Listening to Liz Phair’s debut Exile in Guyville, recently reissued by ATO Records after years out of print, it’s striking how fresh and new the album sounds. It’s raw, coarse, cocky and confrontational; it fits right in with the kind of rock albums finding exposure right now in the resurgence of garage and indie-rock. Indeed, Guyville is something of a blueprint in that respect.
At the same time, though, it’s an album that conjures up a profound sense of longing and nostalgia for days long since past when Phair’s brand of personal expression could gain much more of a hearing.
In the early-to-mid 90s, "alternative" actually meant something. It’s clichéd to talk about what a shift it was when Pearl Jam and Nirvana forced their way into the mainstream because, in many ways, the word "shift" is something of an understatement. After years of pop-dominated airwaves, the rise of grunge and indie was a catharsis of mammoth proportions. Music was allowed to be gritty again: loud and pissed off. And by proxy, so were we.
To young people alienated by the world that sought to put a giant "X" on every single one of us, music gave us permission to experiment with the novel concept of having a voice.
For Liz Phair to release an album like Guyville was an expression of how wide the gates had been opened in modern music, but also how much wider they needed to be. Phair played in a music scene based in Chicago’s Wicker Park, a scene that produced great acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill, but like most others was incredibly male-dominated.
When it was released, Guyville (whose name was an obvious takeoff of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet) quickly became a staple, a defining moment in alternative music. True enough, it was an album that brought a well-needed woman’s voice to the musical milieu, but it did so in a way that fit perfectly into its time and place.
Music journalist Alan Light, in the liner notes of the reissue states that "[o]f course, there had been female rock stars before, but from Janis Joplin’s blues mama to mystic shaman Patti Smith, they had always been larger than life in some way. Liz Phair, though, seemed alarmingly normal, utterly real."
The album caused a small-scale frenzy in the media upon release. TV shows and magazines harped on the naughty language–lines like "I want to be your blow-job queen"–to rank Phair among the supposed rise of the "fuck-me feminist."
Such lines were completely taken out of context. If journalists had actually listened to the album, they would have heard something much more complex: Phair’s struggle to find a voice as a woman in the "post-feminist" world, and how lyrics like the blow-job line were, to an extent, a skewering of the sexual politics so prevalent at the time.
Phair’s defiance against being lumped into any convenient category is evident from the first note on Guyville’s opener "6’1," where she takes proudly declares that "I kept standing six-feet-one instead of five-feet-two." It’s a statement that just about says it all. Like most of the album, the music is stripped-down, the distorted, loose guitar a nice compliment to Phair’s frank, I-see-right-though-your-bullshit delivery.
Her dressing-down is much more pointed on tracks like the sparse, airy "Soap Star Joe." Much later in the album, it’s by now become clear that Phair hasn’t been taking on the blatant forms of male chauvinism so much as the subtle expectation that women are still willing to play the damsel to a knight in shining armor.
He’s just a hero in a long line of heroes
Looking for something attractive to save
They say he rode in on the back of a pick-up
And he won’t leave town till you remember his name
Check out the thinning hair
Check out the aftershave
Check out America
You’re looking at it, babe
At the same time, Phair shows a very different side in songs that like everyone else, in the end she too is looking for love. Or, as she puts it in songs like "Fuck and Run," "the kind of guy who tries to win you over."
The contradictory experiences that Phair expresses on this album–that desire to find someone who loves you but respects your voice, to be accepted for who you are but also to not give a shit what others think–was the very thing that made Guyville such an honestly human piece of work.
In the 90s, a full generation into the backlash against the women’s movement, women identified with Phair’s emotional quandaries. After all, men had been allowed to express such contradictions in their music, but to hear a woman go through the same was something different for the "slacker generation."
"What Phair and the rest of the world didn’t expect," wrote the LA Times’ Ann Powers in a recent piece, "was just how many women would hear ‘Guyville’ and think, ‘Hey, I live in a man’s world too, and that’s a problem.’ In situations where equality is assumed but men still dominate, women occupy a strange space between the center and the margins. They can express opinions, but they’re not dictating the terms of the conversation."
Phair wasn’t the only strong woman artist to force her way into the mainstream in the 90s. From Alanis Morisette to Lauryn Hill, strong women seemed to be gaining a large hearing. The Lillith Fair, the first completely woman-powered music festival, proved that the girls could get bodies shaking just as well as the boys. It was a perfect musical backdrop for a new generation of young women seeking to pick up where the movement had left off.
These artists clearly struck a nerve. Guyville would eventually go gold and be counted among Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums. Several other outlets have ranked it as an important and iconic record, and its lo-fi sound and brutal honesty was a schematic for countless indie acts in years to come.
Phair, however, has been unable to recreate the success or emotional connection of Guyville. Her most recent big hit a few years back, "Why Can’t I Breathe," though thoroughly listenable and enjoyable, was like a night to Guyville’s day, completely lacking the inner turmoil that allowed the album to speak to a generation of young women. "Phair found a way to live with her own psychic disparities," says Powers, "which is what women do when they want to get on with life."
Phair has indeed evolved, both musically and personally. In a recent retrospective on NPR she admitted that the anger she once felt isn’t there anymore: "my heart goes out to the person I was."
That doesn’t mean, however, that the kind of anger on Guyville isn’t still desperately needed. Today, as the backlash against women continues, the same strong female artists that abounded in the mainstream of the 90s increasingly find themselves sidelined in favor of a million Britneys, Christinas and Beyonces. A message is being sent that in order to "make it" in music, women need to aspire to the frail and sexualized nightingale.
While it’s on some level tragic that Exile in Guyville is still relevant today, it’s also invaluable to have it back in print to inspire a new generation of women fight for their voice too.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and socialist activist living in Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to SleptOn.com, Dissident Voice, and Znet. His article on censorship in hip-hop is included in the recently published "At Issue: Should Music Lyrics Be Censored for Violence and Exploitation?" from Greenhaven Press. His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.