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Liz Phair Sings Like A “Canary”, Steve Crawford Sharpens His # 2 Pencil


Recently, my talented friends Iman “Too Deep With the Mafia” Lababedi and Tim “Abs of” Steil were discussing the Liz Phair’s 1993 album Exile in Guyville. I missed the record when it first came out, but picked up a copy of the CD after it won that year’s Village Voice Jazz & Pop poll by a landslide. For the most part, I found the magic of the album more conceptual than enjoyable. Maybe her frankness about her sexuality was liberating, but I personally thought lyrics like “Fuck and Run” were puerile – an exercise in schoolyard shock value. The vocals didn’t knock me out either. However, one track quietly tucked away on the record, burned straight into my psyche. It made me think of my own personal limitations (disguised as strengths) in ways that was almost too heartbreaking to confront.

OK, here’s the deal. Why does a song make you feel sad or melancholy? Perhaps it reminds you a bleeding pus scab of a lost love or makes you feel sentimental about a family member or makes you think about special bygone times. I can deal with that. Those are somewhat recurring human emotions. Nothing in my personal musical experience prepared me for “Canary.”

To understand that impact, I probably need to get psychiatric couch comfortable. I was never a risk taker. While other kids were smoking dope, popping pills, discovering the pleasure points of the human body, sniffing gas, and skipping school, I was doing homework assignments and making sure the living room furniture didn’t feel neglected. Risk equaled consequences and that sounded too scary for me. So, I took pleasure in being (ha!) morally superior to my peers who were having much more fun than I did and, for good measure, I convinced myself that I was always the smartest guy in the room. (I never convinced myself I was smarter than the girls in the room).

So, I’m trying to get a bead on the Liz Phair phenomenon and it’s escaping me. Then a slow tempo piano song starts and Liz sings like a woman entirely void of hope, completely puncturing into my psyche with “I write with a number two pencil, I work up to my potential, I come when called.” Those statements of compliance summarized what had been my entire life. It’s about the dreariness of always coloring within the lines, of obeying authority. She talks of more mundane tasks in serving the expectations of someone else, but finds no joy in her existence. As the song continues, the sound becomes more claustrophobic. It is describing the life of a self-imposed prison. It ends with a sense of fatalism, a feeling that there can be no escape from these boundaries. Even her sex life is about servitude.

I don’t listen to “Canary” too often, because the burn of the song is too deep. It’s a song to respect for its force, to tiptoe around, but not regularly take head on. It may have taught me more about myself than any other song I’ve ever heard, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the lesson.

A few years later, I thankfully liked “Rock Me” just as much with way less psychological trauma.

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