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LADYPALOOZA PRESENTS: Why Can’t I Be Making Love Cause I’m In It? Or, The Phair/Cuomo Conundrum.

[And we’re back! With LADYPALOOZA: The Tiger Beatdown Lilith Fair Experience, But If Lilith Fair Didn’t Suck, And Also Were a Blog. This is the place where a bunch of ladies — and, perchance, some dudes! — come to discuss their Complicated Relationships With Music. These relationships: They are complicated! We have discussed the fact that certain of the dudes wish to discourage ladies from making music at all, or basically just ignore them when they do! But sometimes, my friends, these ladies are not so ignored. Sometimes they get ATTENTION! And how is that attention! How does it, say, differ from that paid to dudes — dudes who are doing the very same sort of thing? Is there any chance that it literally fucking perfectly re-iterates Ye Olde Double Standarde, that beast of legend and song? Well! Lady musicblogger K. is here, to school us on just such a topic!]

When I was fifteen, Very Intense Things were happening in my life. I had my first boyfriend, my first semi-intentional kiss, and, relatedly, my first moments of “Shit, do I really want to be in this relationship? I don’t think I do! Now what do I do about it?”

I was, basically, living out my My So-Called Life years. I was also listening to a lot of music – excessive amounts of music. Like, so much music that I kind of had weird breakouts around my ears and cheeks because I would fall asleep wearing my greasy headphones. That year, the year of bad breakouts and relationship turmoil, was the year that I first heard Liz Phair’s debut album, Exile in Guyville, 18 songs rumored to exist as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. It blew my teenaged mind.

Now, when most people talk about Liz Phair, what they really love to talk about is sex. Breaking News! Did you know that women sometimes have sexual intercourse? And that in addition to having this “sex”, they might sometimes use art as a framework for exploring themselves as sexual beings? They might even make that art publicly available! Like, to total strangers! I mean, have you heard that one Liz Phair song, “Fuck and Run?”

When people talk about Liz Phair, they love to talk about “Fuck and Run.” Talking about “Fuck and Run” is an exciting thing because it provides an avenue for (usually half-baked) discussions about Public Explorations of Female Sexuality and “graphic” lyrical content – and, you get to say “fuck!” In the 15+ years since Exile in Guyville was first released, “Fuck and Run” has been consistently trotted out as the Liz Phair song, the one that is most representative of her canon (or, perhaps more accurately, the song that did the most to reinforce the public image of “sexually frank young woman” that was rapidly being built around her). When people talk about Phair, they beeline directly from “Debut album Exile in Guyville” to “controversial songs such as ‘Fuck and Run.’”

The layperson’s summary of “Fuck and Run” is as follows: the speaker relates her feelings following what can be assumed to be one in a series of casual sexual encounters. These feelings include confusion, regret, an expectation that “I should know better by now,” uncertainty – these feelings run the gamut! But the song’s chorus ultimately suggests a yearning for the trappings of a safe, “conventional” love, seen in the lines: “Whatever happened to a boyfriend?/The kind of guy who tries to win you over?/Whatever happened to a boyfriend? The kind of guy who makes love ‘cuz he’s in it/I want a boyfriend.”

So, on one hand, we have a song like “Fuck and Run” – the Controversial Liz Phair Dear Diary About My Sex Life and What It Means for My Self Worth Anthem – and on the other hand, we have a song like “Tired of Sex,” by everyone’s favorite dude oriented power pop quartet, Weezer.

If you recall, just a second ago, we talked about how “Fuck and Run” is about the speaker’s feelings in relation to casual sexual encounters. Spoiler alert! “Tired of Sex” happens to be about… the speaker’s feelings in relation to casual sexual encounters. Right down to the eventual yearning for a conventional relationship. Phair wants a boyfriend, “the kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it.” Cuomo wonders, “Why can’t I be making love come true?”

Here are some additional facts for you: Both of these songs have been publicly acknowledged as being about the personal experiences of the songwriter to some degree. Both of these songs were products of the early/mid-nineties alternative pop and rock scene. And both of these songs appear on albums that are generally understood to be concept albums — Exile in Guyville being about Phair’s experiences in the male-dominated Chicago alt/indie rock scene, and Pinkerton being about Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo’s experiences finishing his degree at Harvard in the wake of his recently realized pop superstardom. And – here is the thing that I find most interesting – they are (more or less) that same song, except (and be sure to follow me on this) one is written from a lady’s perspective, and one is written from a dude’s.

But when we talk about Liz Phair, and when we talk about Weezer, we talk about them in very different ways. Weezer’s music — even their most intimate, specific work, the songs most deeply and truly informed by Cuomo’s private and, sometimes, sexual experiences — gets to be linked to a larger body of work. I know a lot of Weezer people; people who have, like, informal PhDs in Weezology. And no one, I mean no one, defines Weezer’s career based on “Tired of Sex.” Weezer’s career, for the curious, is based on the video for “Buddy Holly” and (more recently) the fact that they are selling a Weezer-brand Snuggie.

But Phair? Phair’s entire career has been linked to this idea of her personal, sexual experiences and the role that they play in her songwriting. As a female solo artist, Phair finds herself in a peculiar place, a place where her work is described over and over again as being “intimate,” as being born out of personal experience, as being a wholly intentional artistic expression of the artist’s self. But Cuomo? Cuomo gets it both ways. His songs (the better ones, at least), while widely acknowledged as being informed by his personal experiences, have somehow been allowed to transcend their Cuomo-ness and become crushing power pop anthems. In other words, he gets to write about himself without people fixating on the fact that he writes about himself. Phair, however, is going to forever wander the territory of female singer/songwriter who writes intimate, personal songs.

What I find especially interesting is that Phair, for a time, intentionally tried to break out of this territory, writing songs in which the speaker is very clearly Not Liz Phair. If you are interested in these songs, you should listen to her album Whitechocolatespaceegg. But Cuomo? Cuomo still writes primarily about The Thoughts and Feelings of Rivers Cuomo. I mean, at this very second, Rivers Cuomo is probably writing a song about what it is like to be Rivers Cuomo. Unless, that is, he is busy saying something creepy on Twitter. Yet Phair’s music is categorized as “personal.” Cuomo’s is “universal.” Weezer writes sing-along jams. Liz Phair writes angry music for weird girls.

So what does this say about us? That we are, perhaps, a touch preoccupied with women who are unafraid to blur the lines between art and sex and their personal lives? That female sexual experiences are still so foreign to us that we can only consider them on an individual level and can only acknowledge female sexual experiences that are made explicitly public? That we are more comfortable with the personal lives of weird dudes who yearn to be Forever Young and Rocking than we are with women who explore fully realized, complicated identities? I don’t know!

I want to know. I want to know why we are somehow culturally incapable of understanding “Fuck and Run” and Liz Phair’s larger body of work (all the way from “Fuck or Die” to “Why Can’t I?”) as existing separately from her personal experiences, yet have no problem removing Cuomo from “Tired of Sex.” Or “Say It Ain’t So,” which is a song about Cuomo’s fear that his stepfather has begun drinking again. Or “My Name is Jonas,” a song about his brother’s car crash. (Why do I know these things, you ask? Because my partner is one of the aforementioned Weezology PhDs, and as such he has actually read the Cuomo biography Rivers’ Edge.) But the sad truth is 1) There are no easy answers, 2) I am already substantially over my word limit, so that further deconstruction is going to have to happen on your time, and 3) Ending this with no substantial conclusion allows me to make a joke involving the phrase “blog and run.”

[K. works full-time in higher education, with a focus on female adolescent literacies. In her spare time she maintains the music blog Side Ponytail and chronicles an ongoing love affair with mail order records and skateboarding on her Tumblr.]


  1. K wrote:

    @S.R. Anyway, isn’t the semi-official Weezer narrative that Cuomo was hurt by the negative reaction to Pinkerton and that he therefore then very deliberately and consciously shut down all confessional song writing, resulting in the shallow and embarrassing disaster that is Weezer today?

    In fact, now that I think of it, aren’t Phair and Cuomo BOTH known to have jettisoned dark, serious, self-exploratory songwriting in favor of vacuous Top 40–hunting garbage? Aren’t they both famously introspective, famously personal songwriters who then went famously “universal” in the sense of becoming famously superficial?

    I think that both Phair and Cuomo have had similar career trajectories in the sense they are often lambasted for going commercial & the observation that Cuomo hasn’t written any songs that “feel” personal (at least, as “personal” as Pinkerton seemed to feel) for 15+ years is something that people throw around a lot, but I do think it’s worth exploring that while Cuomo’s post-Pinkerton songs may not have necessarily felt personal, that they actually might have been. I’m not typically 100% (or even 70 or 80%) on board with a lot of Chuck Klosterman’s cultural criticism, but there’s a really interesting essay in his book Eating the Dinosaur about Weezer and this assumption that people have that Cuomo no longer writes “personal” songs and instead focuses on this never ending quest for a #1 record and/or the perfect pop song, but Klosterman’s essay supposes that Cuomo has not, in fact, stopped writing about himself, but that fans have stopped identifying with who Cuomo is. I mean, a song like “Beverly Hills” sounds astoundingly empty and shallow and it’s my natural instinct to decry it as a poor stab at commercial, radio-friendly pop (which, realistically, is sort of what Weezer has always done anyway), but I think part of that reaction is that I don’t like to consider the thought of Cuomo, well into his thirties at the time of the album’s release, and still longing to be one of the cool kids in the cafeteria, which is, more or less, the vibe that “Beverly Hills” gives off to me.

    If you look at all five of Weezer’s post-Pinkerton albums, they all contain songs with lyrics that reflect a desperate searching to be cool, to be wanted, to be liked which is something I deeply associate with Cuomo especially in the context of his openly acknowledged dreams of having a #1 record. I think Weezer’s “sell out” material is the material that provides some of the greatest insight into Cuomo as a human being because it is so demonstrative of Cuomo’s hopes for rock and roll superstardom.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  2. Brad Nelson wrote:

    but I do think it’s worth exploring that while Cuomo’s post-Pinkerton songs may not have necessarily felt personal, that they actually might have been

    According to The Red Album‘s liner notes, “Troublemaker” is autobiographical.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  3. jessilikewhoa wrote:

    Brad Nelson, you so totally should write about Celebrity Skin, that album is downright transcendent.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  4. Brimstone wrote:

    “He’s a guy, but Greg Brown’s description of how people assume that he writes songs about himself is too funny not to post here.”

    John Darnielle had a great rant about that on-stage this week too.

    Pinkerton resonated with me growing up, but it also resonated with my sister… i think the sentiment of Across the Sea works even if it’s actual verses are icky

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  5. peli wrote:

    About the backlash, though: Early Liz Phair was unmistakeably intellectual. Weezer were always… ehh…kind of dumb? So it’s not entirely unfair that the reaction to Liz Phair’s pop-self is along the lines of “why are you holding back/why are you being untrue to yourself” whereas the reaction to later Weezer is more along the lines of “this isn’t very good is it.” Because Liz Phair seems to understand her art and her artistic choices, and to be making them intentionally and consciously, in a way that doesn’t necessarily apply to Cuomo.

    Monday, April 19, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  6. peli wrote:

    I mean, later Weezer is like Kevin Smith making Jersey Girl or something. Later Liz Phair is more like if Jim Jarmusch made Jersey Girl.

    Monday, April 19, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  7. claire wrote:

    Has anybody read the interview in the LA Times with Joni Mitchell and John Kelly? It made me think of ladypalooza, which i have been following with zeal and delight – thanks!

    Anyway, on her music being labeled confessional, Mitchell has this to say: “It’s an ugly term — it’s “confessional” if you don’t get it; if you do get it, you see yourself in the songs. I usually use “I” as the narrator in my songs, but not all the “I’s” are me; they’re characters. It’s theater. Tennessee Williams’ plays are drawn from personal experience — does that make him “confessional”? If I’m playing Joan of Arc, you wouldn’t tell me, “That performance was very confessional.” I’m usually the playwright and actress…” HMMM. The link is this:,0,601452,full.story

    Friday, April 23, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  8. Kelly wrote:

    @ S.R>: You’re not wrong about the narrative, but the thing is, even before the middling onslaught of 2000s Weezer, Cuomo also had a space outside the “confessional” continuum, carved out by The Blue Album. Which is actually comparable to Exile in Guyville too, in how it filtered self-revelation through humor, sarcasm, nostalgia. Phair was never allowed such space.

    I am not ruling out that the PR campaigns that attended both records didn’t serve this superficial distinction, what with the whole to-do over Guyville as a “personal” lady-response to Exile on Main Street.

    Monday, April 26, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  9. Sean wrote:

    […] with that background, you can perhaps imagine my delight at the recent Tiger Beatdown post that discussed “Fuck and Run” (plus another song by some …!  That got me thinking about a couple of related things that would have been sort of tangential […]

    Monday, April 26, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  10. Christen wrote:

    All this talk about the instinct to read women’s work as “confessional” (maybe we should just say “autobiographical,” because of course I’m going to get into some Syvlia Plath here) has me thinking about a totally different indie-rock dude: Stephin Merritt. Merritt where he said after the rise of the singer-songwriter (that is, after songwriters — Carole King being the one who jumps to mind — started recording their own work instead of feeding them to other artists), we began to associate pop music with sincerity: that is, we identify the content with the singer. Sincerity, he added, has no more place in pop music than it does in cooking. So it’s not just something we do to female artists, but yes, we do it. We do it a lot.

    Clearly I’m not the only person who read this and immediately thought of Sylvia Plath, and not just because of the use of the word “confessional.” I’d probably read “Daddy” a hundred times before I heard her read it for the BCC (a haunting recording if you can find it — she sounds like she’s 90, not 30), and prefaced it with, “This is a poem about a girl with a sort of Electra Complex.” Not once had I considered that she might not be writing about herself. Even in feminist-oriented lit classes (which is where I heard that recording), I caught myself and others dropping the poetry-class convention of referring to “the speaker” and started saying, “So Plath is comparing her father to Hitler?” “Daddy” becomes rather a different poem if it’s about a girl, with, sure, some specific autobiographical references, rather than a tirade about Otto Plath.

    Similarly, I’m actually kind of surprised that whitechocolatespaceegg is pointed to in this post as an obviously non-autobiographical album; when Phair wrote “Divorce Song,” for instnace, she had never been married. Several other songs on the album reach well beyond what I understand Phair’s experience was at the time she wrote Exile.

    Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  11. jsaudiojs wrote:

    Well you get the Neanderthal perspective of Liz from some guys that she’s a “slut.” It’s such a misread because from FnR you’re getting, if you pay attention, that it isn’t about wanting casual sex 1-night stands (or as it seems encounters turn out only to be), but wanting lovey-dovey stuff. But the use of sexual slang by Liz and even talking about these topics seriously was kind of new at the time (for someone so recognized by critics).

    Actually, Liz made those two steps and then went beyond to inject a/her mature perspective, i.e. casual sex isn’t enough. That third step was overlooked because of the novelty of the wholesome-looking, very pretty, clean-cut, “nice girl” (stereotyped-persona projected onto Liz) woman singing about wanting to be a “blow-job queen” titillated so much. It’s as if people weren’t ready for all of it and the depth of her writing and mature perspectives have been ignored, mostly.

    Maybe farther down the road, Liz will get more recognition for the depth to her songs.

    To be fair, no pun intended, Weezer had far more commercial success than Liz ever did, so that they aren’t reduced to the one song you mention as Liz sometimes is less surprising, gender aside. She had one massive success (critical, not commercial)–Exile in Guyville. They had big albums and some hits.

    Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] with that background, you can perhaps imagine my delight at the recent Tiger Beatdown post that discussed “Fuck and Run” (plus another song by some …!  That got me thinking about a couple of related things that would have been sort of tangential […]

  2. Addendum: This Is Not An Apology « Radical Bookworm on Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    […] talking about their experiences are dismissed as narcissistic or just oversharing. This came up in a recent guest post by K on Tiger Beatdown – part of the larger Ladypalooza guest post series which you should read immediately, […]