Let’s say you wanted to direct an update of the 1967 film The Graduate, only this time Mrs. Robinson –– the bored housewife played by Anne Bancroft — would be a Gen-X indie rock star, and Benjamin Bradock, the directionless boomer played by a young Dustin Hoffman, would be a twentysomething millennial. To be honest, you’d probably have trouble getting financing, but you would have at least one thing going for you: Liz Phair has already written the theme song. It’s called “Rock Me,” and it was released back in 2004.
Phair has always been audacious when it came to singing about sex. When she first emerged in 1993 with Exile in Guyville, the sex was what caught most critics’ attention. Songs like “Flower” and “Fuck and Run” made (mostly male) writers paint her as a sort of nerdy sex ingénue. They missed, or at least minimized, what was truly new about Phair: the complex, unfiltered and completely unapologetic perspective of tracks like “Divorce Song,” “Soap Star Joe” and “Help Me Mary,” which showed how rough it could be for women in the supposedly progressive alternative rock scene.
Ten years later (an eternity in pop music), Phair was operating in an entirely different marketplace. Her brand of stripped-down feminist indie rock had been superseded by the “girl-power” antics of the Spice Girls, the empowerment-through-dance pop of Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne’s punk-influenced teen anthems. Liz Phair, her eponymous fourth album, was a conscious attempt to reach a younger audience, its sound more polished and pop-oriented than anything the Chicago-area native had released before.
Though Phair initially worked with producer Michael Penn (Aimee Mann, The Wallflowers), she wanted a more playful sound than he could provide. “[Penn] tended to like my more serious stuff,” she told Rolling Stone. “He wouldn’t let me make a fool of myself, and I really needed to make a little bit of a fool of myself… I have moments of great insight, but I also have moments of just giddy energy or just inappropriate anger, so I was looking for more spontaneous stuff.” To achieve this, Phair co-wrote some songs with The Matrix (a.k.a. Lauren Christy, Scott Spock and Graham Edwards), the American-British songwriting and production team who helped Avril Lavigne hit big the previous year with “Complicated,” a single Phair explicitly cited as an inspiration for her new sound.
“Rock Me” is one of the results of that collaboration, and although it may be more polished than Phair’s Guyville-era work, it’s not entirely a break with her indie rock past. The song shares a chord progression with the mid-Nineties Smashing Pumpkins single “1979,” albeit slightly slower. While the bass is programmed, it sounds like it’s being played by an indie rock dude (i.e., lots of bounce, not a lot of slapping or chromatic noodling). Guitarist Corky James contributes three tracks of guitar, amping up the fuzz and driving the song along with layers of uptempo, Pixies-ish strumming. It’s only the expensive studio sheen that marks this out as an early 21st-century pop production. That, and the vocals.
Phair has never been a strong singer in the traditional sense. On Guyville, her voice seemed like it was side-stepping the main melodic line, or that she was singing a back-up part as the lead vocal. Here, she’s clearly inspired by Lavigne’s style, and she pulls off one of the strongest vocal performances of her career. (Of course, Avril herself was not entirely uninfluenced by Phair’s earlier work, either: listen to “Complicated” or “Sk8er Boi,” and you can hear musical echoes of Phair songs such as “Johnny Sunshine” or “Never Said.”)
When the album came out, some critics accused Phair of pandering to the teen audience. Meghan O’Rourke in The New York Times called her “a divorced, 36-year-old single mom who nonetheless gushes like a teenager.” O’Rourke might very well have been referencing “Rock Me,” which is, after all, about a woman propositioning a man much younger than herself. But if O’Rourke had stopped clutching her pearls long enough to really listen to the song, she’d have heard the humor. “Rock Me” is a laugh-out-loud song, and the laughter isn’t the mocking sort. It’s the kind of laughter you experience when you’ve just witnessed something so daring, confident and fun it takes your breath away. Phair is writing from the point of view of a mom in her thirties, with an attitude towards sex and relationships as frank as you’d expect. She doesn’t pity the unnamed boy toy for having an Xbox, a roommate and an empty bank account; if anything, she’s envious of the simplicity of his life. Phair’s also charmed that he has no idea who she is: he’s not part of a generation that even collects records, and was probably too young to have seen her on MTV.
The Liz Phair album was greeted with disappointment when it finally dropped in June 2003. Indie snobs accused Phair of “selling out” (Pitchfork famously gave it a 0.0 rating) and betraying the spirit of Exile in Guyville, which by then was enshrined as a feminist classic. Most everyone failed to see it for a simple celebration of fun music and fun sex.
“One of the things I’ve always done my whole life is drive fast and play music loud. I’m kind of a rube that way,” Phair told Rolling Stone at the time. “What I love about music in general is that feeling that makes you stamp through the sunroof… that feeling when something like Steve Miller comes on and your butt is going and you’re like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ It’s your song, and it’s extremely exciting.”