Saturday, August 22, 2009

Liz Phair, "Why Can't I?"

Song: "Why Can't I?"
Artist: Liz Phair
Album: Liz Phair
Written by: Lauren Christy/Graham Edwards/Liz Phair/Scott Spock
Year: 2003
Key: G#m
Classification: SF1
Lyrical content: anticipation as foreplay; foreplay as paralysis
Where used: chorus

There are certain bits of conventional wisdom that, once rock critics and fans grab hold of them, will simply never be shaken no matter how little they reflect actual reality. The Kings Of Leon play Southern Rock. The list of all-time great bands includes Bon Jovi. Liz Phair is a bad album, to the point of being an abomination on her once-promising career.

All of it, bunk. (You heard me: bunk.) So what if Phair embraced then-current pop production and songwriting? Leaning on that unimaginative crutch of a complaint means disregarding "Love/Hate," "My Bionic Eyes," "It's Sweet" and "Friend Of Mine," as well as (apparently) all of followup Somebody's Miracle out of sheer vindictiveness. It also means ignoring "Why Can't I?," one of Phair's two determined efforts to crash through to Top 40 radio. Which is a shame, because underneath the formulaic sheen applied by the Matrix (which was working from the same limited toolbox as always), Phair takes a teen-pop topic so rock-solid that it's persisted since at least the dawn of rock and roll -- the confusing whirligig of hormone-addled emotions roiled up by the possibility of sex implicit in dating -- and filters it subtly through the point of view of someone who has just come out of a marriage and might have forgotten how these things go.

Phair's not the only singer to deal with this. Amy Rigby, for one, kicked off her solo career in part by singing of similar thrills and frustrations (along with others that were arguably tangentially connected). But Rigby didn't take hers to number 32 on the Hot 100. That Phair did is a little bit surprising, considering the f-bomb she drops right before the second chorus. Sure, plenty of hits edit that word out for the radio. The difference here is that Phair uses it as an active verb that means the very thing that caused it to become a dirty word in the first place. Bleep it out of the song, and the resulting redaction still contains the act that was so objectionable that it had to be removed.

Then again, of course, there's the SFCP of the chorus (one of the Matrix's specialties) to ease the transition to the popular consciousness. Prior to its appearance, Phair's describing the situation of meeting someone who rings your bell (while, whoops!, the two of you are still technically spoken for), but that all changes during the chorus. The song dips sharply in an echo of one's heart falling into one's stomach, the SFCP begins and Phair asks the key question, "Why can't I breathe whenever I think about you?" Interestingly, the verse is built around the SFCP's popular cousin I-V-vi-IV (as heard in Rob Paravonian's Pachelbel Rant), indicating that Phair and the Matrix structured the song around not one but two well-used chord-progression warhorses.

So yes, Phair sold out to an extent, in the interest of having her music heard by more than just the core audience that was barely enough to keep her career financially sustainable. But consider this: it's likely that "Why Can't I?" is a far more accurate representation Phair's actual experiences (to say nothing of those of her listeners) than, say, "Flower." That doesn't make it a better song, exactly, but it does make it a more honest one, in its way.

Full song: Liz Phair, "Why Can't I?"
Listen to the SFCP clip for this song

1 comment:

  1. This was the only "bad" pop song my angsty teenage self cheered the year it came out (possibly also the best part of the horrible movie it supported), and now that I'm learning univ-level music theory/comp it's great to see just why it hits right between catchy and saccharine and angsty.

    Also, yes, Phair has been a GAP-mom for a while now so good to point out how going back to her "original" self would make her more of a sell-out than what she actually did.