Live photos/review: Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

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  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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  • Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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    Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

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Liz Phair at Music Hall of Williamsburg

On Thursday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Liz Phair (previewed recently in TONY) opened with the catchy, guitar-driven "Supernova" and proceeded to frontload her set with Exile in Guyville songs. Perhaps Phair was aware of her audience, which consisted primarily of thirtysomething Brooklyn hipsters. Looking around, it didn't seem like she had gained any new or younger fans since the '90s. The scene almost felt like a typical alt-'90s reunion show, except this one had a big pink elephant in the venue: Liz Phair doesn't make music that appeals to the hip indie crowd anymore. If Phair was aware of her audience, the logic follows, then she must really not care about her audience.

This all became clear to me when I tried to explain to a friend why Phair's mainstream crossover was particularly disappointing. "But so many musicians sell out—that's just what happens sometimes," my friend reasoned. "No," I told him. "This was a really extreme case. This is a musician completely abandoning any sense of originality and creativity and edge and choosing instead to make embarrassingly vapid bubblegum pop, at a career point when her music should be maturing instead of devolving into trite nothingness." He looked confused, understandably so: The scope of Phair's sell-out is so incredible, that disbelief is the only appropriate response.

During the show, I found myself summarizing Phair's set list to my friend as a chronology of selling-out. "Chopsticks": "Oh this is a good one, this is still pre-sellout." "Polyester Bride": "This one's halfway to sellout." "Extraordinary": "This is the climax of sellout." There was no booing, as I had witnessed at a 2003 show right after the release of Phair's self-titled, Matrix-produced pop album. This time there was just a lot of cringing, like when someone mockingly shouted: "You're really hot!" (Phair was wearing a purple tube dress and a choker.) She joked in response, "Thanks. I paid her."

Phair ended her pre-encore set with "Fuck and Run." Was there ever a song that summed up the experience of being a girl more perfectly than "Fuck and Run"? It's difficult to think of one. So why has this talented artist traded her ability to capture such messy emotional complexity for soulless lines like "Why can't I breathe whenever I think about you? / Why can't I speak whenever I talk about you?"

Phair's career resists expectation, categorization and interpretation. It also illustrates the fragile, frustrating relationship between fan and performer. As evidenced on her recent schizophrenic flop, Funstyle, she does not take her fans into account when making creative decisions; but to expect that from an artist would be unfair. So how much does she actually owe her fans? And how long will they stick around for the sake of nostalgia?

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