[This is the second essay in my 52 Songs in 52 Weeks blog feature. I am indebted to Jim DeRogatis' review of Exile in Guyville and to wikipedia's entry on Liz Phair for some of the information contained within.]
In order to understand why I think “Love/Hate,” (the 10th track on Liz Phair’s 4th album) is a remarkable song you have to know something about Phair’s career trajectory. After receiving an undergraduate degree from Oberlin, a prestigious liberal arts college in the Midwest, Phair relocated to Chicago in her early 20’s. As a college student, Phair was interested in art and art history but took up songwriting "on a lark."
Phair began her career as a musician in the early 1990’s and burst onto the scene in 1993 with her debut album Exile in Guyville which was released by Matador Records. With 18 tracks, Exile was bold and brash. In interviews Phair claimed that it was a “song by song” response to The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. There is little consensus as to the veracity of this statement. An alternative explanation of the origin of the album title is that the title referred to the male-dominated Chicago music scene that featured groups like Urge Overkill, Material Issue, and The Smashing Pumpkins.
Exile was shocking for its explicit and aggressive sexuality and its confident third-wave feminism. It garnered effusive praise from rock critics and Rolling Stone named it as one of the greatest 500 albums of all time. More importantly, Phair became the first woman solo-artist to achieve commercial and critical success in the alternative-rock genre.
Phair’s sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, became her greatest commercial success based largely on the catchiness of the album’s first single, “Supernova.” Click here to see Phair performing “Supernova” on the David Letterman show. Phair’s second album continued with her successful formula of aggressive, in-your-face sexuality and hyper-confidence.
Her third album, whitecholocatespaceegg, was a departure from her earlier efforts. The album was more pop than rock and the album’s first single, “Polyester Bride,” earned airplay on pop and adult-contemporary radio stations instead of alternative rock stations. Critics spoke of her having grown-up (if they spoke of her at all.)
This brings us to her fourth album, a self-titled release, which in itself is somewhat telling. Reportedly, Phair toyed with naming the album /, that is the symbol for a slash. The cover art for the album features Phair holding her guitar in a suggestive angled position that imitates a slash. As a whole, the album is varied. On one hand, the album is highly produced. For a number of the songs she collaborated with a song-writing team known as The Matrix who also wrote radio-friendly tunes for pop-sensations like Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, Shakira, and Hillary Duff. At the same time, she re-claims her strong sense of sexuality, albeit in a more playful way than in early recordings.
This album is a statement of identity, rejecting an “either-or” identity in favor of one that is “both-and.” Just listen to the refrain from the chorus on the first song on the album. She sings, “I am extraordinary. I am just your ordinary, average, every-day sane/psycho super-Goddess.” Talk about resisting labels.
It is the tenth song on the album where Phair takes up this question of identity head-on. And, it is a good song. With a steady beat, rock guitars, and a layered synthesizer, it succeeds in being a catchy, up-beat song. The song’s lyrics begin biographically. “I was a mess in my open-eyed youth / I grew up thinking / what’s good for one oppresses the other.” The second verse corrects this dualistic thinking. “It’s a sister and brother, mother and daughter, father/son, husband/wife thing. It’s drugs, it’s hunger, it’s race, sex, and government. Any way you look at it you’re part of it, you know it.”
The chorus of “Love/Hate” provides a balance to her declared refusal to be boxed in. The chorus chants, “It’s a war / with the whole wide world / It’s a war / with the boys and girls / It’s a war / And nothing’s gonna change / And nothing’s gonna change.” Here, the image of war is highly metaphorical. The war is the struggle to claim one’s own identity amidst a world that wants to categorize you, that refuses to let you straddle both sides of the “slash” (as Phair does on the album cover.) The song’s final lyrics expand upon the chorus as Phair sings, “It’s a war / all the give and take / It’s a war / all the love and hate / It’s a war / and nothing’s gonna change.” She repeats this last line an additional nine times.
I think it would be wrong to conclude that strong insistence that "nothing is going to change" is pessimistic or fatalistic. She is realistic in the world’s tendency to want to categorize and define. But, I see these words as hopeful. If nothing is going to change, then she will not give in to this pressure either. In that sense, she has claimed a stance that is defiant. She refuses to be exiled in guyville. While her fourth album lacked the critical acclaim of her first, “Love/Hate” stands out as her clearest manifesto. In addition, the song is a whole lot of fun. The song begins with the beep of guitars getting ready to rock-out and an old-fashioned "1-2-3-4” count. Then the guitars kick it off with enthusiasm. The high-pitched keyboards help to fill out the song. And, at the end the song dies out only to be revived for a reprise of the final line of the chorus. It is her way of saying, “I’m not done yet.”
[I have been fortunate to hear Liz Phair twice in concert: the first time in Portland in 1998; the second time in Kansas City in 2003. Other Liz Phair songs that I recommend include: "Never Said" and "Strange Loop" off Exile in Guyville, "Supernova" and "May Queen" off Whip-Smart, "Perfect World" off whitechocolatespaceegg; and "Good Love Never Dies" off her self-titled album.]