Why I Changed My Mind: Liz Phair


How does an artist follow up on a masterpiece? Liz Phair’s debut album, Exile in Guyville, is widely perceived as a singular feat – a musical masterpiece. To come out with such a powerhouse achievement as one’s first offering is of course both a blessing and a curse. Nothing – in reality or perception – will ever live up to the promise, raw talent, the tapping into something very personal and universal that Phair’s first album ignited. It’s like many genius debuts. Living up to that standard or to the hype is an impossible feat. (Think the Stone Roses debut – they never came close to that brilliance and took a damn long time to produce a second album, which was mediocre entertainment at best, especially by comparison.)

That said, I would argue that Phair’s follow-up, Whip-Smart, was quite a neat, tidy and catchy sophomore effort. In fact, it is one of those rare albums, like Exile in Guyville or Nine Inch Nails’s Pretty Hate Machine that has nary a misstep, and thus invites repeated listens to the entire album and not just one song here or there. (I have given a lot of thought to how important the whole album used to be.)

I felt slightly less enthusiastic with Phair’s third album, Whitechocolatespaceegg. It was quite different, but upon many listens, over time, I enjoy it and find myself thinking of songs from the album and singing them to myself at times. I don’t keep returning to the album as I do with the first two, but it’s still not at all bad.

While I won’t say that I detest her self-titled album from 2003, I can only say that it sounds considerably less sophisticated (although more commercially polished – not necessarily a good thing), a whole lot more desperate and some of the songs sound like a woman knocking on middle-age trying to convince herself (and the rest of the world) that she’s still hot. A lot of people would applaud this, but the way Phair went about it just felt like taking ten steps backwards in terms of songwriting. Her work on Exile was quite sexually explicit but felt important, like commentary or a look at the inner processing that takes place when engaging in a whole lot of casual and often meaningless sex. It never felt gratuitous or calculated as a shock maneuver, even if in many cases it did shock. The more recent self-titled album screamed out, “I’m still here. I need attention, so let’s talk about my sex life with a younger man!”

Considered, reconsidered: Fine and dandy if that kind of attention-grabbing promotion worked, but it was the beginning of the end of my being a Liz Phair fan. Or at least it made me a far more discerning skeptic. I will never discount the impact of the earlier work and absolutely won’t say that Phair is not gifted enough to surprise me.

The Mind-Boggling Stuff We Do to “Fit In”


Thinking about youth and the stuff we do because everyone else is doing it so we better do it too to try to fit in. In so many ways I went against the grain – particularly at a time when people were most desperate to fit in (adolescence/early teen years). By then I did not care anymore.I escaped all the dangerous teen peer pressures one hears about (the parties, drugs, drinking, teenager pregnancy or whatever) because I had a firm grasp on the fact that that was not who I was and that was not what I wanted.

But when I was a child, I was so cripplingly shy that I felt I had to engage socially somehow, and the worst nightmare for a person like me was something I frequently tried and hated. This was the obligatory childhood sleepover. So many times I was invited to someone’s house to spend the night – and I went. In fact I would beg to do it, even when my parents did not want me to. Either inviting someone to my house or going to theirs – hell, sheer hell. I spent the entire time miserable, counting the minutes until it was over – no matter how close the friend was. But usually I did not have really close friends for very long… because I was too shy and insular and could not hang on to them, they would move away, we would be placed in a different class each year and thus be separated (and that was enough to cleave a friendship in two for little kids), because because because. No good reasons. Just that I was as much a drifter then as I am now. My brother has friends who date almost to pre-verbal times in his life. I would have been lucky in my early years to keep a friend through one school year.

This is not true now in adulthood at all – no matter where I move in the world, I have held on to close friendships, although some of course drift. But I attribute this to the fact that I have always been trying to have adult-style friendships even when my peers were not capable of having those kinds of friendships. (Not that I never engaged in any of the sniping and backstabbing of teen times, but when I reflect, I think the times I did that were almost always in an effort to cheer someone else up – yeah, I know, tearing down someone else to make another person laugh is not that mature – but it’s what I had at the time.) I have been trying all along to be the good, solid, trustworthy friend a person could turn to in any kind of crisis. For the people I loved and cared about most, of course. I have also been a careless friend to those who just were not as important – or in times when I really needed to focus more on myself.

My point – the dreaded sleepover. I am not sure at what point I fully embraced my hatred for the sleepover… the forced sleepover I was trying to incorporate into my life. I spent all of elementary school engaging in this wholly awful, awkward experience just to seem “normal”. I remember even reaching a certain level of desperation, inviting people who were mostly just people I sort of knew at school and thought were “cool” (until I spent a few hours with them outside of school and realized I had no desire ever to talk to them again). THE-WORST-EXPERIENCES-EVER. Yes, so bad, it requires all caps. So bad that some of the residue lingers in my brain quite vividly, despite these things happening almost 30 years ago.

I never wanted to be that kind of social – I don’t like sharing my space or time generally – and now I am very selective about who shares my space. But such selectivity never came into play, and I shudder to think of the time I spent with so many people who were like a specially designed form of irritant – sandpaper just for me.

Once I finally got over this shyness (when I was 12 or so), which happened suddenly when I woke up one day realizing that I had no idea how I could feel inferior to or intimidated by people who were basically idiots, I guess I felt that I was living in a freer way – living in my own, albeit developing, identity. There were plenty of ups and downs, but I think I was living and choosing friends in a more authentic way, not just driven by what I felt I should do. While this is still sometimes a tricky road to navigate (balancing being humane toward people and reserving my time and friendship for those I feel are deserving), especially on a personal level, the concept of living without bring guided by feelings of “should do”/obligation is a powerful directive that I have taken to heart.

The Changing Workscape: The Future I Thought Would Be Remote


When I first moved to Iceland at the dawn of the 2000s, the only job I could find was one that did not have an actual office. All the employees worked from home and on occasion, if needed, went to clients’ offices. Even after I briefly moved to Seattle, I continued this work because the time difference actually worked to our advantage (end of European business day meant an easy handover to me on the Pacific coast – and I would have something ready by the next European morning). With all the benefits and convenience technology enabled, this kind of work was easy. I couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this way of working would become commonplace, adopted everywhere, within a decade or so. Sure, some kinds of work are not suited for distance work – but many are obvious fits (like content development, writing, programming, etc.). Even some fields that are less obvious, with some adaptation, can also be good fits for part-time remote work because they force companies and employees to learn flexibility and to work in different ways.

Today I work in the most staid, traditional environment I have ever worked in, and it’s quite suffocating for those reasons. The idea is hammered into our heads – daily – that we need to embrace innovation and new ways of working into every single aspect of our work. A lot of lip service is paid to “changing how we work” but where is the evidence of this?

An article about remote work and corporate staffing cited a Genesis Research Associates study that states 76 percent of respondents to a survey within more than 7,000 companies plan remote hiring as part of their long-term staffing strategies (as opposed to short-term, temporary solutions). If this is so, who are these companies and where is the actual evidence of this?

To me, the obvious move would be to restructure our thinking about being in an office, spending too much time in meetings and not trying to find more streamlined ways to do these things and thus save time. I have looked at my own job and realize that I could do 90 percent of it from home. There are some meetings and some discussions that are valuable to have face to face, but I am finding that the insistence on meeting face to face is more about laziness, i.e. people can just explain in a half-assed way what they want, and I will get it. If I am outside the office, they could do that in a phone call, but the better thing to do – since we always talk about this as well – is to enforce a policy that if you are going to ask for content creation, you need to know in detail what you are asking for… so people need to write a complete brief outlining their requirements. I don’t need to sit in meetings for that (unless I am actually contributing to the development of the brief itself).

My point is – in 15 years, I have basically traveled backwards. I have much less freedom and far more micromanaging/expectation that I be seen at my desk than ever before. In terms of how I envisioned the future of work, this is not it. And I find myself asking every day: WHY?

No article in 2013 dealt with the issue of remote work and working from home without mentioning Yahoo!’s CEO Marissa Mayer and her controversial decision to forbid working at home. Some companies followed suit, others came out explaining why they allow either part- or full-time work (some companies are mostly virtual and always have been).

Mayer justified her decision in a variety of ways, stating, “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

Plenty of tech companies have criticized this all-or-nothing hardline approach. Banning telecommuting entirely seems short-sighted and totally inflexible, particularly to backpedal when it has been something that employees had an option to do in the past. It’s possible that creativity and innovation come from working together, but anyone who ever works in roles that require concentration and focus will probably agree that being able to work from home and tune out all the extraneous noise is priceless.

None of this is to say that enterprising individuals don’t have quite a lot of options available to them – some online platforms have sprung up and are quite successful at bringing together work, demand for talent/labor and technology. Elance and oDesk (which recently merged) are good examples of this – on-demand talent, a marketplace allowing people to bid on jobs and work flexibly. But you’ve got to be on your game and monitoring what’s available all the time, which is fine if you’re relying solely on this. But if you are not actively using Elance all the time, it’s not like you are building up a profile that future employers can look to.

The point of this is just to say – you could always find clients willing to do freelance, distance arrangements because it’s cheaper – no salary or benefits, no equipment, no office space – really nothing except a one-off payment and maybe a bit of their time to educate you about their expectations and deliverables.

Finding a full-time, regular job at a regular company that operates as flexibly is a different matter. But why? What is holding everyone back?

The future of work, which I thought would be remote, is remote – in that it feels like it is never going to happen.