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15 Years Later, Liz Phair Fulfills Her Potential

The ground broken 15 years ago by Liz Phair's legendary rock record Exile in Guyville was so quickly cemented by the fill-ins who followed that it's become easy to forget what was so radical about it at the time. Back then, smart girls from the suburbs with a complicated grasp on their own sexuality didn't garner much attention, much less airplay. Seeing Phair perform that album in its entirety at a recent 15th-anniversary show in New York City was a revelation, in part because she seemed finally to have grown into her songs and in part because she'd written them beyond her own playing abilities in the first place. The fact that they connected for so many despite an only partially realized rendering was a testament to not only the strength of the songwriting itself, but also the striving behind it.

Whereas most of Exile's songs were marked by a fictionalized affectation that was rarely acknowledged as such, "Canary" was the first of only a handful since ("Little Digger" from the critically reviled Liz Phair is another) where author and character, songwriter and performer seemed undoubtedly one and the same. With a single dissonant note, Phair signaled the listlessness of every girl who, when forced to practice "Fur Elise," instead spit out the following, as though disappointment was in itself an act of defiance: "I clean the house / I put all your books in an order / I make up a colorful border / I clean my mouth / 'cause froth comes out."

Phair has said in interviews that the song can still make her cry, and at the 15th-anniversary performance of Exile in Guyville, she sang it straight-faced and standing tall, with both hands on the microphone, as though at a recital and not a rock concert. But this time, it came off less like a test, and more like a triumph: "I learn my name / I write with a number two pencil / I work up to my potential."

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This story originally ran on Aug. 5, 2008.

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Cynthia Joyce