Tuesday, July 29, 2003

mama said knock you out

This is why I love pop music.

There's been an incredible sh-t storm over Liz Phair's new album, Liz Phair and it's steadily spiralling to become far more than just a conversation about song-writing or musical production. What happened is this:

There was an early round of critics who trashed Liz Phair's new album, most prominently being Meghan O' Rourke's review in the New York Times though she was only one of many critics who all thought Liz Phair was garbage. See Matt LeMay's review for Pitchforkmedia.com for another example.

There are two sets of "reasons" why her album has been so thoroughly hammered. What's in print is that critics think she's sold our her indie rock cred in order to be the new Avril Aguilera or something like that - so they attack the album's shiny, happy sound, they ridicule her MILF self-embrace, they say she's lost her way, etc. Not having heard the album or followed Phair's career, I can't really say if their venom is truly legit or not but it sounds like a familiar story (i.e. aging star reinvents themselves, alienates old fan base).

All this backlash against Liz Phair's album has created a secondary backlash against the critics who wrote them. Liz Phair herself got it rolling with her Letter to the Editor sent back to O' Rourke at the NY Times. Gina Arnold's column in the East Bay Express nicely sums up the stance of the backlashin' backlashers (even if she lays it on REAL thick). According to these critics of the critics, the real reason why these people had such an adverse reaction to Liz Phair is because they're neo-Victorians who can't handle a middle aged, middle class white woman embracing motherhood and multi-orgasms on the same album. While it looks like they're striking out against her album, they're really attacking Phair herself for daring to be a Madonna/whore. This argument sounds perfectly reasonable too: a lot of us are probably more prudish than we care to admit to ourselves and I can see how Phair's mix of sensibilities might unsettle some. Hey, maybe Phair's just waiting to audition for the role of "Mrs. Robinson" once Jeri Hall is off tour.

So, just to make sure I have this right - there was a backlash against Phair's new album. Then there was a backlash against the critical backlash.

And now, potentially, there's going to be a backlash against the backlash against the backlash, with people going out of their way to criticize the album but being very careful to note it has nothing to do with Phair's new image and has everything to do with how the album sounds. In other words, people intent on trashing Liz Phair are going to be extra careful to make the point that her album sucks but they'll be very careful not to seem like reactionary fuddy-duds in the process.

I think this is all great if only because it proves the point that an album is rarely ever just an album. There's always backstory, there's always a larger context that influences how we - as critics but also just as listeners - receive the music we're immersed in. Yeah, I know, I'm not revealing a new planet or anything but I know, somewhere in this orgy of backlashes, someone will cry "why can't we just talk about the music?" And to that, I think the only responsible response is to say that that's EXACTLY what people have been doing all along.