October 17, 2019

Liz Phair Still Doesn’t Care What We Think

Liz Phair Still Doesn’t Care What We Think


To this end, Phair relates a number of incidents, touching down at different points in time, of what she calls “weaker moments.” For instance, as a college student, she doesn’t help the young woman passed out on a bathroom floor; elsewhere, she doesn’t help an abused dog; she doesn’t intervene when a child is being beaten; she cheats on her husband; she acts like a pouty rock star, a self-pitying “captive to my celebrity in need of velvet ropes and special treatment.” More ambiguously, she has mixed feelings about a music producer whose abusive behavior toward women is all over the media and who was, yes, creepy with her, but that wasn’t all of it. More hilariously, following a particularly painful breakup, she finds herself dressing up to flirt with a Trader Joe’s employee who looks like her ex and is not, as it turns out, interested in the same way. More existentially, she relates incidents of being stranded in a blizzard and in the Northeast blackout of 2003; and of the grueling 30-hour labor to deliver her son.

[ Read Liz Phair’s review of “Life,” the autobiography of Keith Richards. ]

In these moments, Phair writes with great detail about what it is to be rudderless, frightened, confused, and yet willing to keep going without being able to see very far ahead. All of these “horrors” are small-scale, but they act as metaphors for larger questions about how to be in the world, much as song lyrics act as metaphors for larger questions about what you do next when you can’t get what you want, how much blood you leave on the tracks, and whether or not you’re going to get in formation.

If the clichéd rock star story is a fever chart of rise, fall, rehab and redemption à la “Rocketman” or “Her Smell,” “Horror Stories” is more an archipelago of intense episodes of unknowing with the implicit understanding that life is a wayward, unresolvable business. These days, Phair wonders “how to be Liz Phair again.” The one topic, however, that Phair doesn’t broach in this rigorously open exploration of negative capability is her musical life. “Horror Stories” is an account of a life in the music industry, certainly, with managers who come and go and those vertiginous times of going from “partying in a mansion” to being “parked in a urine-soaked alley,” but Phair’s musical imagination, process, influences, stylistic changes and the sounds she hears in her head are conspicuously absent. Like the telling elision in the otherwise vérité documentary about Madonna, “Truth or Dare,” when the camera is invited everywhere and anywhere except her business meeting, Phair keeps the door closed on her creative life. She is willing to describe in some detail the way her labia looked to her when she was nine months pregnant (let’s just say, unfamiliar), but there is barely a line in the entire book about songwriting or playing the guitar, the talents for which she became famous and which, in fact, have been her life’s work and support.

I am firmly of the belief that performers owe us nothing but authentic performance, which can be among the most astonishing acts of intimacy possible. Perhaps Phair felt that her musicianship is what’s been most visible and she was more engaged by unpacking the less visible parts of her life. Perhaps it’s another big story that needs its own separate narrative, as the years went on and her style changed more than once, to mixed receptions. Perhaps she feels it’s none of our business. O.K. One interesting effect of this decision, however, is the impression it gives that her creative life is a zone of absolute privacy. We can know much about how she feels as a woman, as a person, and much of what she feels is almost defiantly ordinary. At the same time, as a working artist she is not ordinary. Her relationship to music seems to have been the longest and maybe the most demanding love of her life, the one for which she has been willing to get lost, to fail, and to try again over and over for decades. Call me a selfish fan, but I have to say that’s one story in all its horror and passion I would love to hear.



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