L iz Phair, musician and occasional feminist provocateur, calls from LAX to make a plan. “My nails are a disaster,” she says in that unmistakable throaty, detached-vixen voice. “If I play guitar when my nails are long, I just tear them off. So maybe we could get manicures?”
But before we pick out polish: lunch, at raw-food Utopia Pure Food and Wine on Irving Place. Phair, 43, is the size of your average 11-year-old girl, and almost as youthful looking, with long blonde hair and big, mischievous blue eyes. The cuisine was her suggestion too, though as she sits down, she announces that she had steak for dinner the night before. “I’m not 100 percent raw, but I’m heading that direction,” she explains, looking for a spot to stash her umbrella. “I blend my green drink every morning.” But, she adds, “I also fix my son a full-on American breakfast with bacon and toast.”
Phair pushes up the sleeves of her vintage sweatshirt and leans in. “There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be a career bitch at all. That wants to raise children and arrange flowers and host bunco nights. I want to grow my nails so long and wear clothes so delicate I can’t function without a man. That turns me on. And yet at the same time, I want to do the rock thing.” She glances at the menu. “Why am I drawn to the S&M salad?” she asks of a dish filled with hemp seeds and dulse, a chewy seaweed.
With the 1993 release of Exile in Guyville, Phair became the idol of smart but stylish girls and the fantasy girlfriend of the boys who torture them. She’s spent the years since balancing subversiveness with pop ambition, a contrast that parallels the juxtaposition in her personal life, which has her emulating Simone de Beauvoir one minute and Donna Reed the next. In July 2010, she pushed the needle back toward rebel iconoclast with the self-released Funstyle, a wacky, noncommercial collection on which she vents about the record industry and occasionally raps. “If it’s important for my artistic development, I don’t hide it,” she says. “That record is a flag planted for female complexity.”
The food arrives (eschewing the S&M salad, we opted for Thai lettuce wraps and Brazil-nut sea-vegetable croquettes), and she politely arranges the dishes so we each have equal access. “I was raised to be a very intelligent housewife,” says Phair, who grew up the adopted daughter of a wealthy couple in a ritzy Chicago suburb and graduated from Oberlin. “It was a source of shame for my family that I was in rock and roll, which is so blue-collar. It just isn’t done. And I felt it, too. Part of me used to look around and be like, ‘What am I doing in this dive shithole? I don’t have to be here. I have a life raft.’ In some ways I never settled with it, but I’m having fun now. This is my life’s purpose.”
So what’s different now? “You aren’t going to believe me if I tell you,” she says, “but it was reading Keith Richards’s auto¬biography,” which she reviewed for The New York Times Book Review. “It changed how I see myself. Now I can say, ‘No, I am a rock-and-roller. This is what I do.’ Just the ownership of that, it was like searching out your birth mother. And if you think about my career, Keith Richards is my birth mother.” (She wrote Exile in Guyville as a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.)
Phair goes to the bathroom. When she returns, I show her the comment card that came with the check. “I want to write the most disgusting thing,” she says, cracking herself up. I hand her the pen. In script that would make Emily Post proud, she writes: “Thank you! I took the best crap!” As we leave the restaurant and head downtown to the nail salon, the girlie girl returns. Phair says she would love to be Kate Middleton. “There is no higher fantasy for me. You’re a princess. Windsor is your castle. And every day at three, the fires will always be lit and we’ll have tea.”
We walk into Jay Nails on lower Broadway. Phair selects Mademoiselle, a pearly pink, as her color. She offers one hand to the manicurist and with the other shows me a series of iPhone photos of this tour’s onstage outfits. “That’s the dirty-schoolgirl one,” she says, pointing to a very brief skirt paired with patent stilettos. “Tomorrow, at Bowery, I’m considering wearing a total mermaid-princess look,” she goes on, scrolling to a shot of a steely-gray tulle strapless party dress. “My corset might pop open onstage, and I don’t know how it would look with a guitar. But I might have to do it.”
Her phone buzzes. She reads the text message. “White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina would like to go to my D.C. show,” she shrieks. “Sweet! How much closer am I getting to Windsor with that?”
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