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POP MUSC : Exile From Rockville : After her seductive debut album wowed critics, Liz Phair was poised for stardom. Then along came her second record, and anything seemed possible. But who knew that meant putting a career on hold? She knew.

March 05, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. and

Like her music, Liz Phair is smart and seductive--someone who entered the pop world in 1993 with such revolutionary freshness, vision and craft that it was no wonder she turned critics and rock hipsters on their ear.

On her debut album, "Exile in Guyville," Phair gave us marvelously designed looks at sexual politics and the mating game--songs that teased and taunted with lustful daydreams and sweet innocence.

The collection was a song-by-song response to the male rock swagger of the Rolling Stones' classic "Exile on Main Street," employing explicit language that makes even Mick Jagger sexual overtures seem tame. One song, "Flower," was an ode to oral sex as blunt as anything ever put on a mainstream album.

But Phair's music was more than the occasional F-word or sassy put-down. There were also moments of tenderness and insight. At one point, she asked:


Whatever happened to a boyfriend

The kind of guy who makes love

Because he's in it.


When "Guyville" was named the album of the year (over releases by Nirvana, U2 and Pearl Jam) in the Village Voice poll of the nation's pop critics, industry insiders expected her to emerge in 1994 as a major commercial force.

The buzz was so strong that Phair made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine when her second album, "Whip-Smart" was released last year. Reviews again were glowing, and her fall tour loomed as one of the year's most anticipated events.

So, why didn't "Whip-Smart" burst into the commercial Top 10? The album has ended up selling about 275,000 copies, only slightly more than the debut.

One reason: Phair deliberately de-escalated her career--partly out of stage fright and partly out of fear that she was being caught up in a rock 'n' roll machinery that was threatening her art and well-being. She canceled the tour and pretty much withdrew from sight. It was an audacious move--yet typical of her strong will.

Phair, 27, was adopted at birth and raised in Winnetka, a wealthy Chicago suburb. Her father is chief of infectious disease at Northwestern Memorial Hospital; her mother teaches a class for gifted children at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Planning to be an artist, Phair studied art at Oberlin College. She wrote songs as a private passion, rarely showing them to anyone, even family or friends. After encouragement from a musician friend, she finally made a tape of her songs in 1992--and it led to a contract with Matador Records.

Now that she has had time off, Phair is preparing to return to the rock world with a brief solo tour next month that includes an April 11 stop at the Wiltern Theatre. She's also planning to be married this spring to Jim Staskauskas, a Chicago film editor.

In a pair of interviews in recent weeks, Phair was enthusiastic and upbeat as she spoke about her music and the struggle to overcome the tensions that caused her to call a temporary halt to her career momentum.


Question: What has all the attention been like? Isn't it part of the fun?

Answer: It depends on the month. There are times when it is fun and it is a pageant, but there are times when it is so oppressive that you feel like you are the least powerful person in the situation. Those are the times when it feels that none of the artistry matters . . . that everything is simply a strategy to sell records, and that's when it becomes overwhelming.


Q: Why do so many young rock performers today seem so reluctant about fame? You never pictured the Beatles or the Stones fretting, at least publicly, about the business. They just wanted to get their music heard.

A: There is no reason (to fret about it). It is simply a personality trait, and right now you have a crop of artists that feels this way. I could think of all this as a learning experience--that I am becoming an educated business person--but that wasn't ever my goal. In fact, I went into art and pursued that lifestyle to avoid being a literate business person.

I think I have taught myself to further my musical aims, but I don't think anyone has contributed to that but me. I don't think there is a single person who interacts with me who knows how to support that. They only know how to support the myth-making process.


Q: What were you like in school--a popular kid or mostly shy and alone?

A: Not either. I was definitely not shy but was very shy when it came to particular situations--namely that of being a show person. I was voted to star in my fourth-grade play, and that's the last time I ever went near the theater because it was so incredibly intimidating.


Q: Why's that? You seem so assured and quick on your feet.

A: It just depends on the situation. That is the irony. Most people that know me think I love the attention, that I am the drama queen--and I do love attention in a small group where you can be spontaneous and react to people. Onstage, though, there is a prescribed agenda, and that kind of structure just bothers me. But I am going to have to deal with it. There is no way to get out of it. It's part of my job.


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