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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Liz Phair digs Boston

Feminist alternative rock legend commemorates 15th anniversary of debut album with stellar concert

Published: September 5, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

Men are evil.

That is the message I expected to take away from my first Liz Phair concert experience after plunking down thirty bucks to see her perform at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club last Saturday night. After all, isn’t that simple notion the essence of feminism, the only true antidote to the oppressive patriarchy, the one overarching theme of human history? If I had internalized the guy-bashing mantras of exasperated Brandeis girls, I had developed an almost masochistic desire to validate them, and Liz Phair was my ally.

For those of you uninitiated in the ways of what my parents call the “angry chicks”—that wave of feminist alternative singer songwriters whose legions include Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, and the Lilith Fair crowd (Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Fiona Apple, et al)—the name “Liz Phair” might not ring a bell. Or it might ring a pink, perfume-scented bell etched with the phrase “lesbian rock” or “estrogen-fueled pop.” Most of my friends bought into latter stereotype and worried that my musical taste leaned towards the wrong end of the gender binary when I announced my concert-going intentions.

Liz Phair was unleashed upon the indie music scene in 1993 after Matador released her debut album, Exile in Guyville. Considered one of the greatest alternative rock records of all time, Exile cemented Phair’s place in the American musical cannon. After selling 200,000 copies of the album, receiving gushing critical praise, and (gasp!) getting airplay on MTV with hit song “Never Said,” Phair won the hearts of audiences around the nation. When Rolling Stone places your album in its Top 500 Albums of All Time list one slot above Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, you know you’ve got something big.

After marriage, childbirth, divorce, and creative dissatisfaction, Phair relinquished her glory in favor of a teen-friendly pop makeover. Unfortunately, Avril Lavigne had already conquered the airwaves with her own brand of female pop punk by the time our heroine jumped on the bandwagon with her self-titled 2003 album.

So as I stood in the middle of a sold-out show in the mid-sized venue across from Boston University I couldn’t help but thank my lucky stars for allowing me to see this performance, part of a tour commemorating the 15th anniversary of Phair’s most celebrated album. The moment she stepped onstage the room buzzed with anticipation as hundreds of hopeful faces awaited the resurrection of the indie manslayer of our dreams from the ashes of the harlot starlet of our nightmares.

If Phair had walked on stage and stood stock-still for two hours, all audience members regardless of gender or sexual orientation would have salivated in unison. Her superficial appearance alone, from her voluptuous yet toned physique to her revealing-in-all-the-right-places shirt/skirt ensemble, made me question whether the fountain of youth was a real phenomenon. Call me a chauvinist, but the woman’s got a killer body and knows it.

Fortunately, what we received was entirely more satisfying than a two-hour peep show or even a ballad-inspiring one-night stand with the woman herself. Unlike many feminist rockers, Phair’s weapon is her pen, not her axe. She dug equally into her psyched and libido to reveal that the two are surprisingly interconnected.

Her musical style ran the gamut from lush, confessional guitar ballads (“Soap Star Joe”) to lo-fi indie pastiches featuring Smiths-inspired irony and Patti Smith-inspired punk grit (“Stratford-on-Guy”). Songs like “Fuck and Run” and lyrics such as “I’m a real cunt in spring” succeeded equally on shock value and poetic force, but her fluid persona always took center stage.

Seeing Liz Phair in the flesh—like watching any great performer regardless of physical appearance—allowed the audience to experience her music on an entirely different plane. The connection between the artist and her adoring fans was palpable that Saturday night, allowing every person present to feel a little closer to that elusive woman whose body remains her most potent weapon and harshest prison (thanks to slobbering men like your humble writer).

By the end of the night, Liz Phair had reclaimed her rightful place as one of the greatest American artists of the past twenty years. But she taught me something even more important when she told an anecdote about the best moment of audience participation on her tour.

For every show, Phair invites an audience member onstage for an impromptu duet of the song “Flower.” The audience member sings the soaring melody that features the lyrics “Every time I see your face I get all wet between my legs.” Apparently, the best duet she had on the tour was with an insistent man in Philadelphia. She didn’t want to invite him up but after relenting she discovered that he changed the dynamic of the song in an exciting new way. Perhaps men aren’t as evil as I thought.