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Vol. 2, No. 4, 2003

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Liz Phair
Liz Phair
Liz Phair
Liz Phair
Liz Phair
Liz Phair


by Aaron Wherry

Aaron Wherry is a music critic at The National Post


Jewel's breasts were rather belatedly introduced to the world a few months back. First appearing on television in her video for Intuition, they were wrapped in a tight black dress and, later, hosed down by an enterprising group of young firemen (while somewhere else in music video land a house full of cuddly kittens burned to the ground, one imagines).

Then they showed up on the cover of Maxim Blender, the "music" magazine whose attitude toward woman is on loan from Andrew Dice Clay, beside the headline "Rock's Sexiest Poet Gets Her Freak On."

Those breasts, so flagrantly flaunted over the last few months, are but the least subtle sign that Jewel, the coffeehouse singer/ songwriter from Alaska whose rags-to-riches story was almost as heart-wrenching as her tales of lost love and fractured society, has most certainly changed. The humble folky with the crooked smile is now a gyrating, breast-heaving diva in the vein of Madonna.

In the same issue of Blender, former indie rock goddess Liz Phair was announcing her own change in direction. Beside a picture of Phair pressed up against a mirror, arching her back, wearing just enough clothes to stay out of Playboy, the singer once hailed as a new feminist icon proclaimed, "I find myself very turned on by big and stupid."

Funny. Big and stupid is how many critics are describing her latest disc -- a self-titled plea for mainstream success that deeply betrays the outsider roots she established in 1993 with the critically adored Exile in Guyville.

We have always demanded change from our female pop stars. We expect some level of development from the greatest of male solo performers and rock bands, but out of sexism, boredom or some combination thereof, female stars as they age and develop as pseudo-normal people are expected to "grow" as artists, with new images, sounds and attitudes (for comparison, think Paula Abdul versus Janet Jackson).

The template for this is Madonna -- the reigning queen of pop who has been everything short of a gangsta rapping rabbi over the last two decades. Her followers and imitators are many, but of late this desire to change has been most obvious in the youngest generation of pop stars, with the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, LeAnn Rimes, Mandy Moore and the rest of the teen bubblegum generation trying, with varying degrees of success, to navigate the all-important journey from child star to adult artist (here we use the term "artist" quite loosely).

Oddly enough, three of the four mentioned above announced their adulthood in the pages of Blender, with soft-porn photo shoots -- jailbait no more, our teen vixens were free to flaunt their bodily assets. The "hey look at me rub my crotch on this pole" method, perfected by Madonna, does not necessarily guarantee success or credibility though. And Madge can certainly attest to the slings and arrows she has suffered throughout her career as a result of her
many costume changes.

But as awkward as those attempts to change public perception proved, Jewel and Phair are now demonstrating that evolution only becomes more difficult when one already has maturity and musical relevance on side. As Britney, Christina et al stumble into adulthood, shedding their clothes every step of the way in clumsy attempts to appear older, Jewel and Phair are doing everything they can to reverse the signs of ageing.

In Jewel's case, she has adopted the language of tweens (song titles include Run 2 U, 2 Find U, 2 Become 1, and U & Me = Love), while embracing dance beats and teen pop tunes. Phair, on the other hand, has recruited Avril Lavigne collaborators The Matrix to help her pen the glossiest pop money can by.

In a note to her fans within the album's liner notes, Jewel explained her record thusly: "I wanted to make a record that was a modern interpretation of big band music. A record that was lyric-driven, like Cole Porter stuff, that also had a lot swing. . . I hope you all love it. I hope it makes you feel young and sexy and smart."

Phair has been just as blunt in interviews. "I would never want to give up my indie-ness. I just don't understand why you have to be one or the other. I like highbrow and lowbrow," she told the Associated Press. "I'm the same person I always was. I just lost the whole 'cool school' thing."

Reviewers seem less open to such lofty ideals. Though several mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone and Spin have been more kind, the indie world has turned on Phair like the spurned lovers she's used to singing about.

"Ten years after Exile", Liz has finally managed to accomplish what seems to have been her goal ever since the possibility of commercial success first presented itself: to release an album that could have just as easily been made by anybody else," uber-influential Web site said in its review. "It's sad that an artist as groundbreaking as Phair would willingly reduce herself to cheap publicity stunts and hyper-commercialized teen-pop."

Reviews of Jewel's 0304 have been less hostile, but the music has still been called "plastic-sounding" and "disturbing," while Rolling Stone dismissed it as a "wanna-be version of American Life" -- the colossal bomb Madonna dropped this year.

Much of the backlash has to do with where these artists began. That is, both seemingly started as original artists, relatively untouched by the mass-production pop masterminds behind the Britneys, Christinas and Avrils. As a result, their pop-friendly new albums seem all the more shocking to embittered fans and critics who considered themselves and the artist above such tripe.

But their greatest sin seems to be in how half-heartedly each has made the big change.

Even as Jewel gyrates to the latest homogenized beats, she's still name-checking Woody Guthrie and railing against pop culture (which is like so gonna kill your buzz at the next rave, dude). It would all seem entirely satirical, if it weren't so strangely serious.

And Phair's still singing about lewd bodily fluids. H.W.C., backed by the most Top 40 of tunes, will likely be one of the year's most talked-about pop songs.

The confusion with Phair includes the cover to her latest album, upon which she appears clad only in a guitar to cover up her naughty bits. Phair claims it wasn't her idea, leaving one to assume she only posed as such at the prodding of publicity-minded label people.

All of which makes Jewel and Phair seem all the more desperate for love and attention. Rather than giving themselves over completely to the mainstream, they are attempting to maintain their street cred with veiled references to the past. They are ultimately insecure, lacking the confidence to make a complete step in either direction and force change upon themselves.

And, ultimately, they're left straddling both high and low brows in the type of precarious position you'd expect of a Maxim lady, satisfying neither audience and more or less embarrassing

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