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20 Years in Guyville: Writers and Critics on Liz Phair’s Debut Album

Released June 22, 1993, Exile in Guyville not only launched the contentious career of Liz Phair — it also turned the indie rock establishment on its head. It brought more attention to the burgeoning music community in Chicago (Windy City acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill also had major releases that year), which drew ire from the community’s mainstays (legendary producer Steve Albini bashed Phair in a letter to the Chicago Reader, claiming she was “more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to”). Twenty years later, and despite Phair’s various (and perhaps less well-loved) follow-ups, Exile in Guyville remains a modern classic and a landmark feminist recording. To celebrate 20 years of Guyville, we asked a few writers to share their thoughts about what made Phair’s debut such an important record.

At the time, Exile in Guyville was received as being a groundbreaking debut for a relatively unknown (but ambitious) young singer / songwriter, but there was one, perhaps minor, hiccup: If you didn’t understand the reference to the Rolling Stones’s album Exile on Main Street, you would totally miss the ballsiness of what Liz Phair was doing. It came out during a time when the Riot Grrrl movement was in full swing and people were extremely receptive to alternative views on feminism, and in Phair’s case, her willingness to speak bluntly about her own sexuality. Since then her motives have at times been questionable, but within that era, the album and her message was daringly refreshing.

Laina Dawes, author of What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal

I never related to the Rolling Stones, never even liked them that much — too much of it seemed to be about Mick Jagger’s dick, which didn’t interest me because he expected it. So when Exile in Guyville dropped, I didn’t initially get the reference, that she was proffering a woman’s perspective on Exile on Main Street, but I did pick up on the outsize swagger she’d stomped all over it, a deeply feminine, deeply feminist response to all Jaggbo’s testosteroney antics. “Fuck and Run” was its marquee number, a commitment-phobe earnestly confronting the downside of Stones-esque groupie whoring (and a chick at that, lest you think we can’t beat the boys at their own headgames). “Never Said” was the single cause it’s the best, a glib dismissal of a gossip girl, hands in pockets and an easy side-eye. And “Divorce Song,” with its wan resignation, showed how freaking generous the whole affair was. The sound is so perfectly ’90s, so embodying of a time when women were bossing up so tough you could even trash-talk on acoustic guitars (!) — and the ’90s were rad because Phair was the kind of powerful, unapologetic girl lots of cool boys at that time wanted to get with. But the album endures ’cause it’s about how perfectly flawed and beautifully screwed up one woman can be, with zero apologies. I still don’t care about the Stones.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, writer and editor

I’m revealing my age here, but Liz Phair was the first time I heard the backlash before I heard the music. At the time, this seemed strange. Around when “Supernova” was on MTV rotation, I was getting serious into music magazines, ‘zines, not going outside, and the then very, very burgeoning music website world. (R.I.P. Addicted To Noise.) Said backlash doesn’t need to be recounted in much detail here. Even if you don’t already know it, you already know it (basically, sex appeal=no talent). Anyway, I picked up Whip-Smart at a used CD store and loved it, even though it took me longer than I care to admit to realize, “Oh wait, her and Julia Roberts were the same age at summer camp. That makes more sense.” (I mean, it didn’t take that long, just a bit longer than it should have, which is to say not instantaneously.)

But no one was asking about Whip-Smart, were they? (Still a solid album, by the way. I also ride for Whitechocolatespaceegg, though insist that you check out one of the outtakes compilation floating around the Internet, so you can get a better sense of what was going on with that album.) During the summer before I left for college, I Columbia Housed The Velvet Underground & Nico, Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, and I want to say Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, though that can’t be right. Horses maybe? It was time to Know My Shit before I went to college, because that’s the insufferable type of young person I was. There’s worse ways to be insufferable. (That my college listened exclusively to the Dave Matthews Band is a trauma I will write about some other time.)

That devouring of the Snob Curriculum became a regular thing. One Christmas, I asked for a few more albums to complete the gaps in my knowledge. There was some early R.E.M., Paul’s Boutique, and Exile in Guyville. I put that one on first. Originally, I was just going to listen to it for a few songs and then throw on some other albums. I think I listened to the entire thing in one sitting. It’s that kind of album. Once I heard that opening chime of “6’1”” what else could I possibly do?

Exile in Guyville became that album for me my sophomore year. And boy, did I need it. I won’t get all Thought Catalog about it. Suffice to say their were a number of young ladies whom I liked, and who seemed to like me, and then they quickly realized that I was the most awkward person on the planet. It happens. And Liz was there for me. (Note to self: write a think-piece about how Liz, Tori, PJ, and some other ladies kept me from becoming a misogynist.)

Did I, a person not yet of drinking age, believe with all of my heart, 100%, that the line, “I can feel it in my bones / I’m going to spend my whole life alone” applied me? Yes. Of course I did. And I’m glad I did and I’m glad I was wrong, because there’s a time in your life when you should feel ridiculous things ridiculously strongly, and there is nothing in the world more beautiful than realizing one day that your entire perspective on everything changed and you’re not even sure how it happened or why. (Also, don’t think that choice of song means those relationship misfires were particularly salacious. If only.)

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally an artist will write a great song that goes beyond being a great song. It’s a song that channels an elemental idea so powerfully it becomes a modern hymn. (Word to The Verve.) “Fuck and Run” is one of those songs. Long before we had worried features about out-of-control campus hook-up culture and what the untangling of sex and love meant for society, Liz Phair told us the plain truth about a loneliness so powerful it seems like it will always be there. She was both right and wrong about this and everything else on Exile in Guyville because she was smart enough to know that there were no real answers to be had. But of course that’s not the point. The point is that she was brave enough to stare all of this down for us. Because of her, we can never say that we didn’t see this all coming. And for that we will all owe her forever.

Michael Tedder, managing editor of The Talkhouse

Because I am just a walking, talking archetype, it only took me about two minutes to track down the journal where I’d been moved to write an overwrought, stream-of-consciousness entry the first time I heard Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, from which I will now quote directly and only slightly ashamedly. “Hearing this album feels like unearthing some very plain and simple truth that has been on the tip of your tongue this whole time but has seemed to small or obvious to articulate. It took its time to find me, but that’s OK, I don’t think I would have understood it when I was 18,” I wrote, at the wise old age of 19.

When I think of Guyville now I think of this thing I read and vehemently underlined in an interview with Peggy Orenstein a few years ago, about how the great lie pop culture sells young girls is that female sexuality is something to be performed rather than felt internally. But the gospel of Liz Phair — tough-talking and vulnerable in the same breath — is that it can be both of those things, and that a perfectly sane person can oscillate between feeling 6’1″ and 5’2″, moment to moment, depending on how the sun is hitting her shadow.

Twenty years later, it still bears that annoying curse of female genius: Guyville is actually lot more universal than its reputation would have you believe. Is it an unflinchingly honest record about being a girl? Yes, that’s part of it, but it’s also an instruction manual on how to be a thinking, feeling — and with any ounce of luck — loving human being. If I ever get to be Lord Empress of the Universe, I will embroider its best lines on all the throw pillows and on the day he hits puberty give a personally gift-wrapped copy to every boy.

Lindsay Zoladz, staff writer at Pitchfork

Liz Phair knew how we felt, or told us how to feel if we didn’t know. She knew what it was like to be frustrated about living with people you hated, what it was like to be pressured to perform, to impress. But most of all she knew how important sex was, how it felt to need it, how necessary and urgent a crush could feel. Liz gave us permission to do stupid things and consider them adventures. You could make mistakes and grow up to consider them funny. You could be imperfect and obviously horny and you could sing wrong notes sometimes and you could still be, in your way, important. “Heal my disgust into fame and watch how fast they run to the flame.” Liz’s prayer had worked for her. We sang along so loud. We hoped it would work for us, too.

Emily Gould, author of And the Heart Says Whatever

I can’t remember the first time I listened to Exile in Guyville — it was sometime in high school — but what I do remember is the way it permeated my entire freshman year of college (and that was in 2001, eight years after the album’s release). Most of my friends throughout college were guys, but I also had a small group of female friends that would occasionally reconvene and compare notes after various misadventures, judging and taking care of each other in equal measure. We (and especially one particular friend and I) listened to Exile in Guyville a lot, full-on obsessing over “Fuck and Run.” We were only 17 or 18 or 19, and yet, like Liz sang, we could feel it in our bones: we were gonna spend our whole lives alone. We picked apart the lyrics and put them in our AOL Instant Messenger away messages. We looked at our own one-sided hookups and casual relationships and misdirected affections and felt so deeply that what we wanted instead was “all that stupid, old shit, like letters and sodas” — even if we weren’t thinking hard enough about what we’d have to give up to go back to that ’50s malt shop. We committed Liz’s advice to memory: “It’s harder to be friends than lovers / And you shouldn’t try to mix the two / And if you do it and you’re still unhappy / Then you know that the problem is you.” It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of those girls, but every time I listen to “Fuck and Run,” I’m transported right back to college and I think about all of them and I hope they’re doing OK.

— Judy Berman, Flavorwire Editor-in-Chief

I was ten years old when Exile in Guyville was released, and growing up without an older sibling in a rural Virginia town meant that I thought that U2 and Dave Matthews Band were the coolest, most original bands on the planet. (No one at my high school liked DMB, shockingly, so that added some credibility that immediately went away once I got to college.) When I was a freshman year in the fall of 2001, I bravely installed LimeWire on my computer and began downloading the artists I thought I should know. A friend recommended Liz Phair to me; the only thing I could find online was “Perfect World,” a great song from her underrated third album. So I caught a bus and went out to buy Exile in Guyville, which I had come to learn was her best album.

It blew my mind. It was raw and crude and dirty and angry, and at 18 I was all of those things. Well, I thought I was; I was mostly just awkward and angry about it. But that didn’t stop me from relating entirely to the lyrics in songs like “Divorce Song,” “Mesmerizing,” and, of course, “Fuck and Run,” although there wasn’t much fucking to run from back then. I became obsessed with Liz Phair; I bought all of her albums, downloaded all of the bootlegs I could find, even argued with the cooler kids at the campus radio station who claimed her self-titled pop album was a sell-out.

Three months after college, I moved to Chicago. A year later I started dating a guy for the first time, and it didn’t take long for my first relationship to fizzle out in a melodramatic fashion. The next one did the same thing, and it was harder because that relationship lasted longer and I felt more strongly about it. I was completely out and dating, looking for love in the proverbial bad places. And that’s when a random return to Guyville made it all click for me: I suddenly got it in a way that I never did in college, back when I was just relating to emotions that seemed vaguely similar to my own. I was suddenly the same age as Phair was when she recorded the album (not to mention living in the same city and experiencing those dreary, lonely winters), and the themes of optimism and sexual longing and romantic disappointment and shame — all tightly bundled up together in 18 brilliant songs — finally hit me in the gut and in the head.

Years later, as I near my 30th birthday and find myself a bit more settled, listening to Exile in Guyville sparks more nostalgia than anything else. As I listened to it again on the way to work this morning, I was nostalgic for the emotional turmoil I went through, but also for the album that expressed the notion that I wasn’t on my own, that my feelings and worries were valid simply because they had also been experienced by someone else. I’ve talked to many people about how Guyville saved them and gave them comfort, and knowing it’ll always be there even when I don’t need it is a pretty great reassurance.

— Tyler Coates, Flavorwire Deputy Editor

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