“I am just your ordinary, average, everyday, sane, psycho super-goddess,” sings indie rock legend Liz Phair in the first song on her 2003 self-titled major-label debut. It’s as if she’s introducing herself to a wider audience in “Extraordinary,” the cheeky opener in which she seems to be saying, Don’t worry. I may be working with hotshot producers (the Matrix, who had recently helped launch Avril Lavigne’s career) on songs you can hear on the radio, but I’m still no normie.
We did not go for it—neither I, the die-hard fan, nor the music critics.
Imagine me in my early twenties in New York City, trying to figure out who I was. It was the early aughts, back when jobs in the creative industries were abundant, you could still smoke in bars, and trend pieces about mainstream-rejecting, Urban Outfitters–wearing hipsters were everywhere. The least cool thing you could possibly do was aspire to be a hipster, but I didn’t know that yet. Just like I didn’t know that hipsterism would lead more to gentrification and commodification than to enlightenment.
Here’s one thing I knew for sure, though: my love for Liz Phair was a crucial part of my identity—her 1993 album, Exile in Guyville, in particular. In a low, nearly monotonic voice, she sings delightfully bitter and unpretty songs accompanied by sparse instrumental backing. She sings explicitly and unabashedly about sex and romantic despair in a way that felt raw and truly subversive compared with the songs of the rest of the Lilith Fair set.
So when Phair unveiled an album of more traditionally structured songs written in a more traditional vocal range with more traditional musical backing, how could I not feel betrayed? In the present moment, when art and writing have been progressively devalued in an increasingly corporate creative world, it’s funny to think back on that quaint time when selling out was the worst thing an artist could do. Fans and critics alike felt entitled to heap scorn on a musician for simply trying to broaden their appeal, or even, god forbid, to make a little more money from their art, which already wasn’t especially lucrative for indie musicians, even back then.
And, oh, how I cared about what the critics had to say. My Google Reader was filled with new posts from MP3 blogs and long-established music mags alike, and it seemed like every day a new outlet cropped up. If the critics hated an album, then I hated it, too, because, I believed, the critic was always right. I didn’t know then that all criticism, even the most eloquently argued, is inherently subjective. The internet was allowing all sorts of new voices to take part in long-closed-off conversations, which was invigorating. But the world of music criticism, online or analog, was still very much white and male. For me to have trusted their authority above all others seems foolish now.
Back in 2003, I dismissed the new album out of hand, because what would happen to my burgeoning credibility if it turned out I… liked Liz Phair’s new persona? If I allowed myself to be lured in by any catchy hook that came my way, I would show the world how unserious I was. How… girly.
What a relief it is, twenty years later, to trust my own ears and not give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks. Is Liz Phair as life-changing as Exile in Guyville? No. But does it contain a bunch of bangers? Oh yes. “Why Can’t I?” still goes at karaoke, especially when you get to the more sexually explicit words they couldn’t play on the radio. “Favorite” could be a Michelle Branch single (this is a compliment), but it’s got a keen sense of humor: she compares her lover to a comfy old pair of underwear. Overall, Liz Phair is smart and fun and more than a little self-aware, which is way more than I could say for myself when the album first debuted.