Saturday, May 1, 2010

May 1: Liz Phair, "Supernova"

Artist: Liz Phair
Song: "Supernova"
Album: Whip-Smart
Year: 1994

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Though many may wish to deny it, the fact remains that throughout the history of music, and to this day, a large double standard exists in terms of what is "appropriate" in both performance style as well as lyrics for a man versus a woman.  While in many cases, male performers can pretty much get away with anything, when their female counterparts attempt the same things, they are often met with questions and controversy.  Clearly, this has impacted the way that many female performers go about their music, but thankfully, there are a number of women who have thrown caution to the wind and made their music regardless of what "the masses" said.  From Janis Joplin to Patti Smith to Madonna, in each generation there have been a handful of women who made it a point to push the envelope and forward the cause of women in music.  Among this elite group of performers is a woman whose signature brand of estrogen-driven rock music has yielded some of the most important records in history, as well as some of the most provocative and truly brilliant lyrics ever written.  Whether she was reflecting on her own demons or boasting the virtues of a one-night stand, there has simply never been another musician quite like Liz Phair.  With her magnificent 1993 debut, Exile In Guyville, Phair quickly became a household name, as many saw the album as a stand against misogyny, and the way in which Phair blended a lo-fi sound with some of the most hard hitting rock music in years made her one of the most captivating performers in the world.  Clearly working with high expectations for the follow-up, Phair surpassed the hype and nothing better captures everything that makes Liz Phair so phenomenal than her 1994 single, "Supernova."

As the lead single from her second record, Whip-Smart, the song was an instant hit, cracking into the top ten on the singles chart and in many ways becoming one of the most definitive songs of the 1990's.  In truth, all of the songs on Whip-Smart are performed by only two people, Phair and multi-instrumentalist/producer, Brad Wood.  It was this duo that was the core of Exile In Guyville as well, and clearly, there is a shared music chemistry unlike any other pairing in music history.  With her spunky attitude in tow, Phair created a truly irresistible song in "Supernova," and it is based around her own brilliant guitar riff. Using just enough "wah-wah" to make the riff bounce on the track, it became one of the most iconic riffs of the decade, and one can hear the influence of this single riff throughout a number of other songs from other artists in later years.  The crunchy distortion that Phair brings during the versus furthers her rock attitude, and she is one of the few artists to ever display the right amount of distortion without making it sound cliché. Handling all the other instruments on the track, Brad Wood creates perhaps the finest "one man rhythm section" in music history.  While the drums stay in almost a constant shuffle, both the drums and bass seem to "smack" the track at the end of each musical measure, and combining this with the way in which Phair's guitar "moves" on the song, "Supernova" has a sound like no other song ever recorded.  This ability to make the track lift off the album serves as a testament to these two musicians, as well as to their clear musical connection, and one can make the case that it is her work with Brad Wood that stands as Phair's finest work to date.

While one cannot deny the fact that the music on "Supernova" is wonderfully catchy and an absolute classic of the decade, the fact remains that, as it has always been, the true "magic" behind the music of Liz Phair lies within her singing and lyrics.  Brilliantly straddling the line between singing and speaking, Phair's voice proves to be just as perfect anywhere on the vocal scale, as her lower notes have an amazingly seductive sound to them, while her upper register work is sheer vocal beauty.  This ability to work in any vocal range allows a far greater diversity in her music, and this is one of the many aspects that sets the work of Liz Phair far beyond that of her peers.  Furthermore, the confident, almost defiant attitude that Phair brings to all of her music has made her one of the mist highly respected female musicians in history.  Along with the attitude in her voice, Liz Phair has proven to be one of the most fearless writers ever, as she holds little back about herself and sees no subject as taboo.  Clearly a fan of "the F-bomb," it is often her use of this word, as well as absolutely brilliant musical phrasings that make her lyrics so special.  If one looks at the entire album, Whip-Smart, one can easily see it as a concept record which details the entire run of a relationship.  Within that concept, "Supernova" can clearly be seen as the moment in which the protagonist sings the virtues of her new love.  Phair spins wonderful lines of love and desire throughout the song, as the partner in question clearly has the protagonist head over heels in love.  While there were many great single lines to come out of the 1990's, there is perhaps none with more staying power than when Phair sings the iconic phrase, "... and you fuck like a volcano, and you're everything to me..."  This fearlessness in speaking of sex so freely was still not common at the time, and both what she sings and how she sings it is the key reason why Liz Phair remains such an icon in the world of music.

While in general, people will deny any sense of bias or inequality, the fact remains that when female performers discuss the topic of sex or similar themes, if they get as graphic or forward as their male counterparts, it makes the "general public" uncomfortable.  While there is no logical reasoning for this, it remains true, but thankfully, there are artists like Liz Phair who completely ignore this and continue to make some of the most up front and unguarded music in history.  First stirring things up with songs like the one-night stand themed "Fuck And Run," Phair never shied away from being as blunt and celebratory of her sexuality as any of her male counterparts.  This led to Phair becoming an icon for womens' rights, and though she has sung of many other subjects, she remains one of the most honest and unguarded songwriters of her generation.  Singing of everything from alcohol abuse to lost love, Phair has penned some of the most heartbreaking lyrics ever, yet it is her provocative, spirited songs on the subject of relationships and sex that rise to the top and stand as some of her finest songs.  Completely destroying any boundaries held on female performers with her phenomenal debut record, Exile In Guyville, Phair took a far deeper look into human relationships with 1994's Whip-Smart, and much like her debut, there is not an off note or sub-par song anywhere on the record.  Truth be told, nearly twenty years later, both of her first two records are still fresh and relevant and continue to be far superior to nearly anything that has been released in that time period.  Still releasing records with the same honest and somewhat tragic lyrical content, to fully understand everything that makes Liz Phair a true legend of music, one need look no further than her extraordinary 1994 single, "Supernova."

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