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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.]

62 Comments

  1. Silvana wrote:

    LOVE IT.

    Okay, first of all, I started reading this post. Then I was like “No. I need to listen to some Liz Phair right now.” So I put it on. Then I started reading the post again.

    Everything you say is right. Also what you’re saying has a great deal of applicability outside the music world. I used to study poetry, and do you know how many men’s poetic oeuvres have been described as “confessional”? Basically zero. I mean, it’s like Sylvia fucking Plath was the first person to write about anything that had anything remotely to do with her personal life.

    Nevermind that all the men have been doing it forever.

    But nooo, when women do it, it’s just confessional personal poetry, like the stuff that teenage girls write in the diaries! Trifles! Flights of Fancy! Oh how cute!

    “In other words, he gets to write about himself without people fixating on the fact that he writes about himself.” Genius. This is related to what I was trying to say yesterday about music that reinforces the dominant paradigm. When you write songs about your personal experiences, they become the universal experience, because you are a member of the dominant group who does nothing to dismantle the dominance of that group.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink
  2. GarlandGrey wrote:

    I also find it interesting that people are much more willing to traffic in anecdotes about the songs of men. The only song by a woman anyone ever wants the story behind is “You’re so vain.”

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  3. Sady wrote:

    @Silvana: The thing is, if you look at “confessional” as an actual genre, with that actual name, it was Lowell who was at the forefront of it. For FOREVER. And Snodgrass, he was big. Then Sylvia Plath died, after writing her most confessional work, and Lowell wrote that preface that was like, “oh, fuck, I’ve never done anything this good. But I kind of feel like she not only had to be suicidally depressed, but ACTUALLY ABOUT TO DIE, to get here? Maybe I don’t want to be this good! Sorry!” Which I think is actually a very reasonable statement. But, yeah: After she died, she kind of took Lowell’s crown. And rightly so! “Ariel” is kind of unmatched in the genre! But if we look at the other lady doing work in the “confessional” genre of poetry, Anne Sexton, who lived longer and thus got to be (a) a female confessional poet, and (b) ALIVE, the viciousness of the criticism aimed at her, and the accusations of making it “TOO personal,” or of TMI, were unmatched. Certainly by anything directed at Lowell. And Plath, it seems, escaped that too, partly because “Ariel” is undeniable as a work, but also partly (I think!) because she was dead, and a dead lady isn’t a threat. She’s done publishing books, done living, so her next book won’t be better than yours, and her feelings about life are unlikely to affect you personally.

    But, NOW, now that very few people actually read poetry, they use “confessional” lazily, as an adjective and a pejorative, and not as the actual name of a specific school of poetry in the mid-20th century, and the person who gets pejoratived most heavily and trotted out as an example of bad stupid girly Livejournal poetry by people who don’t understand prosody at all is… Plath. As opposed to, say, Lowell, who was at the forefront of the movement and taught both Plath and Sexton and did way more work in the genre.

    Ugh.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Sady wrote:

    @Sady: Oh, and also, duh: Anne Sexton wrote about sex way more explicitly than Plath ever did. So there’s another reason that she got hosed!

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Kripa wrote:

    Spot on! Uh…that’s all.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Isabel wrote:

    This post is so full of truth! See also: the general way in which sad girls with guitars is considered to be a genre, whereas sad boys with guitars is not, even though there are SO MANY SAD BOYS WITH GUITARS OUT THERE.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  7. Silvana wrote:

    Everything you say is right, Sady. God, I have forgotten so much about poetry. I couldn’t even remember Anne Sexton’s name! I was like..uh…who was that other lady…that everyone calls confessional…

    Maybe after music week we need to have poetry week. WITH JOKES.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  8. GarlandGrey wrote:

    Re: The Plath/Sexton confessional poetry discussion: Kate Beaton routinely tackles the subject of women’s artistic and intellectual work being ignored or trivialized by men.

    http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=240
    http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=237

    Those are just two of my favorites. There are a LOT more.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  9. Vee wrote:

    Oh lord, oh yes. This most ancient of annoying trends in interpreting texts, I hate it so much.

    When women write about their lives, it’s a) not relevant to “people” (people being men), just to other angry weird girls and b) it’s worth less than if men do it, and if men do it they’re allowed a certain agency and mastery over their material as writers/artists/rock stars/whatever, whereas women are generally seen as, well, they’re just writing about stuff that happens to them. As if they’re less intentional about their work than their male counterparts. Even if they, like in this case (and, coincidentally, the poet I’m writing my MA thesis on) very blatantly do not always just write about what happens to them, and when they do, sometimes they’re really using that to say something else. With agency and mastery over their material. I’m really tired of the idea of the woman artist as someone who just regurgitates what happens in her life without much influence on the way the work comes out.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  10. Vee wrote:

    @Sady: yes, yes, this: But, NOW, now that very few people actually read poetry, they use “confessional” lazily, as an adjective and a pejorative, and not as the actual name of a specific school of poetry in the mid-20th century–it’s spot on. And it gets extended, too, to many many female artists and writers, both the adjective and the pejorative, to a point that is pretty gosh-darned ridiculous.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  11. peli wrote:

    This is so depressingly true. I missed out on Liz Phair for years until two months ago Jessica Hopper wrote something mean about Pavement and how even as a kid she liked Liz Phair better, so I looked for Liz Phair songs on youtube so I can hear them and think “oh come on *this* is what you’re dissing Pavement for?” and my mind was blown.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  12. Miss Smog wrote:

    AHHH!!!! So freaking great!!!!! I hope LadyPalooza week never ever ever ever ends!!!!!!!!! You guys are doing such a great job of saying stuff! I’m proud and a little tearful right now.

    And, the Weezer snuggie: WTHAT THEEE FFUUCUCKKKK@???!?!?!!!!

    Cheers,
    Smog

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  13. backspace wrote:

    @GarlandGrey, #2: You Oughta Know, I’d say. But yeah.

    A friend told me about this concept of the “universal subject”; I haven’t been able to find much about it, but it’s the idea of aiming your work at such an entity for widest appreciation, which inevitably means an able-bodied straight white cis man. Cuomo FTW!

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  14. Gayle Force wrote:

    I just nearly caused myself neck injury by nodding vigorously along with this entire post because I recall a time in high school where I was so into Liz Phair and all the boys I did concert-y things with were like, well, yeah, of course you like her, she just talks about HERSELF.

    And I remember yelling once, “HAVE YOU LISTENED TO THE LYRICS OF SONGS YOU LIKE??? Because I do not think you have!”

    And it’s partly because men’s experiences are considered universal, as if gender doesn’t matter when men sing/speak, because they are the stand in for everybody. But for a lady to speak for a dude? Hell no.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  15. Tari wrote:

    I am so full of agreement with this post and all of the comments, I have no room left for other words.

    Except – re: “angry music for weird girls,” obvy only weird girls would want to listen to music written by non-dudes! Normal girls like normal music by dudes. (And of course, only super-weird girls actually write music.)

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  16. K wrote:

    @Silvana I love the link you make between musical criticism & poetic criticism — you’re so right! I feel like so many people have fallen into the habit of using a word like “confessional” almost in lieu of “written by a women,” regardless of the notion that (in general) men write about themselves all the time and that there are male “capital C” Confessional poets.

    And what you say right here: “When you write songs about your personal experiences, they become the universal experience, because you are a member of the dominant group who does nothing to dismantle the dominance of that group.” TOTAL GENIUS.

    @Garlandgrey I love Kate Beaton’s comics! That Rosalind Franklin strip is especially priceless.

    @Vee I LOVE your observation that when someone (gasp! even a woman!) does intentionally write about their personal experiences that they can be using those experiences to say something else beyond “This is what happened, this is how I felt.” I feel like SO OFTEN that is what Phair is doing — yet critical exploration of her work never seems to get beyond the idea that her albums are basically unexamined journal entries set to music.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  17. ozymandias wrote:

    I’ve described male-written lyrics as “confessional” all the time, mostly as a shorthand for “lyricist is a self-absorbed arrogant insecure jerk with terrible taste in SO’s.” But now that I think about it, my usage is fairly… unique…

    Wait. There’s a Weezer snuggie? Where can I get this? I WANT ONE.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  18. Kathy wrote:

    So much to absorb here. I love these kinds discussions. I have similar conversations with people, categorizing songwriters as “confessional” or “storyteller,” and sadly, it does tend to fall along gender lines. Or rather fans’ perceptions do.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  19. jessilikewhoa wrote:

    Reading comments linking literature into the singer/songwriter thing, I can’t help but think about my contemporary lit class last semester. Where all the writers we read we’re white, and we read ONE novel by a female writer (The Waves by Virginia Woolf.)

    Anyway, one of the first books we read was “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce. I’ve never hated a book, and a writer so much, ever. It was the most self absorbed navel gazing piece of crap. The way he wrote about women, as these static lifeless objects to jerk off over, made my skin crawl. BUT James Joyce gets to be in the pantheon of amazing wonderful important influential writers. If a woman wrote a book like “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” it would have raised lettering on the cover and would get sold at the local drugstore, because some bullshit notion of male experiences being universal and female experiences being unimportant self-absorbed fluff. Actually, a woman wrote novels comparable to “Portrait,” I would argue Anais Nin’s work was reflective in a similar way, and of course she, like Liz Phair, gets to be that chick who writes about sex.

    It’s true too, that people only care about Liz Phair as the sex lady, just like people only care about Courtney Love as that crazy no talent bitch that killed the super genius Kurt Cobain, even though the songs she wrote before they met were on par, or even better than his.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  20. K wrote:

    @Gayle Force That is the exact same reaction I always used to get from my guy friends when I talked about liking Liz Phair (or, for that matter, pretty much any female musician or band with girls in it.) But that reaction came out especially, especially strong in relation to Exile in Guyville because of course I, a lady, would want to hear a lady sing! Because our lady thoughts are so similar! If we knew each other in real life, we would probably have stupid lady centric conversations in ladies’ restrooms all the time! Hah, ladies! (I actually had a lot about the assumption that of course women want to listen to music made by other women in this very article, but cut it out because I was already like 400 words over what Sady projected I should write.)

    @Ozymandias There is, for real, a Weezer snuggie. Ordering information is available at the conveniently name: http://www.weezersnuggie.com/

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  21. NickS wrote:

    Just to say, in passing, that “How To Suppress Women’s Writing” by Joanna Russ, which was mentioned in the prior thread, is even more relevant to this post.

    That and cheers for another great Ladypalooza post. Count me among the group of people excited to see what fantastic post will come next.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  22. peli wrote:

    Also, are people crazy? Is anyone under the impression that Liz Phair had lots and lots of casual sex when she was 12? Liz Phair is about as confessional as Navokov.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  23. Gayle Force wrote:

    @K – I know, right? I sometimes just got so TIRED of defending my lady music love to guys. And the funny thing was, Liz Phair also described experiences of my guy friends (in the sense that “Fuck and Run” and “Tired of Sex” have so many similarities)? Like they could have related, if they had listened. But the second she started singing, they were like, oh, no, a LADY. Nothing to see here, moving on.

    Also, even though I loved dude music too, the dudes never really believed me. A Zep song would come on the radio and they’d be like, hey, Gayle, you know what song this is? Like they were testing to see if my music mettle was up to theirs, because as a lady, I had Liz Phair strikes against me.

    I am loving Ladypalooza, by the way. Thank you to the two posters thus far!!!

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  24. Nora wrote:

    I was never really into Liz Phair, but I was SUPER into Ani Difranco as a teenager– I still listen to her sometimes– and it was always sort of weird when the boys were dissing her for being all one lady with a guitar singing about feelings and then they all went home and listened to Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  25. Vee wrote:

    @K Right! Oh, these silly little “unexamined journal entries set to music.” The key there really is “unexamined,” and it’s the part that is so often blatantly ridiculous–the assumption that the “I” of the song is always entirely autobiographical (because no one ever started a poem or a song from their own experience and took it somewhere else), that it’s ‘just’ about their feelings, and that, should it be about their feelings, they can’t possibly be applying critical thought to it. Also, men can write all the angry songs about ex-girlfriends they want, but no one would ever define that as “unexamined journal entries set to music” (despite what a tired, tired trope that is, indeed).

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Permalink
  26. Ayla wrote:

    Love the post, can’t stand Liz Phair’s music. Do I have to give up my Feminist Music Lover’s Club card?

    But yeah, even though I don’t like her music, I’m totally with you on the stupid double standard BS.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  27. Brad Nelson wrote:

    If you are interested in these songs, you should listen to her album Whitechocolatespaceegg.

    Which was panned and ignored for reasons that don’t actually approach reasoning, out of some decayed attachment to lo-fi and the “confessional.” Peli’s right on: Exile dodged as much as it admitted, because one in a while in this life we must distract ourselves from the daily ache, through humor, through disguise.

    The disguise becomes the sought aesthetic in Whitechocolatespaceegg, and there’s a weird betrayal to be read in its reviews–what is a “woman in rock” worth if she is not there to bleed on your stage?

    It is also the album in which it is proven forever–we can etch this into statues because it is certain–that LIZ PHAIR WRITES POP MUSIC. I dislike writing large the secret impulses of Indie Rock Criticism, because you can be certain there are many people in that fold who knew this immovable fact from Girlysound on, but the sudden, angry dismissal seems the natural result of long harboring rejected organs.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  28. Brimstone wrote:

    There was a thread on the AV Club where a few people tried to pigeon-hole Rivers as ‘creepy and obsessed with young Japanese girls’ based on ‘El Scorcho’ and ‘Across The Sea’
    There’s also the thing nowadays where if an artist of either gender writes too many confessional songs they get branded as ‘emo’ and it’s meant as an attack

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink
  29. Brimstone wrote:

    Also, did Liz and Weezer both get critically attacked for moving a more commercial direction?

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  30. Brad Nelson wrote:

    Also, “personal” and “confessional” remain lazy, inept adjectives that preclude analysis, whether of the art or the self. It’s distance-making; how often, critically, is a work propped up as “personal” as though that were an automatic aesthetic plus in and of itself? The Joan Didion essay “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind,” though about film, rightly dismisses most “personal” work as broad-swiping indulgence. When art is created wholly from a person’s sphere, a sort of raw assemblage of dirt and gleam and ambivalence, it often exits the body a confused, blinkered thing.

    Which is why there are so few essays that discuss the FUCKING AWFUL SEXUAL POLITICS of Pinkerton. I identified so heavily with that record four years ago that I grow sick thinking of it now. Who were these people to whom I screamed, “Hello. I’m here. I’m waiting”? Who were they but ladders to imagined wholeness? Why didn’t I ever stop to think of them as people?

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  31. Brad Nelson wrote:

    @Vee, re: men can write all the angry songs about ex-girlfriends they want, but no one would ever define that as “unexamined journal entries set to music” (despite what a tired, tired trope that is, indeed).

    It should be said that “unexamined journal entries set to music” is the entire critical conversation over emo (still!), a genre that is largely the province of (awful) dudes.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  32. Vee wrote:

    @Brad Nelson It should be said that “unexamined journal entries set to music” is the entire critical conversation over emo (still!), a genre that is largely the province of (awful) dudes.

    True enough–though the emo songwriters often seem to insist on claiming the realm of the personal, so perhaps that has some impact on the critical conversation? I’m not disputing the fact that the critical conversation should not be limited to what songwriters say about their own music, but a lot of the marketing appeal there seems to lie in the (perceived) personal honesty. I’d still argue that the umbrella genre of Angry Ex-Girlfriend Songs is much, much larger than emo and that they’re generally treated differently from the corresponding songs written and performed by women.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  33. NickS wrote:

    the umbrella genre of Angry Ex-Girlfriend Songs

    It strikes me that for a woman to write an angry song about an ex, one of the first questions that people will ask is, “what reasons does she have to be angry” whereas there’s much more comfort with the idea that men may be angry with exes simply because they’re exes.

    For better or worse, I don’t think that’s a reaction that is localized to music criticism, but a reflection of a culture that is less used to female anger in general. It does, however, play into the stereotype that men write songs about universal emotions and women write songs about individual experiences.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  34. Silvana wrote:

    FUCKING AWFUL SEXUAL POLITICS of Pinkerton

    Word, dogg. I have wanted to write a post about this for like, years.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  35. Maud wrote:

    Please have poetry week. WITH JOKES.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 5:37 am | Permalink
  36. K wrote:

    @Brad Nelson You have so many good observations in your comments throughout this thread. I especially agree with you with the stuff about Whitechocolatespaceegg being wrongfully panned (if you’re interested and you haven’t already heard it, there’s a rejected version of that album with a slightly different track listing — I did think the fact that the “original” album didn’t include “Shitloads of Money” (an old song from the girlysound tapes) said a little something about the direction that Phair’s label was forcing her in, I’d be happy to upload it somewhere for you.)

    Anyway, one of the things I really like in the question you pose re: what are women in rock for if not to bleed on stage for us. Since I read your comment last night I’ve been trying to think of a woman artist who hasn’t had the content of her work either rightfully or wrongfully tied to her personal life. Interestingly, it seems that even women who don’t write their own songs (whether they’re a current performer or a member of a girl group from the sixties or from a time long before that) are assumed to be singing about themselves.

    I also really, really like what you brought up about the sexual politics of Pinkerton, especially this, “Who were these people to whom I screamed, “Hello. I’m here. I’m waiting”? Who were they but ladders to imagined wholeness? Why didn’t I ever stop to think of them as people?” I think so many kids (and when I think of people listening to Pinkerton, that’s who I think of, kids on the cusp of their full-on young adulthood) really identified with this record and the sentiment that someone is out there for them and that finding this someone is an avenue to sense of emotional completion. And you’re right — there are some serious problems with that.

    @Brimstone Phair and Weezer were definitely both criticized for “going commercial,” which is something I wanted to talk about in this essay but just didn’t have the space for. I think that even though their careers have had very similar trajectories, the backlash against Weezer hasn’t been quite as strong. When Liz Phair’s self titled album came out, a lot of people in her original fanbase (along with rock critics) really went after her for “not being true to herself” whereas it seems like a lot of the criticism that Weezer got (not all of it, but a lot of it) was centered around their more recent efforts being “formulaic,” “predictable,” or just not “quirky” enough. I feel like the nature of the criticism leveled at Phair suggested that she was becoming a bad person, while the criticism Weezer received suggested that they were making bad music. I’m not 100% sure where I’m going with this, it’s just something that I think is interesting to consider.

    Also, I think it is, in many ways, right on to interrogate the sexual politics that Cuomo puts out there through his music. While “El Scorcho” and “Across the Sea” are two of the most obvious examples of Cuomo’s fetishization of Japanese women, there’s also “Buddy Holly” (with its lines: your tongue is twisted/your eyes are slit/you need a guardian, written about a Korean friend of Cuomo’s which suggest some messed up attitudes regarding who needs to be protected, spoken for, etc.) plus the fact that the entire Pinkerton album exists as Cuomo’s version of Madame Butterfly. There’s a Weezer tour documentary called Across the Sea focused on a show they played in Japan that is just tremendously uncomfortable to watch (for me, at least) in light of Cuomo’s track record with lyrics, comments made in interviews, etc.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  37. H bylake wrote:

    Striking main point, and i’ll add my thoughts on their creative career trajectories. My impression is that both Phair and Weezer were appreciated for being idiosyncratic and personal at first. But both were criticized for turning away from their early ‘confessional’ aspect and towards songs written in more general/cliched terms; sometimes called ‘going commercial.’ (Weezer was pretty power-pop from the beginning, whereas Phair moved in that direction after her first album.)

    Given such a strong correlation between their creative paths, it is striking their similar lyrical exploration continues to be portrayed in such different ways (including how Phair was sexualized in ways Cuomo wasn’t).

    I was going to ponder the irony of why Weezer was so much more successful at remaining popular than Phair was. But a look at sales figures suggests that, excluding Phair’s last album, she actually had less of a drop-off than Weezer did. Which suggests that another problem is the discourse which assigns Weezer continued relevance, and doesn’t take Phair seriously, for little reason.

    All the time I’ve spent listening to these bands, and didn’t realize i was missing this! (I had a friend who championed post-Exile Phair, I will have to give it more listening time.) Thanks for pointing it out.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  38. NickS wrote:

    Since I read your comment last night I’ve been trying to think of a woman artist who hasn’t had the content of her work either rightfully or wrongfully tied to her personal life.

    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.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  39. jessilikewhoa wrote:

    Dearest moderators, I’ve had a comment stuck in moderation since yesterday afternoon. If it’s inappropriate or offensive somehow I’ll understand if it’s deleted, but right now it just looks sad and lonely with its scarlet proclamation hanging over its head mocking it with “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  40. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Jessikalikewhoa: Your humble mod apologizes; Sady is out having a tiny bit of life right now, and your Tech Fuckery Admin (moi-meme) has been busy with the doing computer freelance for peanuts while she desperately tries to find a new database gig before her money runs out.

    I just pushed through a bunch of comments, sorry about the delay, I am growing into my new found mod powers :) Plus, and more deeply unfeminist of me, I’m just used to Sady Doing It, which is kinda the opposite of the point of making me a mod :-|

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  41. jessilikewhoa wrote:

    Thank you, my humble mod, C.L. Minou. I’m just happy I hadn’t angered the tiger beatdown gods with my comment.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  42. S.R> wrote:

    I guess I can speak only for myself, but (a) I think of “Tired of Sex” as being totally a defining Weezer song, and (b) I always thought Weezer, or at least Pinkerton-era Weezer (after which I think a lot of people recognize that Weezer went down the toilet) was known to be INTENSELY personal. In fact, I see “Tired of Sex” and “Fuck and Run” as being similar not only in the ways you describe, but also in the ways you claim they aren’t.

    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 which case couldn’t you make the opposite point: that women are rewarded for being intensely personal in their art and men are penalized for it?

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  43. S.R. wrote:

    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?

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink
  44. DaveC wrote:

    Courtney Love songs before, during, and since Kurt Cobain are on a par with, or better than his – and I love Nirvana. Hole stands the test of time better. Yes, I get a lot of crazy looks when I say that

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  45. jessilikewhoa wrote:

    DaveC, totally. I just feel like it’s extra important to point out that her songs pre Kurt were amazing, because so many people (mostly dudes) like to claim he wrote Live Through This and that’s why it was so good. Of course those same dudes will tell you that the reason her pre Kurt and post Kurt stuff was good was because of Billy Corgan. It’s no wonder she has such a hard time emotionally, the dudely music elite won’t give her any credit for the amazing art she’s made.

    She’s like Yoko Ono, if Yoko Ono was also called a murderer.

    Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  46. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood wrote:

    Thanks for this. Time to purchase Exile in Guyville, I think.

    Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 3:02 am | Permalink
  47. DaveC wrote:

    Jess, you’re right to point out the first album for that reason. Dudes do always say that shit, that Cobain and Corgan wrote the songs. Which is ridiculous and besides the point in pop music anyway. Listen to any Courtney Love interview about music and you can tell she’s a rock and pop music historian, and it’s all her vision coming through in her music. Influenced not just by grunge, but by Motown, punk, the Beatles, and Raspberries-era power pop too.

    Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 9:36 pm | Permalink
  48. jessilikewhoa wrote:

    DaveC, not to mention Love’s lyrics, which are some of the best I’ve read. She’s really well read and admits that she scours old novels and poetry for song ideas. She’s a smart cookie, which makes it all the sadder watching her basically implode.

    I liked a fair share of the songs on her solo album, even if they were poppier with cleaner production than I usually prefer. I’m excited for the new “Hole” (all new members except Courtney) album to come out, I think this month. What I’ve heard has been really good. Early reviews have been overall positive. I’m hoping maybe this album gets her the credit she’s due.

    Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink
  49. Brad Nelson wrote:

    One of the pitches I considered for here involved How the Press Talks About Courtney Love (and Why This is a Problem). But you both basically covered it!

    Nobody’s Daughter leaked last year in its “Courtney Love” version, and it’s incredible like that–weird and naked. I’m not really down with Zombie Hole, but some of the songs have survived nominal transfer, so I’m still looking forward to the record.

    Maybe I should just write about How Celebrity Skin is the Best Hole Record but Ain’t Nobody Recognize.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 4:24 am | Permalink
  50. Brad Nelson 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.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 4:35 am | Permalink
  51. Brad Nelson wrote:

    In which case couldn’t you make the opposite point: that women are rewarded for being intensely personal in their art and men are penalized for it?

    Meanwhile, this is a major jump in logic that conveniently ignores how Pinkerton has grown, over the years, into a badge of romantic horrors for every single dude I know.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 4:37 am | Permalink
  52. 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
  53. 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
  54. 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
  55. 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
  56. 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
  57. 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
  58. 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: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/music/la-et-jonimitchell-20100422,0,601452,full.story

    Friday, April 23, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  59. 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
  60. 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
  61. 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
  62. 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

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Riot Grrrl / Women in Rock « Tattooed + Pierced on Friday, April 16, 2010 at 10:28 am

    [...] aesthetic about a riot grrrl renaissance or just a faux-punk refashioning?) I also just read Why Can’t I Be Making Love Cause I’m In It? Or, The Phair, Cuomo Conundrum, part of Tiger Beatdown’s Ladypalooza. (You should read them both, but have copies of your [...]

  2. [...] 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 [...]

  3. 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, [...]