Happy 25th Anniversary to Liz Phair’s second studio album Whip-Smart, originally released September 15, 1994 (per Matador Records) or September 20, 1994 (per select sources).
Unless you had brazenly decided to indulge in a complete (and highly recommended) Facebook and Twitter cleanse last summer, it was damn near impossible to escape the music media’s renewed fixation with Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair’s landmark 1993 debut album that celebrated its 25-year milestone in June 2018. One of the most critically and universally acclaimed albums of the past three decades, and deservedly so due to its distinctive, singular voice, Exile in Guyville placed Phair firmly on the indie and alternative music radar, positioning her—at least, in theory—for subsequent, sustained success.
The more fully-realized extension of her initial Girly Sound demo tapes, the lo-fi Exile in Guyville remains a powerful, incisive foray into the nuanced inner-workings of Phair’s psyche, propelled by her refreshingly unapologetic candor, sardonic wit and blunt humor in her keen examination of male-female relationship and sexual dynamics. Though she never envisioned or coveted the role, the album’s reception transformed her into “the accidental feminist spokesperson,” as she referred to it in a recent New York Times interview.
A fixture on 1993’s year-end best-of lists, Exile’s success meant that expectations for Phair’s follow-up effort were understandably sky high, with the assumption that a substantially broader audience loomed on the horizon. With the album generating sales in the low six figures, a remarkable figure for any indie label, the profile of Matador Records was elevated, attracting the attention of major labels. Atlantic Records ultimately signed a distribution deal with the company, driven in large part by their interest in latching on to the growing momentum behind Phair. More broadly, the attention devoted to Phair was emblematic of the industry’s burgeoning focus on female artists, who were steadily raising their commercial profiles as the grunge era of the early ‘90s began to lose steam—a harbinger of things to come, as manifest in the form of the Lilith Fair phenomenon that would emerge a few years later.
Phair’s much-anticipated second album Whip-Smart arrived at the end of the summer in 1994, preceded by a sustained promotional push that saw the set’s lead single “Supernova” and its accompanying video secure solid play on modern rock radio and MTV, respectively. However, while Atlantic and Matador were investing their combined resources in priming Whip-Smart for success, its creator was secretly struggling to reconcile her newfound fame and the pressure to extend it. “Basically (the record label) wanted me to be public, I wanted to be private,” Phair has confided. “All these people wanted me to be really big and I felt like this tiny pea in the center of all this chaos. I didn't want this success. I kept thinking, ‘this is wrong. Why do all these people want it so much more than I do.’”
Indeed, Phair may have approached the recording and subsequent marketing demands of her sophomore affair with wariness, but also a fair amount of pragmatism, as if she was already thinking about album number three. “The first album is for Your People,” Phair declared to Rolling Stone shortly after Whip-Smart made landfall. “The second is for The People; the third is for Everybody. Your People hate your second album because it isn’t for them, but you have to attract the attention of The People, who will get a sound, get an idea, digest and spit it out. And the next time you can get revolted by that and go back to the original Your People mentality, which is more intimate.”
Not necessarily an all-out assault to secure mainstream acceptance from “The People,” the 14-track Whip-Smart is a perceptibly more polished affair with a crisper, bigger sound than its precursor. But fortunately for “her people,” and due in part to reuniting in the studio with Exile collaborators Brad Wood and Casey Rice, Phair did not outright forsake her lo-fi, DIY sensibilities that endeared Exile in Guyville to so many. Though it ups the ante on melodic, radio-friendlier fare, Whip-Smart still contains simple, sparse guitar-driven arrangements that allow Phair’s lyrics, as well as her varied and unconventional vocal phrasing and spoken-word soliloquies, to rise to the forefront. The lyrical and confessional ethos of Exile, on the whole, remains intact then.
Thematically, Whip-Smart is a concept album that charts the chronology and emotional vicissitudes of a relationship, from the initial seduction to the post-honeymoon phase to the breakup and beyond. “Exile in Guyville was a more sexual album,” Phair has explained. “[Whip-Smart] is the opposite, an emotionally based album that ended up being more sexual. I made a rock fairy tale. A little myth journey—from meeting the guy, falling for him, getting him and not getting him, going through the disillusionment period, saying 'f**k it,' and leaving, coming back to it."
The “meeting the guy” stage appears on the album-opening “Chopsticks,” a subdued, piano-driven lullaby that belies Phair’s humorous, deadpan recollection of the initial encounter, as she stoically recalls, “I met him at a party and he told me how to drive him home / He said he liked to do it backwards / I said, "That's just fine with me / That way we can f**k and watch TV." How’s that for pragmatism?
Thankfully, the languid introduction lasts just north of two minutes before it segues into the aforementioned, guitar-drenched wallop of “Supernova,” which reflects the initial (and explosive) rush of lust that invariably accompanies the early days of a relationship. Her first of two singles to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 to date, “Supernova” also garnered her first-ever GRAMMY award nomination in the Best Female Rock Vocal Performance category at the 1995 ceremony, an honor she would replicate the following year for her single “Don’t Have Time from the Higher Learning soundtrack.
By the third track (“Support System”), Phair begins questioning the reciprocity and durability of the connection she feels for her new partner. “I don't need a support system / Put your hand on my heart and listen / What I need is a dedication to last me all the way through,” she sings, as she longs to determine if their relationship possesses the substance and mutual affection required for the long haul. “X-Ray Man” casts further doubt, as she calls her man out for his inability to focus on her, distracted by all of the proverbial fish in the sea surrounding him.
Her uncertainty is amplified later in the album on “Jealousy,” the album’s third and final official single, in which she incredulously confronts her lover’s past, contemplating, “I can't believe you had a life before me / I can't believe they let you run around free / Just putting your body wherever it seemed like a good idea” and later confessing, “Standing / On the corner / Watching / The ladies / Pass by / Imagining me behind your eyes / And then what did I see? / I saw hips, I saw thighs / I saw secret positions that we never try / I saw jealousy / I saw jealousy.”
While self-conscious apprehension about the relationship’s survival can be found throughout the album, these songs are juxtaposed with moments of clarity and acceptance—again, Phair’s practical side shines through. The slow-churning, melancholic arrangement heard on “Nashville” finds the plaintive Phair showcasing her vocal versatility, while acknowledging that she feels comfortable in the post Honeymoon-stage. Her repeated refrain of “I won’t decorate my love” in the song’s concluding moments suggests that she accepts and embraces the relationship for what it is and doesn’t embellish or idealize it beyond that.
An uplifting ode to escapism and arguably the album’s supreme standout, “Go West” is the conflicted yet liberated Phair’s declaration of freedom from unfulfilled dreams of love (“Take off the parking brake / Go coasting into a different state / And I'm not looking forward to missing you / But I must have something better to do / I've got to tear my life apart / And go west, young man”). On the album-closing “May Queen,” she finally recognizes that the heartache and headaches of trying to maintain the relationship are an exercise in futility, while on the endearing title track (which very well could have served as the album’s fitting coda), she imparts wisdom to her hypothetical son based on her own life lessons, encouraging him to live his life with empathy for the female experience.
Whip-Smart was inevitably subsumed within the hype machine that accompanied its arrival, as most conspicuously evidenced with the proclamation “A Rock & Roll Star is Born” emblazoned next to Phair’s image on the cover of the October 6, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone. Despite modest sales and an eventual gold certification for 500,000 units sold, the hyper-stardom that many envisaged for Phair never materialized, due in large part to her unwillingness to buy in.
Opting instead—and perhaps wisely—for self-preservation and peace of mind, Phair has readily admitted that she was “emotionally fragile” at the time and consciously resisted the allure of fame. “I think I've participated as fully as anyone in preventing myself from getting that big,” she explained. “After Whip-Smart came out, I canceled my tour. I canceled all press. And I wouldn't talk to anybody about business. I decided it was more important to get back to living my life.”
Four years passed before Phair delivered her third album, an extended hiatus during which she married and had a son, two life-changing events that arguably influenced the more mature, confident musical and lyrical disposition of the excellent, albeit curiously titled whitechocolatespaceegg (1998). Unfortunately, the latter half of her discography to date (2003’s Liz Phair, 2005’s Somebody's Miracle and 2010’s Funstyle) has been all but dismissed as her calculated attempt to embrace a more pop-friendly approach, sorely disappointing those who have naively expected a rehash of Exile in Guyville each time out. It’s a wholly misguided assessment based yet again on unfair expectations placed upon Phair’s shoulders. But here’s to hoping that she silences all of the naysayers, once and for all, when her long-rumored seventh LP arrives.