the fear that she’ll spend her life alone, without the boyfriend, the letters, the sodas, but she jumps in bed anyway. It’s an exploration of the grey areas, far away from a black-and-white world of “True Love Waits” sweatpants at the K-Mart and girls kissing for the sake of the assembled audience.
Phair brought a dude up on the stage to sing “Flower” with her, a nice little gender-play that she swore up and down wasn’t planned. She flew through “Divorce Song” and “Strange Loop” and all the other tracks with the world-weariness of a 20-something girl who has fallen in the wrong bed too many times, had her heart broken a few, and wants to be the seductress and the wife but doubts her commitment to either pursuit. No doubt her world-weariness was amplified by the events of the last 15 years, which saw her taking an ill-fated pop turn and stumbling as an artist. Critics at the time worried Phair’s fans would desert her after she tried to become Avril Lavigne, but judging by the response last night, they’re more forgiving than that.
When I got in a cab to go back to the train station, Bill Clinton was finishing his speech at the DNC, and all of a sudden it was the nineties all over again. History repeats, alas: as I write this, I’m fully aware of another promising young female musician about to be thrown to the major-label wolves and worry that she’ll meet the same fate as Phair. If it happens, though, she should keep in mind that, at least based on the show in Philly, Liz Phair’s story has a happy ending. No pun intended.
“Help Me Mary”
“Dance of the Seven Veils”
“Soap Star Joe”
“Explain It to Me”
“Fuck and Run”
“Girls! Girls! Girls!”