Liz Phair's new album, Funstyle — released unofficially this summer via the indie vet's website, and officially earlier this month on Rocket Science Records — has pissed off her fans, her critics, her management team, her former label, and, quite possibly, you. That's because Funstyle, in part, consists of decidedly non–Liz Phair elements: peppered throughout eleven varied tracks are bits of self-help dialogue; acted-out vignettes featuring clueless record-label execs and snooty doormen; big, dumb dance beats; and, at least on one track, rapping (yes, rapping by Liz Phair). It's confusing, sure, but also fascinating, and certainly undeserving of its initial, rushed Internet verdict. To make better sense of it all, Vulture got Liz Phair on the phone to break down Funstyle track by track.
This is almost spoken word, and you're recounting a few embarrassing incidents.
There's definitely bitterness behind a lot of the humor. My disgust at the way some people go about what they do, there's an edge to it. But at the same time I think it's really funny — I mean, getting rejected from Hollywood boat parties [as depicted in “Smoke”]. It shows exactly what level I'm dealing with. I'm kind of making the ridiculous out of the actual, and taking it to its extreme, and definitely laughing to keep from crying. [Also,] the mass perception was Exile in Guyville was just confessional, with no stylistic conceit at all. And it definitely, definitely had everything to do with the Rolling Stones; I was very intentionally going after that style. And putting Funstyle with Girlysound, I hope shows — as Girlysound preceded Guyville — that this [conceptual] element has always been a part of my music-making. It doesn't mean it's what I do every time, it just means that they need to chill out and enjoy the show.
This is the infamous “Liz Phair raps!” song, and you're recounting some business interactions.
I was so frustrated. You have a business colleague, times are tough, you say, "I've made you back money every time, can you cut me a deal?" And they say, "No, because if we cut you a deal then everyone will want a deal." And that attitude will make you want to kill them. That is that fat-cat bullshit, and I've encountered that so many times in my career, and it's nauseating. It's sick, the way some people achieve their power. Nobody can deal with the fact that these are real people, real lives. You can write your little contracts, but you can't fucking own my music. [With the rapping,] partially I was doing something to be as obnoxious as humanly possible. And partially I'm borrowing that thunder from rap that's like “Fight the Power.” Obviously I'm not taking to a career in rapping. It was pretty obvious to me that this was a joke.
3. "You Should Know Me"
4. "Miss September"
For the next two tracks, you switch into a style that one would more readily expect to find on a Liz Phair album.
I'm aware that I'm putting high contrast into my work. I'm staking my claim that I'm a complicated human being, and you need to deal with the fact that I have one side and I also have an intimate private side, where I feel vulnerable saying I want to spend my life with you. That's a hard line to sing, these private, intensely personal songs. All of us have a layer for our party selves, a layer for our business selves, a layer of intimacy that we share with only one or two people. And I really feel strongly, as I felt in all my records, that I need to express all my sides. Yes it's jarring, and yes it's an extreme contrast, but I'm daring you to go there with me.
5. "My My"
This one's almost a dance track.
The way I look at it, the emotional journey of Funstyle, then “My My” is almost the first real joke on the record. It's like, “Okay, I just got you to this really intimate place, and then — 'gotcha!'" Just when you feel you have this sensitive, beautiful quiet little moment You know, "Don't get too comfortable." That's a little bit of my heartbreak side. I might hurt you a little.
6. "Oh Bangladesh"
This was really inspired by a sexual what do you call it? An unusual night. It spawned both real intimacy and at the same time, isolation from each other. We were kind of role-playing. It was this fascinating thing to me that I arrived at later in life. I can happily inhabit a strong connection with someone I've had a lot a lovemaking with, to go to that place. But it's also — "I'm here with you, we're doing this, we're really connected, but do you really think there's nowhere else I can imagine being right now?" You're connected while being disconnected as this isolated being, no matter how hard you try to fuck each other.
7. "Bang Bang"
That's a real internal song. It's probably one of the heaviest ones on the record. It's about a really dark place, where you feel abandoned by the person that you love. You can't get through on the phone; there's that desperate time where you really need to talk to that person, and they're not picking up. There are just some really raw, almost horrifyingly frightening moments in life. You almost feel like you could leave this world. But it's more, "I'm not sure if I want to shoot my self or if I wanna fuck." I think it's a beautiful song for its aching aloneness.
8. "Beat Is Up"
Here you're voicing a character.
That's kind of me poking fun at myself but also a lot of the suburban moms that I know. I watched my female friends get twisted like bonsai tree: You have to be so, so positive, you have to do all these things and at the same time, you're secretly drinking and taking drugs. Pills, that's the only kind of drugs you're allowed to take. I have all these female friends and they get drunker faster and earlier in the evening than they should because they're so stressed and pent up in their lives. And these same women are picking up the latest self-help book to try to somehow ease the pain of their twisted life that everybody is supposed to live. It's the American dream of the American housewife, and I'm trying to put a funny face on the horror.
9. "And He Slayed Her"
This is the pissed off Liz doll. I forget what boyfriend said this, maybe it was my ex-husband When I'm pissed I look like the Chucky doll. There's an elfin menace to my face. This is, I had tried really hard to get off Capitol, I was totally powerless, I was being held for no better reason than this person's ego was involved. It was nothing to him and everything to me. It's business, "I don't want you but I don't want anyone else to want you." I had no recourse. This was the position I found myself in — they wouldn't let me off the label, but they wouldn't promote or pay for a record. I started writing my book at that point, and I don't want to get into that, but I was weeping and sobbing on the floor, and I thought Screw them, fuck these people. I went to college, I know that it is a hard road to hoe, but there are other things I can do. "And He Slayed Her" is about imagining ripping through the black void, coming with justice, a stake through [the label exec's] heart. It felt like I was dealing with monsters at that point. Not people. Monsters.
When I was trying to go pop with the Matrix stuff, [it was because] I found myself on Capitol Records, a major label, after my indie label left me there. I didn't sign to a major, ever. I was like, "Well, when in Rome ... " That was the only stuff they were gonna pay for. And part of that pop period was trying to insert real-life moments, to turn a pop song a little on its head. I love that “Satisfied” has in it this jarring line, an image that you would never find in a pop song, where I am talking about getting wasted and puking. And I love the bridge: "I wanna be like you, you wanna be like me." It's almost a cliché, but it rings very true, very honest to me. That's the problem: Here we all are, living with our decisions. There are the ones that got wealth: They take a lot of vacations and have a lot of parties, but they don't feel like they're with their best friends. Or the people that took a different path, and lost out on the stability of going along with the pack. Nobody quite gets it right. I like to think about the things that terrify other people.
11. "U Hate It"
This is back to the style of the first two songs — there are two fictional record execs talking about hating the record.
I started that song when my management heard “Bollywood." “Bollywood” is a funny song. You don't have to love it. But to have someone professionally say “I hate it” I thought it was so funny. Like “okaaaay.” You really, really hate it? "Yeah, I really hate it." We are talking about kind of a funny song. The absurdity that you can hate a song that much. It's really that bad? I can't hate any song so much that it curdles my blood. Maybe “Dreamweaver.” But I don't hate it. It's a song.
You've obviously had some negative experiences with labels. Do you take any solace in seeing the music industry crumble a little nowadays?
I totally take solace. And I am waiting for the revolution to come because musicians, we know how to be poor. We don't like it better than anyone else, but we go through our cycles. We know how to do that. I remember watching The Sound of Music, I don't know, ten years ago, and realizing that it's all right there. There's a scene where the Captain is with Max, the talent scout, and they hear the tabernacle choir in the distance. And Max is like, "Now that's a talented group, I should sign them." And Captain Von Trap makes a witty aside, like, "They'll get the fame, you'll get the money." And Max is like, ''Tis unfair, but someday I'll get the fame too." That was like the fifties. This has been going on forever! They keep the money and they keep the power. And so it's nice, let the structures crumble a little bit. This is not the worst time for artists, even if we're totally eating crust. It's the time to be free. That's why I made Funstyle.