Liz Phair Can’t Sing and Claire Danes is a Homewrecker
By: Jessica Grose
I was watching the first game of the World Series a couple of weeks ago. One second I was watching Jose Contreras trot off the screen, his bulbous rear jiggling off into the distance at U.S. Cellular Field for the seventh inning stretch. The next second, Contreras’ ample behind was replaced by the wan face of Liz Phair. I thought my spicy buffalo wings had caused me to hallucinate. How was my blowjob queen singing “God Bless America,” to a bunch of beer swilling, baseball loving patriarchal enforcers? And besides the obvious disconnect between Liz’s Exile in Guyville “Fuck and Run” persona and ballpark patriotism, the girl never could sing. That used to be part of her charm. Phair’s world-weary alto was comforting, bleating lyrics like “I know that I don’t always realize / How sleazy it is messing with these guys.” But Phair forcing those final high notes — “My home sweet home” — in a thin falsetto, her perfectly highlighted hair flowing in the cold Chicago wind, was just painful.
This isn’t the first test of my love of Liz. There was her 2003 self-titled album, a glossy collection of pop songs that the New York Times skewered as “an embarrassing form of career suicide.” I got into several fights with other indie rock geeks defending that album, which I thought I genuinely enjoyed. “No, no,” I’d tell the dissenters, “‘Hot White Cum’ isn’t puerile! It’s actually a third wave feminist ANTHEM!” Listening to myself vehemently defend Phair with these tenuous-at-best arguments made me wonder if I truly liked these songs at all, or if I just liked Liz Phair so much I could no longer separate the two.
After hearing Liz Phair’s latest album, Somebody’s Miracle, I couldn’t defend her anymore, not even with half-baked post-modern theory. It’s like her old soul was sucked out and replaced by Stepford Crow. Somebody’s Miracle isn’t terrible, just aggressively mediocre. It’s not a crime to make a mediocre album, so why do I feel like Liz Phair just kicked my puppy? I tried to parse my violent reaction towards her and I realized that I’m so upset because I identified with her so personally in the first place.
I remember distinctly when I discovered Exile in Guyville. I was a freshman at college, and from the insistent first bars of “6’1”” I finally felt understood. Here was another misfit, a woman who felt outside the preening and cheerleader perfection I had always emulated without success. “Canary” particularly spoke to me. Liz sing-speaks in her flat, jaded voice: “I learn my name / I write with a number two pencil / I work up to my potential…I come when called.” I had always obeyed, I was always the good girl, like the “Canary,” and the chorus — where Liz sings “Send it up on fire” — helped me feel like it was okay to abandon the good girl for whatever lay ahead.
Later, I would learn that most of “Canary” is a veiled reference to cunnilingus (“I jump when you circle the cherry”), not overachievement, but the persona of Liz Phair — rule breaking, independent — had already made its mark. And that person, the one with whom I so identified, is gone. She’s been replaced by an actual cheerleader, a bland woman who dons a satin bomber jacket and sings at baseball games.
I felt similarly betrayed by Claire Danes. Or should I say, Angela Chase. Danes’ character in My So-Called Life was, like my vision of Liz Phair, a good girl trying to navigate a naughtier world than she had previously inhabited. Angela was self-absorbed, like all teenagers, but she had such a sweet, intelligent core. She looked wistfully at her crush, Jordan Catalano, and said things like, “You’re so beautiful it hurts to look at you.” It sounds hokey to me now, but then it felt deep and true. When Angela’s best friend Rayanne slept with Jordan, the betrayal cut me too.
As a result of the impact of MSCL on my tender early teen years, I felt personally affronted when I heard that Claire Danes had broken up a marriage. A couple of years ago, gossip rags were all aflutter with the news that Billy Crudup had left his seven-months preggers wife, Mary Louise Parker, for Claire Danes. After the initial shock, again I had to acknowledge that, not only was it none of my business, but Claire Danes and her persona, like Liz Phair and her persona, were not one and the same.
I know that Liz Phair is not the character woven by Exile in Guyville. I know that Angela Chase is a fictional character. Neither flesh and blood woman could possibly live up to the vaunted picture I made of them in my head while I was growing up. But part of the strength of coming-of-age narratives is intense identification with the protagonist. If that kind of first-person, emotionally pointed art can’t make you feel, can’t make you run parallels to your own life, then really, what’s the point.
So I’ve decided to forgive Liz Phair for making a crappy album, but I still think Angela Chase never would have broken up a marriage.