Thursday, January 12, 2006

1001 Greatest Pop Songs Of All Time - #8 - Why Can't I by Liz Phair

Claire: They should have seen it coming of course - on the song "Shitloads of Money", she sang "It's nice to be liked/but it's better by far to be paid/I know most of the friends that I have/really don't see it that way". In 2003 though, when indie mumbler Liz Phair, critically acclaimed but stuck with a fanbase that showed no sign of growing, stepped forward with a new, poppier, more commercial direction, and fine tuned her sexually coded feistiness into a far more overt plea for a shag (HWC anyone?) via the help of the Matrix in a bid to sell more records - well, you can imagine the reaction was less than positive. In fact, many old fans (including a work experience boy reviewing it for the Herald Sun) turned their nose up violently, proclaiming Liz dead to them, she wasn't as good as she used to be - oooh, get you, aren't you a proper music fan, etc.

Of course, had they actually listened with their hearts (thankyou Roxette), those fans would have realised that Liz had actually simplified her lyrics, which wasn't a bad thing - she was speaking the universal, direct, pop versions of the language of love, lightened up, and most importantly, given her songs a tune and room to breathe her previous minimalist production hadn't allowed. If anything, Liz had sold IN rather than sell out, embracing a fantastic pop sound the equal of anything The Matrix had done up to that point and probably will ever do. It was a bold bid for re-invention that a less tedious world would have embraced, but of course, these are dull, tedious times, so it was greeted with a lot of nasty words and probably, disgusted poetry on blogs.

Why Can't I, the lead single, remains a marvel. The lyrics are direct, simple and perfect, the tune skipping along in wonderful ways, sounding exactly like you imagine love should sound. It also drops in and out, making it sound like shagging should, guitars fading in and out, Liz sounding part wide eyed ingenue, part lust struck older woman. It's all so wonderfully loud and randy, it's a heady mix, and Liz has the perfect vocal style for this kind of song, pronouncing every single word with a perfect, intelligent diction, which makes this song something else. Yes, she is a highly intelligent woman, old and sophisticated, but she's captivated by love, and swept under, despite herself. When the song drops out and slips down a gear, it's like Liz is questioning herself, before a wave of guitars renders such questions irrelevant - it's love (or lust maybe), and it must be followed. It also has one of the best censor baiting uses of the word "fucked!" in history.

Alas, such subtle, brilliant nuances are probably left to the new listener, not the "old" fan tediously banging on and clutching their copy of Whipsmart. They didn't follow Liz on her journey, but they were the losers. This is a FABULOUS pop song, a classic of its kind. It's too bad that just as Liz liberated herself from indie and blossomed, some people simply couldn't cope.


Alyson: Before this album, I hadn't paid much notice to Liz Phair - her normal orbit was 3am on Rage, just after the new Whale single - but here she was, preened up, selling pink T-shirts, giving out sex advice, and behaving like your glamorous newly single auntie in a bid to grab a slice of the Pop market. The fuzzy, distorted guitars were out - audiotune and make up were in. The thing was, she was so GOOD at being a pop star, it was hard for us to think of her as anything else. Oddly, the "new" Liz sold as many albums as the "old" Liz, so she shed her old fans for new ones it seems - if they had stuck around, maybe it would have been nice to have Liz get paid for once.

This is a paean to the single minded pursuit of love at all costs, Liz pursuing a man who already has a girlfriend while she already has a boyfriend. It's a very unique kind of pop song, and as Claire said, it's all so loud - there's very little here that you would call "clever" - the word play is very basic, but joyous - but then, so is love. It's the sound of a woman in love, and regardless of if it was to sell more records, the production reflects that. It's straight from the SAW school lyrically, keep the human emotions basic and simple and universal.

"Why Can't I Breathe/Whenever I think About you?" - who doesn't get that? Sometimes, simple is the new clever you know.


Edward O: Liz Phair was a woman in her late thirties when she sang this. I guess some people just can't cope with the fact that OLD PEOPLE HAVE HORMONES AND PHEROMONES and like the sex and still fall in love. Certainly, the F-rated reviews of her album suggest an unwillingness on the part of the critical massive to evaluate her on terms other than preconceived notions of what she should have, apparently, been doing. Which is stupid, because aspiring to make amazing pop singles is one of the hardest, most rewarding, yet underappreciated arts on the planet. "Why Can't I" is a great pop song - getting down to the fact that while love, a many-splendoured thing, is complex, falling in love, falling infatuation, is actually very simple. Heads spin, guitars chime, and Liz captures that moment expertly.


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