[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.]