Liz Phair has had her creative ups and downs, but on a good day she can be wry, cynical, scathing, brutally honest, and wonderfully adept at pop songcraft. I submit that Perfect World, my favourite, was written on a very, very good day.
I’m always a sucker for a song that bewitches and then wraps up tidily before you’ve had enough, and this compact and almost formally perfect guitar piece clocks in at just a little over two minutes before it’s done and out. It’s a marvel of tight construction, and while it’s easy to get lost in Liz’s unwavering voice, listen too to the lovely contrapuntal bass line. In typical Liz fashion, Perfect World matches a pretty tune to lyrics that contemplate her own quirky femininity with almost mournful bitterness, describing herself as not cool enough, not tall enough, too opinionated, too mouthy, and, if you dig just a little into the subtext, too damned smart, to be desirable.
The “perfect world” is the one she can’t enter, where prettier, more vapid girls get the man who has everything – what a pretty life you have, she sings, oh boy it’s a pretty life you have. It sounds like he does well for himself, in more ways than one. You’d need a map just to navigate the guy’s backyard, for chrissakes. Guess who gets in to frolic:
I know the girls that live inside your world
Just sitting next to a mortal makes their skin crawl
But that ain’t her, and those aren’t the circles she travels in, though she wishes most fervently, just now, that for once she could make the cut:
I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious
I would have it all if I’d only had this much
No need for Lucifer to fall if he’d learn to keep his mouth shut
I wanna be involved, be involved, be involved, be involved
I wanna be involved with you
You get the feeling she doesn’t really want to be like the other girls, and this is just a crystallized moment of extreme frustration. Anyway, she’s never going to be, because she’s never going to learn to keep her mouth shut, no matter how hard she tries.
Good. I want to hear what she has to say, and with that voice she can say anything at all, and it’s fine by me.
By the by, it’s perhaps symptomatic of our toxic culture of ludicrous idealized femininity if this woman really thinks she isn’t desirable.