I will confess that I am cheating a bit this week. Shuffle play turned up Liz Phair, and I started thinking about her and what I might write about her, and PJ Harvey kept gnawing at my brain. Finally, I realized I really wanted to talk about Harvey. Well, that’s not quite it … I want to talk about them both, but also want to give Harvey the “top of the post” honor.
Harvey’s Rid of Me was her second album, which might suggest it was more polished than Phair’s debut, Exile in Guyville. But Phair had been working on the songs that ended up on Exile for some time, recording demo after demo, so it’s a mistake to think her album sprung out of thin air. (Phair was even a couple of years older than Harvey … not sure why I think that matters.)
Phair’s full-of-swearing lyrics appealed to geek fanboys. My guess is those boys would have been scared shitless by Harvey. Exile was popular by indie standards, which pissed off the holier-than-thou types who equate popularity with junk. Rid of Me might have been even more popular, but Harvey, with her sheep-farm past, managed to maintain “authenticity” while Phair, the cute blonde who was adopted by rich parents, was somehow already a sell-out.
A battle ensued. Not between the two artists, ironically, but between two men who championed the women. Bill Wyman wrote a year-end wrap-up for the Chicago Reader in which he contrasted Phair’s “desire to sell records” against “the insularity that increasingly characterizes underground music and the fringes of alternative music in America.” Wyman meant this in a pro-Liz Phair way (he included Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins in the let’s sell records crowd), but others disagreed, among them, Steve Albini, who had produced Rid of Me. Albini wrote a letter to the editor, which was given the delightful title “Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music-Press Stooge,” the sluts being Phair/Urge Overkill/Pumpkins, the stooge being Wyman. He called Phair “Rickie Lee Jones (more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to).” (You can read the whole mess here.)
Phair was doomed to failure with the indie crowd after that. She really pissed them off when she released a self-titled album in 2003 that might be called “MILF Rock.” She had transformed herself from Rickie Lee Jones to Avril Lavigne. Phair remains fascinating … it is unclear who is listening at this point. And she will always suffer for releasing a classic debut album against which she will always be compared.
I saw Phair live and solo on a 1995 tour. Here’s “Fuck and Run” from some show on that tour:
Harvey, on the other hand, has never had to worry about being taken seriously. She didn’t turn into Avril Lavigne … she added theatricality, but in the context of indie rock blues that kept her sound rooted in the “authentic.” She followed up Rid of Me with arguably the best album of her career, To Bring You My Love. Her weirdness always seemed to call on primitive urges, where Phair wasn’t really that weird at all, in the end. Harvey remains uncompromising, remarkably so, really. And I’ve come to realize over the years that yes, PJ Harvey is a “better” artist than Liz Phair. But it still feels like Phair loses because her idea of uncompromising is seen as mainstream, even as she releases new material on her website instead of through a label … if you think Liz Phair is mainstream, you haven’t been listening to the stream for some time now.
Here’s Harvey, singing “Rid of Me” in 2001:
Just for fun, here’s a quick peek at the woman who was the opening act the night I saw Liz Phair: