Some musicians are independent whether they like it or not. They can try to conform, try to get on board with a label and produce pretty, marketable pop tracks, but in the end they find it impossible, and system collapse is inevitable. The tragedy of this whole scenario is that it can actually destroy talented people, compromise creativity, and confuse artistic instincts. Case in point: the strange and corrupted career of Liz Phair.
Phair is making headlines this week for all the wrong reasons. She released her new album, Funstyle, on the 4th of July, and if you thought she’d been getting mixed reviews as of late, the word on Funstyle is anything but. Pitchfork called it “horrible on every conceivable level.” MusicRadar called it “bizarro.” And LATimesBlog generously suggests that you shouldn’t overlook it, even if it is terrible.
How To Like It.
You were never supposed to hear these songs. These songs lost me my management, my record deal and a lot of nights of sleep.
Yes, I rapped one of them. I’m as surprised as you are. But here is the thing you need to know about these songs and the ones coming next: These are all me. Love them, or hate them, but don’t mistake them for anything other than an entirely personal, un-tethered-from-the-machine, free for all view of the world, refracted through my own crazy lens.
This is my journey. I’ll keep sending you postcards.
To which many fans and critics have judiciously responded: “Whatever Liz, if I was never supposed to hear these songs, then you shouldn’t have posted them on the internet.”
Ever since Exile in Guyville, Phair’s songs have been a litany of releases that really weren’t supposed to exist, or never came out just right, or weren’t quite what we were supposed to be hearing, and all this sonic confusion seems to boil down to her relationship with the labels and producers she worked with.
Phair’s early career was charmed. She found a home at Matador Records almost without effort, and Exile in Guyville became one of the iconic albums of the 90s. Then her sophomore album tanked, and when she brought no. 3 to Matador, they were unimpressed, and asked her to go back and do it again with more radio-friendly hits.
After that, Phair moved to Capitol Records, but the response from label execs stayed the same. They rejected her first album of songs, and agreed to continue backing her only if she would work with production team The Matrix – the geniuses who write hits for the likes of Britney Spears and Hilary Duff. Phair got a few Matrix-written hits out of the deal, but now everyone was calling her a sellout. Check out her super-weird response video here.
Phair might have felt cynical about the entire experience, but it subsequently led to a career of paying the bills by writing for TV soundtracks and Banana Republic commercials. As she points out on Funstyle, she was broke and she needed to pay some bills.
With a history like that, it’s not too difficult to see how we arrive at Funstyle, which Phair’s latest label – Dave Matthews’ led Ato – rejected. The album is a wacktacular collection of tracks featuring Phair rapping, messing with FruityLoops, and blasting the industry that led her to such a fringy and esoteric fate.
One song, U Hate It, is about how much people are going to hate the album, and while it can be read as a manifesto against the recording industry, it also comes off as a big SCREW YOU to fans. Which is fine, I guess, since we were never supposed to hear it.
Some critics are defending Funstyle as inventive, daring, and uncompromising, which it certainly is. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come off as good art so much as the pained and painfully self-conscious cries of someone trying to work their way through severe damage. Mental patient poetry, I think they call it.
Everything about Phair’s history and artistry make Funstyle worth a listen, and her career worth supporting, but it’s difficult because the corrosion of the talent so powerful on Exile in Guyville is so evident therein. And Phair is just one of many, many artists whose artistic paths have been twisted by the way the music industry does business.
This is not intended as an effort to position Phair as a victim, or as a hopeless case. It’s more of an exhortation: think about it before signing to a label, folks! What are you willing to compromise for mainstream success? And what could it do to your ability to make music in the long run?