I’ve never been as excited and nervous about purchasing an album as I was with Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Of all the albums I’ve ever bought, I think I know more about it than anything. I studied the thing for nearly seven years before I bought it.
So, I was almost 10 when this album came out in 1993 and, if you know anything about it, you know it’s laden with immodest lyrics like “I’m a real cunt in spring,” “He’s got a really big tongue that rolls way out,” and, well, all of “Flower.” As an avid Rolling Stone reader, I was well-versed in this aspect of the album, because it seemed like this, along with it supposedly being an answer record to the Rolling Stones’ gritty masterpiece Exile on Main St., was of the utmost importance to male rock journalists.
Anyway, I was way nervous about getting this album and, ever the arbiter of self-control, I’d keep myself from using allowance and later paycheck money to buy it. I’d mentally smack my hand and say “Not now. You’re not ready.” If my mom knew I invested so much mental energy worrying about the explicit content of an album, she probably would have just bought the thing for me.
I finally bought Phair’s debut album on my seventeenth birthday. My friends Amy and Ryan pooled together $30 for me and I went to Barnes and Noble, determined to buy this taboo item. I took a deep breath, strolled to the music section, blithely snatched the album (along with GusGus’s This Is Normal), paid for my purchase, and ran out of the store in a flush. I went home, turned my stereo to the lowest audible volume and listened to the entire album lying on the floor, inches away from the speakers. The experience had a wrapt solemnity that others might have given the loss of their virginity. I was not the same after listening to it.
If I spent this much time mentally preparing for how my life would never be the same after hearing the album, I spent the next two years listening to it every day, learning every word, memorizing the instrumental tracks, tuning my ear to the watery guitar melodies, and poring over the Clint Eastwood/porn star sleeve art.
And I wasn’t alone in my investment in this album. I remember sharing this album with my then-boyfriend Kyle. As choir nerds, we particularly loved that the song “Flower” was a) super-dirty and b) a madrigal!
The first thing I’ll tell you that I loved about it was Phair’s voice. What Rob Sheffield referred to as “Peppermint Patty on a bad caffiene jag” in the Spin Alternative Record Guide is a pretty good description. Her voice was dry, low, and raspy. She had a perfectly average voice. It wasn’t a scream, like Courtney Love’s. It was unimpressed, garbled when she hit low notes, strained at the high notes, beyond deadpan. I’d later find out that she was inspired by lo-fi acts like The Spinanes and Tall Dwarfs (and maybe, perhaps on an unconscious level, Anna Da Silva and Gina Birch of The Raincoats or Moe Tucker from The Velvet Underground). At the time, though, it sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard. It sounded like she was right in the room with me.
Her voice was very relateable, seemingly the voice of someone who had done everything right up until the point of recording and was just really tired of being the smart, good girl. One need only listen to “Canary,” a song set to “Chopsticks” about a girl who obeys all the rules, gains nothing from it, and is ready to set everything on fire because of it. At seventeen, I could totally relate.
Phair’s singing style juxtaposed nicely with her look. Now, I’m not gonna slobber all over her the way that some rock journalists at the time. Yes, she’s attractive. But, more importantly, she looked very straight-A student white girl next door — perhaps what girl studies scholar Anita Harris would label a can-do girl. Again, very relateable, as I was at the time in Chamber Choir, a member of National Honor Society, French Club, Drama Club, and other nerdy, non-controversial extra-curriculars. But I was also sexually frustrated — at once eager to experiment but nervous about going too far and yet all-too-ready to lie to my friends about what I actually had done.
I think these aspects of her sound exaggerate the blunt shock of her lyrical content which, as mentioned earlier, was pretty graphic. At the time, this lumped her in with third wave’s “do-me” feminism, an eye-rollingly glib and essentializing term that suggests that females can be empowered simply by celebrating their sexuality (absenting, of course, how normative this concept could be in terms of gender roles and sexuality, and how the ones who tend to benefit from it are middle-class white women, who don’t have the cultural baggage of being branded excessive by being too young, working class, queer, or women of color).
Thinking about Phair as a “do-me” feminist also essentializes her lyrical content to being limited to just fucking, which is not all she was doing with Exile in Guyville. As hinted at in the title, she also wrote critically about patriarchy. There are entire songs about the fallacy of male machismo (“Soap Star Joe”), wishes to reverse the double standard between men and women (“Explain It To Me”), feeling invisible (“Canary”), getting bullied by men (“Help Me, Mary,” “Johnny Sunshine”), as well as anthems dedicated to not putting up with it anymore (“6’1″”). Coming out of the male-dominated Chicago underground music scene, she had a lot to rebel against.
In addition to open feminist critiques, Phair was often elliptical in her approach to fighting patriarchy. She referenced the work of male musicians (the title itself winks at both The Rolling Stones and Urge Overkill’s song “Goodbye to Guyville”), swiping hooks, lyrics, and album concepts to reframe her work, reclaiming much of rock’s cocksure attitude for her own purposes. Sometimes she would lie — the most famous example being “Fuck and Run,” where she claims to have done just that since she was twelve. Phair would later go on to admit that this was a fabrication, which made others cry foul.
However, these sorts of lies I think are told for the sake of one big truth: that rock music’s obsession with authenticity betrays its practitioners’ desire to self-mythologize, fabricating whole identities that don’t align with their actual gender, race, class, and sexuality; that, indeed, authenticity is itself a gigantic lie. That this lie is being purported by a girl strumming a guitar into a 4-track in her bedroom makes its execution all the more stunning.
Also, focusing so extensively on the shockingly dirty lyrics from the pretty blonde lady strumming her guitar eclipses an actual discussion of her guitar-playing, which is great and contributes extensively to her sound. Her tunings, phrasings, chord structures, and harmonies have a warped quality to them at odds with the immediacy and catchiness of her music compositions.
It’s unfortunate that this album gets a lot of emphasis placed on it in relation to the other two albums that she did with Matador (though whitechocolatespaceegg was also distributed through Capitol, who she later signed with, who held a considerable stake in the company between 1996 and 1999 before owners Chris Lombardi and confirmed nice guy Gerard Cosloy bought back the label). Both Whip-Smart and (most of) whitechocolatespaceegg, in my estimation, capture Phair’s wry lyrics, idiosyncratic tunings, musical references, and indelible ways with pop hooks.
And while I found her attempted pop star turn working with the Matrix in the 2000s to be unfortunate, primarily because it seemed to take the particularities of her voice and sound out of the product, I also think it’s important to remember that, to rephrase an ESG EP title, indie cred doesn’t pay the bills. Sneering at her later work and dismissively stating that “Liz Phair sold out” absences the fact that she’s a single mom who makes music for a living. While perhaps becoming a pop star is not the answer (and certainly didn’t help Phair much financially), deriding this career move out of hand eclipses the necessary discussions that need to be had around how unfairly the commercial music industry compensates its artists, how monopolistic they have become, how difficult it is for independent labels to stay in business, and what little regard the mainstream music industry has for older female artists.
That said, her debut album lives on. Just a couple of weekends ago at a friend’s birthday party, I sang this song (courtesy of Karaoke Underground), doing back-up with my friend Karin while our friend Erik killed the lead vocals. And, of course, with the 15th anniversary re-release, folks like Shayla Thiel-Stern have done considerable reflection on what this album means to them, how it has influenced contemporary music, and how it shaped their feminist beliefs. I hope that it continues to inspire generations of girls and boys to spend hours with it, whether playing it above a whisper or at full volume.
If you have anything to add to this series, please do. E-mail submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t worry about abiding by tired genre hierarchies. Jean Grae, Sleater-Kinney, and Kylie Minogue are equal in that regard. Remember that the personal is not only political but educational, so feel free to share any memories or recollections that you’d like in conjunction with the artist/record/concert/scene/album cover/music video that made you a feminist. Thanks!