Thursday, November 13, 2014

Song of the Day: Liz Phair - Supernova

A lot of times when an artist follows up a "masterpiece" with an album that isn't, we begin to remember that second album as an unmitigated failure even though that's often not the case. Many of these failed follow-up albums are ripe for rediscovery, because they hold up surprisingly well once they're removed from the context of their expectations. 

Liz Phair burst on the scene in 1993 with Exile in Guyville, which didn't sell a lot, but lit critics' mental loins aflame like almost no female-rocker ever had. When it came time to follow that up the next year, the media positioned her as the next big thing, which included the above Rolling Stone cover, proclaiming that "A rock & roll star is born." 

The ensuing album, Whip-Smart, did not turn Phair into a major rock star, and it's now considered to be just the first of Phair's many failures at ever mattering again as much as she did with Exile in Guyville. Until I found it cheap in a used bin earlier this year, I'd never even heard Whip-Smart. I didn't think I needed to; the conventional wisdom on Phair had become that you only need her first album, and everything else sucks. I bought Whip-Smart mostly as an archaeological curiosity, like I wanted to research how quickly and all-encompassingly she started sucking. But that really wasn't what the research yielded. 

There's nothing profound about saying that Whip-Smart isn't as good as Exile in Guyville, that's pretty much agreeable fact. But for revisionist history to suggest that Whip-Smart is therefore of no value is simply unfair. 

"Supernova" was the big single from the album. The lyrics certainly aren't as interesting as people might have been expecting from Phair at the time, with lines like "Your eyelashes sparkle like gilded grass, and your lips are sweet and slippery like a cherub's bare wet ass." So yeah, nothing revelatory there. But even if this became the moment that Phair stopped making interesting art, that doesn't equate to meaning it's also the moment she stopped making decent rock and roll. Those two things are best when they go together, but they don't have to. "Supernova" might be a bit simplistic, and maybe even dumb, but it has a good hook and it's an infectious rock song. If Phair weren't under the hostile burden of expectations, maybe that would have been good enough, but instead we remember that it wasn't. Sometimes that's just how it goes. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

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