Tuning In: Liz Phair, composer

Recently, K at Tiger Beatdown wrote an insightful piece that questioned why Liz Phair’s music is deemed personal to critics and fans while Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo is often considered a songwriter with universal appeal, despite also tending toward confessionalism. Phair’s work ushered many fans into feminist consciousness. Marisa Meltzer’s new book Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music suggests that the work Phair and her indie/alternative rock female peers created in the 90s continue to hold cultural relevance.

Most might limit this influence to Phair’s debut album, Exile In Guyville. The album meant a lot to me as well. I also liked Whip-Smart and parts of Whitechocolatespaceegg, though could do without “Polyester Bride” and believe Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon was right to challenge Phair’s claims that “Big Tall Man” was one of the few songs a woman wrote from a man’s perspective.

Like many, I was also disappointed when she officially broke with Matador, hired production team the Matrix, farmed singles out to mainstream movie soundtracks, posed for Stuff, and repackaged herself as a MILF with 2003’s Liz Phair.

While the results weren’t as pleasant for some of us to hear, these decisions weren’t shocking to folks who were paying attention. Phair posed in skimpy attire on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1994, toured with the Lilith Fair in 1998, sang back-up on Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun” in 2002, and signed with Capitol in 2003 following the label’s brief partnership with Matador in the late 90s. These commercial-friendly ventures also suggest a harsh reality to the economics of indie rock: credibility may be nice, but it doesn’t always pay your bills, especially when you’re a single mother.

Thus, I find it very interesting that one recent development in Phair’s career has gotten little coverage. In the past few years, she’s gotten steady work as a television score composer. She worked on CBS’s short-lived Swingtown and the CW’s TBD: The Beautiful Life. Last year, she won an ASCAP award for her work on the CW’s 90210. This year, she was hired for the third season of USA’s In Plain Sight.

While these shows do feature women and girls, they are not considered quality dramas like AMC’s Mad Men or FX’s Damages. Furthermore, composers’ work is often obscured, as people tend to focus on stars, executive producers, and show runners when discussing television. Some television composers get recognition, particularly when they’re responsible for a memorable theme song. A few noteworthy examples include Six Feet Under’s Thomas Newman, Desperate Housewives’ Danny Elfman, 30 Rock’s Jeff Richmond, and United States of Tara’s Tim DeLaughter who have either received an Emmy or have been nominated for the work. The same cannot yet be said for a certain foul-mouthed indie rocker who is beginning to moonlight with score work.

It should also be noted that, like Phair, Elfman and DeLaughter both started out in rock. Elfman fronted Oingo Boingo. DeLaughter led Tripping Daisy and founded The Polyphonic Spree. Hopefully, with time and a few more credits, Phair will get a bit more industry recognition besides being alternative rock’s perennial “blow job queen.”

by Alyx Vesey
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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Thrilled by this!

A million thanks, Alyx, for paying some overdue love to an influential woman (who happens to be my favorite artist of all time.) It seems like feminists have largely turned away from her in the past decade, which is a shame, because while I agree that some of her recent stuff is less strong, she's been so prolific that there's still plenty to love. (50+ non-album songs, anyone?) It's fascinating that she composes for shows with strong female protagonists. I wonder if this is a conscious choice on her part?
PS. I never realized Elfman was the same guy who was in Oingo Boingo. Weird!

Thrilled by this!

I'd like to think it's intentional on Phair's part that she composes for shows with strong female protagonists (looking forward to seeing<i> In Plain Sight </i>by the way). I seem to remember reading a while ago that Phair, who <i>does </i>identify as a feminist, was going to work with friend and <i>Cherish </i>co-star Robin Tunney on a book about being a feminist and professional woman, which I always thought was interesting. Perhaps taking on the role of television composer is another step in that direction.

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