I can’t think of any artist who so masterfully spanned so many decades and genres as Aretha Franklin: gospel, soul, pop, rock, funk, disco, opera. Along with Bob Dylan, I would call her THE towering solo figure of the 1960s and beyond. I’m working on a large piece on her for Billboard’s tribute issue, writing through the tears. In the meantime, critic and novelist Caryn Rose wrote a great tribute to the GOAT a year ago for Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. You can read it now at Salon. I just wish the Queen of Soul were here to see it.
You would never have known from last night’s bold-as-love performance at the Masonic Lodge in the Hollywood Forever cemetery that Liz Phair has a history of crippling stage fright. Maybe it was the army of ghosts that the artist said had her back (“don’t touch my ass!” she scolded one), or maybe it was the quarter-century of power she found in the old songs she had dusted off for the show, but the exile from Guyville played for about 80 minutes without falter or stammer. She wasn’t alone up there; a younger musician whom she never introduced but referred to once as “Connor” accompanied her on electric guitar and vocals. But sonically, his role seemed to be primarily one of moral support. About halfway through the show, Phair had had enough of his trying to lead each song with a countoff. Reminding him he was playing with “a rebel,” she plunged into the next song without the human metronome. Empowered by the small audience’s enraptured support and the refound determination of her old songs, Phair played with a confidence and ease that evaded her when her first album, Exile in Guyville, whose songs she mostly played last night, made her an overnight indie star 25 years ago.
If you’ve listened to the recently released box set of that album and the previous tapes she recorded as Girly-Sound, you know how well that material has held up over time. That was even more evident at the show. The lodge was full of, well, women (and men) like me: well into middle age (my friend sat over a vent because she was having hot flashes), nodding our heads to songs as we relived how Phair was one of the first artists to express the gendered power imbalances of both intimate relationships and professional relationships in so-called alternative music communities. As she told me when I interviewed her back in April for The Guardian: “I was tired of being the girlfriend of the guy in the band, I was tired of hearing that my music tastes suck. This was not ‘alternative’; this was just underproduced.”
This was Phair’s first show since the release of Girly-Sound to Guyville. You’ll be hard-pressed to find tickets to the first leg of shows, but she has added more dates in the Fall. For you Angelenos, she’ll be at the Theater at the Ace September 21. Sure, this was a nostalgia trip for many of us, but I think her songs would resonate with young women today; Phair called it “Fuck and Run,” today they call it “hook-up culture.” As she told Allison Wolfe, for Wolfe’s essay on her in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the book I edited (out October 9): . “Male rock and roll singers have forever talked about sex graphically and gotten it on the radio. As a woman, I wanted to take that back.”
Liz Phair is sitting in the Rose Café, a well-loved Venice, California, eatery where tech-industry entrepreneurs munch quinoa alongside music-biz hipsters sipping lattes. The critically adored singer-songwriter does not look like 25 years – sufficient time for her to conceive, deliver, raise and send a son off to college – have intervened since her debut album, Exile in Guyville, made her the Rolling Stone cover girl for third-wave feminism. She ignores her matcha until a foul odor of burning oil wafts over from the kitchen – a peril of open-air design. Phair coughs. Once, twice, repeatedly. It’s as if something heavy and toxic has seeped into this bastion of urban chic, landed in her sensitive lungs, and has to be expelled, forcibly and immediately. She perseveres, telling me about how the book she has written was compelled by the election of Donald Trump, her voice cracking under siege. Then I begin coughing.
“It’s affecting you too,” our canary in the coal mine exclaims. “Sorry, I’m going to save you.” She flags down a server and we move beverages and recorder to the bar, far from noxious fumes.
Liz Phair does not suffer irritants quietly. And lately, irritants abound. Once again, men are excluding women from power, reducing them to sexual objects, and shutting down or demeaning their modes of expression. It’s Guyville redux, only this time, it’s not just faux-alternative hipsters in the indie-rock scene of Chicago in the early 1990s. It’s the top dog in the White House.
I caught up with Phair recently for The Guardian, one of the world’s greatest newspapers. I have to admit I was heavily influenced by the great interview Allison Wolfe did with her for Women Who Rock. Read my interview with Liz here: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/03/liz-phair-trump-change-her-music-exile-in-guyville-25-years
My next book project got announced yesterday on the Publisher’s Marketplace newsletter:
Edited and with an introduction by Evelyn McDonnell’s WOMEN WHO ROCK, an illustrated history featuring essays on key female artists in hip-hop, pop, soul, and rock by leading women writers and musicians, with illustrations by female artists, to Becky Koh at Black Dog & Leventhal, by Sarah Lazin at Sarah Lazin Books (World).
I am really excited about this book, which I think is going to be smart and inspirational. I’m looking forward to assembling a talented crew of writers and helping locate illustrators. Narrowing down our list of female musicians to celebrate will be hard, and I’m sure I’ll spend the rest of my life defending omissions. But more than ever right now, we need to honor and gather the work of women. Thanks to my agent Sarah Lazin and editor Becky Koh for making this happen.