Junebug versus Hurricane

Rubbernecking Disaster—Liz Phair’s “Take A Look”
February 23, 2010, 11:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Take A Look

Elena Glasberg


Rubbernecking Disaster—Liz Phair’s “Take A Look”

When my brother died on his Yamaha on I-94 in North Miami Beach, I had no idea what hit me.

It was 1999 in sun drenched southern California.  I was uxoriously ensconced, fully employed.  I can still hear the sounds of my now dead mother’s wails emitting from the handset, “My children, my children.”  I had always feared my brother would die as a result of motorcycles and drugs or some criminal combination.  As I had worried that my mother’s smoking or drinking would do her in.  I think I feared they would die my whole life.  And they did.

When does self-defense end and wish fulfillment begin?  Was it an accident that four months after David crashed my mother was diagnosed with cancer of the soft palate?  Does it matter that my brother wasn’t high that night a panel truck swerved and catapulted him into the concrete highway barrier?  That his helmet couldn’t protect his chin, the point of his instant death?  That my mother had, to use the medicalism, “insulted” her throat for so many years, even after surgery?  Were these deaths predictable or preventable?

In between these actuarially calculable deaths I earnestly drifted into my own social suicide.  I gave up control of my life and then had the bad form to become resentful.  I remember dreaming of a picture postcard winter hillside.  Like in a Buster Keaton film, I watched two trains silently steam towards each other, helpless to avert the collision – or to avert my eyes.  People on a roll of bad decisions and self-destruction get called train wrecks.  I’ve never known if I could have predicted it all – if, as I have been accused in absentia, I orchestrated the case of in flagrante that apparently lives on in the hallways of academic absurdia — or if I was just being a predictable middle aged whothehellknowswhat acting trite with a grad student.

Perhaps it was these associations around accidents, public, private, and preventable that predisposed my sympathy and even identification with Liz Phair’s slow career suicide.  Since her 1998 Exile in Guyville — appreciated but also fetishized for its ultimately flattering fury against the studs of rock n roll — those boys and their followers just thought her music was getting weird.

But with 2003’s slick Matrix-produced pop rock album Liz Phair, the boys were no longer in on the joke.  They just didn’t get the shift from imitative fury to mockery.  And it’s true that the songs are hard and empty.  But not like the suburban anomie of The Cars.  As the eponymous naming suggests, Phair was also aiming to be seen directly and to have her point of view incorporated into rock’s generic stances.  The cover, of her in a bland girly outfit straddling (or wielding?) a neck up electric guitar, makes that conflation clear.  The denizens of Guyville thrive on envy and abjection – not on being ignored.  Almost all the reviewers called it career suicide.  I, being middle-aged and bitter, loved it.  Especially “Take a Look,” a song from the dead middle of that album.

I don’t know what you’re after

Wanna know details of my disaster

Like an accident on the side of the road

When you’re driving past slow

But there’s nothing to see here.

Wanna take a look?  Take a look.

No paramedics come to the rescue in “Take A Look.”  It’s about dead loss, or what isn’t covered by foresight or retrospect — the dead air.  And it is not a well-wrought song.  I tend to ignore the second verse in which the accident is construed as a one-night stand.  Instead I catch on to the emptiness of the aftermath and the fulsome bravado of the supposed victim who dares to be judged.  Take a look — at nothing, “there’s nothing to see here.”  Nothing but bravado in the space of narrative.  The dead space of disaster.  The bravado of the walking dead.  Of social death.  Of an accident waiting to have been predicted.  These problems of sequence and sense and emotional vacuity between the chords are what I’m after.

“Take a Look” is the sound of bravado, the mask over loss.  Now when I hear the defiance of the first line, “I don’t know what you’re after” I put the stress on the word after.  Sequence.  The calculation of timing without meaning.  “I don’t know what you’re after” means to me now a whole set of disorientations, things that have changed since I grew up, since I left my surities and made my mistakes.  Trying now to deal with how I am perceived, all I can say is I don’t know anymore about sequence, progression, chord changes (power or not).  In rock n roll a look only takes 3 minutes of sound, and you can be in that moment of pure balance, of rightness, between premonition and retrospect.  Between living and survival; bravado and shame.

So yeah, take a look.

I don’t know what you’re after, or where you’ve been, or where I’m going.  We’re all rubbernecking some disaster.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This is gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Comment by Bevin

This is beautiful Glas, and even makes me want to dig through what I’d thought were the shadowy parts of your record collection on Tay’s desktop.

Comment by Oli

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