The notion of “authenticity” when it comes to artistic credibility is, to be frank, fucking bullshit. It seems to be that the only people concerned about anyone else’s authenticity are usually either denim-clad baby boomers or Pavement-worshipping 20-something dudes who own far too much knitwear. But regardless of generation, there is always a specific figure in pop culture who is universally acknowledged as a poser. It shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise that this person is usually a woman. How can you be authentic when you’re not really supposed to be there in the first place? The boomers had Yoko Ono and now we have Lana Del Rey. But somewhere in between the two was the sell-out to end them all, the true Judas of the indie world: Liz Phair. Phair debuted to outstanding praise from the alt community with her seminal DIY album Exile In Guyville, but after the release of her slightly more pop-influenced sophomore record Whip-Smart, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, she officially began her descent into becoming, as the New York Times once referred to her, a “piñata for critics.”
Phair tore her way through all of the macho bullshit that permeated the Chicago music scene in the early 1990s with Guyville, a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. But instead of bluesy, hubris-heavy songs about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, she sang honestly about the anxiety and disappointment that came with being a woman in a post-feminist world. Among the mess of alt white boys like Billy Corgan and Steve Albini, Phair stood out as a woman who was aggressive, funny, and seemingly uninhibited. As rock critic Gina Arnold stated, “Phair may have undermined the male ego, but she also unleashed a new female one.”
Phair became the poster girl for boho Gen-Xers and gave a voice to the brash girls who had always been told to shut up. And then she landed a Rolling Stone cover and a husband. When Whip-Smart was released, she was no longer the “adamantly free” girl, carelessly picking up guys at the Rainbo Club and sleeping on various couches in Wicker Park. The album’s opener, “Chopsticks,” features Phair absently talk-singing about one night stand but, unlike “Fuck and Run,” the climactic song on Exile, she dwells on the awkward moments and closes stating “I dropped him off and drove on home because secretly I’m timid.” The good-time girl had been replaced by a raw nerve, and the horny dude critics who had once revered her dipped out as quickly as a guy Phair might have written about.
Phair’s subsequent releases leaned more and more toward mainstream pop, ultimately recording an album with Avril Lavigne’s production team The Matrix, for which she received a record-breaking score of 0.0 on Pitchfork. The brief window in which Phair had been accepted as a peer in the alt community had closed, because it can’t just be a “sophomore slump” if you’re a woman--it’s validation that you didn’t belong in that institution to begin with. All respect and credibility she had once earned was officially in the toilet.
Meredith Graves, the frontwoman for the punk band Perfect Pussy, stated in a recent essay “Women are called upon every day to prove our right to participate in music on the basis of our authenticity — or perceived lack thereof. Our credentials are constantly being checked — you say you like a band you’ve only heard a couple of times? Prepare to answer which guitarist played on a specific record and what year he left the band.” As progressive as subcultures are perceived as, they’re still as skeptical of and as hostile toward women as the mainstream is. The idea of “authenticity” is one of the last remaining modes of keeping art the boys’ club that it was a long, long time ago, but what these hipsters don’t realize is that art is so much more interesting when you break tradition.
Annie Fell is a sophomore Writing for Film and TV major from the Chicago suburbs. She is a fan of John Waters movies, dogs with short stubby legs, and all carbohydrates.