28 years ago today, Liz Phair released her double album debut Exile in Guyville. More than just an icon of 90’s alternative rock, the resonance of Exile In Guyville on modern music is nothing short of startling.
Singer Songwriters seem to be merely playing off of the formula she crafted while a sea of source materials continues to develop on the internet. Deep diving Tumblr alone would be a year’s task, full of accounts from conflicted people in development who swore that Phair had accurately predicted their lives. A favourite for cool college girls to gauge reactions during one night stands to hearing a woman compare her libido to that of a dog’s.
“Fuck and Run?” Nah, that’s “Swipe and Run” baby. “I wanna be your blowjob queen?” That is tame by today’s standards people… When I was 14 and had already developed a major crush on 90’s/2000’s Liz Phair, this is all people would talk about when the subject of “Flower” was mentioned on the internet, a true indication of the banality of female perspectives in independent music.
Further, the idea of combining irony, sexuality, and feminism seemed like the description for a night school class that not many people would have taken in 1993. There was Madonna, undeniably the lynchpin of sexual iconography through book, film, and song, none of which utilized even a shred of irony. There was Thelma and Louise which was directed by Ridley Scott and utilized the big emotions of New Hollywood with a post-Joel Silver exterior.. a massive moment for female stories in Hollywood I guess? Again, not a wink of irony.
…and then there was Liz, who came off like she could have been on freaking Seinfeld. It’s the one where Jerry doesn’t get answers on where his new girlfriend stands on their sexual escapades. Phair, then 26 has total ownership in Guyville and you have no say over the outcome... you don’t deserve one, it’s time to give someone else the torch. In 1993 she was considered aggressive; in 2021 as the term “slut shaming” successfully enters our lexicon, we now know that she was far ahead of her time.
Phair noticed that men had been talking about sex explicitly in song as far back as ’71, an approach she apparently enjoyed while “women in music” were relegated to emotional corners. Uncovering an Exile on Main Street cassette, Phair became obsessed with The Stones. She used their hedonistic masterpiece as a basis for her own, arranging the track list with the intention to portray the woman responding to Jagger/Richards for each respective song. It was a loose concept, but profound.
There is yet layer angle to Guyville which renders it one of the most important works of the 90’s. Liz Phair did not have a band, let alone a deal. She was not a musician, she was a visual artist. The Girly-Sound Demo tapes which formed the genesis for Guyville were written using a Fender Duo electric guitar, she did not have an amp. The Girly-Sound tapes were originally recorded for her close friends, they spread all the way to New York. Matador Records had never signed an artist after the first meeting, they made an exception.
Phair and producer Brad Wood, the man who by every measure made Phair’s vision reality, both believed in the project unconditionally. Phair sublet an apartment near the studio while Wood balanced his time producing the record as a janitor. Virtually everything your hear on Guyville is played by them.
Fueled by a musical landscape that was still interested in authenticity and guitars, Guyville took off. In one fail swoop Phair entered a male dominated indie scene as a true original; she was awkward, witty, liberal, bright, but subtle. She flipped the entire movement on its head. Phair went from only performing a handful of times to the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. She was on MTV’s 120 Minutes constantly.
So today at SMACK Media we celebrate a work of true 90’s rock glory, a marvel in presentation and subject that is unabashed, funny, and above all timeless.
So if anyone ever asks you who is Liz Phair and what did she do for indie music, here’s one for you:
Front to Back it Today.
If you just listened to “Fuck and Run” for the first time, you’d likely hear it as a direct response to hookup culture and the dating apps that have engendered its ubiquity. But Liz Phair was feeling the sting of being ghosted long before we had the technology to facilitate the process. “Fuck and Run” explores the “Groundhog Day” experience of settling for philandering when you’re actually craving a meaningful connection, and the corrosive toll this pursuit gradually takes on one’s self-esteem. She does this with her trademark self-deprecatory wit, mixing wry observations with earnest yearning for “letters and sodas”. Its resurgent popularity is yet another testament to Phair’s enduring foresight; she knew things that we didn’t - even when she was twelve!
I'm a sucker for a good biblical allusion. Why does Liz threaten to decapitate her lover like John the Baptist on "Dance of the Seven Veils" I suppose we'd have to compare the 90s alt rock scene to the New Testament. John wasn't an apostle, but he did run in the same circles as our man Jesus. Johnny got big for the boots one day and called out King Herod for unlawfully marrying his second wife, paying the price for his pride by getting his head lopped off.
Liz's partner is clearly some grunge rock wannabe. He's hanging out in the same circles as the big boys-- but his ego is the size of Jupiter. It's causing him to treat Liz like shit. She gives him an ultimatum, ditch the scene that he's degrading himself and her to fit in, or meet the same fate as J.C's baptist (metaphorically, I would hope). This layered criticism of rock culture machismo is a perfect exhibit of Phair's clever songwriting; every time I hear the shimmering reverb of "Seven Veils," I'm hypnotized.
Liz Phair could make fireworks out of something as mundane as a road trip fight. In a world of cryptic lyrics and messages, it does not get more straightforward than “Divorce Song.” We don’t have to sit here and try to figure the shit out; she’s actually talking about how she stole your lighter and lost the map and now YOU feel like the dick.
The genius of “Divorce Song” is how it plays more as diary entry than song.. and yet the thing fucking slaps. It’s clearly written by someone who doesn’t adhere to traditional song structure (So wait, is there no chorus? Or did we just listen to nothing but choruses…), which makes the crescendo all the more rewarding. Along with “Never Said” and “Fuck and Run,” you will be humming, whistling, and singing these songs for the rest of your life.
Scores have already been written about this, though it is essential to understanding the thesis of the album.
In Phair’s own words, “How do you learn to make an album? Learn from the best.” So I asked somebody! I asked a man—a man who was a Guyville-y kind of man—“What was the best record the Rolling Stones ever made?” Which is a funny question, right? Because I ought to know, but I didn’t. And they immediately threw back, “Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘best.’ ” So, in exasperation, with no deeper purpose, I said, “Well, which one sold the most?” And I guess he came up with Exile on Main Street…”
The album was mastered in a sequence that mimics the 5-4 punch of both disc, with Phair taking on the perspective of the woman being exploited by Jagger/Richards.
For example, like “Tumblin’ Dice,” “Never Said occupies the end of Side A Record 1 and symbolizes a moment of pure joy. Both songs tackle the idea of accountability in sexual relationships, whereas Mick Jagger plays the gambling cowboy in a French riviera, Phair is spoofing the lack of ownership and responsibility in the Chicago indie rock scene.
Allusions to the stones go further than this, with Phair implementing a harmonica jam on “Divorce Song” and interpolating “Emotional Rescue” during live performances.
Jagger knew about it as well:
“We go back to meet [Jagger] and I swear to God, John must have said something like, this is the woman that did the Exile in Guyville thing, and Mick gave me this look as if to be like, ‘Yeah, all right, I’ll let you off the hook this time for completely making a name for yourself off our name, but don’t think I don’t know.’ It was very clear they live in some second dimension where little tiny people like me don’t exist and as far as he understood it he was going to forgive me because I was so charming for using their name to further my own. I wasn’t mad. He’s Mick!”
On the titular and figurative land of Guyville:
They felt to me like a mafia of music lovers, who were supposedly representing 'alternative,' but at the same time I found them to be sort of oppressive...you couldn't like certain bands if they were too pop. And if you didn't know which band had split up to reform the band that you were discussing, then you didn't have an opinion. You couldn't even throw out an opinion, because you just didn't have the background.
On sexual confidence:
I'll just get really honest with you right now, I was pretty good in bed at that point from the point of view of what the guys wanted, but pretty bad in terms of my own enjoyment. And yes, that made me angry. But it was my own fault in some sense.
On the Girly-Sound tapes
If you’re talking about the “Girly-Sound.” I can’t listen to the way I’m singing. I do this thing with my voice, it’s like [lets out a screeching sound]. It’s like a nails on a chalkboard. I just want to reach through the laptop and punch myself in the face.
"I don't really get what happened with Guyville. It was so normal, from my side of things. It was nothing remarkable, other than the fact that I'd completed a big project, but I'd done that before... Being emotionally forthright was the most radical thing I did. And that was taken to mean something bigger in terms of women's roles in society and women's roles in music... I just wanted people who thought I was not worth talking to, to listen to me."
“...for at least two decades, bohemian women of a certain age have displayed this much desire, independence, bitchiness, self-doubt, and general weirdness--while continuing to pin down the unmanly emotional apercus that make "Dance of the Seven Veils" and "Divorce Song" so gender-specific. That weird, unnamable mix of shame, power, sex, and boredom—she turned that all into art. The universe suddenly seemed also much less lonely.”
“In a year when men preened like objects and women claimed the authority to make their experiences rock’s main subject, Phair was unrivaled...”
She had kind of an arrogance that a friend of mine attributed to her going to Oberlin, but she was a pretty good drinking buddy, and offset any snottiness with a funny ability to talk shit, and exuded excitement about creativity.
Her earliest shows—solo in tiny rooms, sometimes without even a stage—intriguingly displayed the bones of the songs. But those charming moments when Phair strained to make a chord change—she’s a tiny person, often dwarfed by her guitar—didn’t work in bigger venues. The goodwill from fans she elicited was immense, but audiences tended to leave somewhat unfulfilled. I saw her many times early on, and then occasionally over the years, and, while the shows were not unenjoyable, I don’t think I ever saw one in which a disinterested viewer would come away thinking she was an important rock artist.
Phair writes sturdy riffs that render her rudimentary guitar technique beside the point – her largely midtempo material cuts through the surf like a shark fin.
In the midst of Guyville mania, the Chicago rock scene was having a moment. Smashing Pumpkins were becoming something of a poster child with Urge Overkill developing a strong local following. Guyville came out of the legendary Wicker Park indie scene, a pre-gentrified crossing and Gen X hub with a high concentration at the Rainbo, a club located at its dead center. Conveniently, Brad Wood’s studio was also located in the middle of Wicker Park and Phair quickly became a fixture of a setting that included Jeff Tweedy, Tortoise, and John Cusack.
She was ideal fodder for culture critics and music journalists who were struggling to understand the highly varied music coming out of Chicago and were thirsty for another Seattle. To them, she was a true original with a good following and her subject matter was sophisticated and limitless. Back then The Chicago Reader was a local institution and moved mass units in cafes and stores. On the front page of section three was Hitsville, the column of Bill Wyman, fairly idle local fixture who would go onto write for The New Yorker.
On January 7, 1994, recapping the year in music locally used Guyville as an opportunity to attack Wicker Park’s lack of unity and cohesion, while at the same time promoting Phair and Urge’s records as the best of the year.
"The line on Chicago's 1993 contributions to the national pop firmament -- Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill -- is that they've in effect agreed to disagree on musical approaches, making for a fractured 'scene' with little cohesion.
This did not sit well with Steve Albini. Hailing from Chicago and living there for nearly all of his life, the King of Salty is nothing short of an indie rock legend, producing Surfer Rosa, Rid of Me, and In-fucking-Utero. He posted his own public letter on January 27, titled Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music Press Stooge. Biting, delirious, and less a defense of the actual acts than an attack on the media cycles shallow capitalization of indie rock acts and their total lack of understanding of its difficulties. He even says he sees nothing of value in either of the three acts, comparing the Pumpkins to REO Speedwagon.. It is nothing short of iconic.
"[P]ut it away for 10 years. See if you don't feel like an idiot when you reread it."
If I read your heavily parenthetical English correctly, you are making the case that Liz Phair, Urge Overkill and the Smashing Pumpkins are somehow unique in rock music because they are brazenly trying to sell records. Genius.
You only think they are noteworthy now because some paid publicist has told you they are, and you, fulfilling your obligation as part of the publicity engine that drives the music industry, spurt about them on cue.
"I'll just get really honest with you right now," she says. "I was pretty good in bed at that point from the point of view of what the guys wanted, but pretty bad in terms of my own enjoyment. And yes, that made me angry. But it was my own fault in some sense.