For thirty years, Liz Phair’s debut album has inspired and influenced generations of young women to become the rock stars their brothers always idolized and they never saw represented.
Stream: ‘Exile in Guyville’ – Liz Phair
Growing up as a woman in our male dominated society has never been easy.
While we all agree that being a woman is hard, I personally never heard anyone describe the double-edged sword of womanhood in modern society so perfectly – or bluntly – than I did the first time I listened to Liz Phair’s ambitious and bold double LP debut, Exile in Guyville. And I don’t know if I ever will again. For that very reason, whenever anyone asks me what my favorite album is, Guyville is my answer. The impression it left on me is like that of a knife wound: deep and agonizing. It is something that haunts you for the rest of your life, reminding you how things change and stay the same. For 30 years now, the resentment, fear, and determination that weave their way through the record have influenced generations of young women in rock.
Exile in Guyville is Liz Phair’s song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., but from her perspective as a 25-year-old woman trying to make it in the Chicago indie scene of the ‘90s. By remaking herself into the girl Mick Jagger sings about, she wrote an album that retold The Stones’ story from her point of view.
Phair told Rolling Stone about that experience, “It is a love story, a hate story, a fuck story, but ultimately it is a story about understanding and forgiveness.” The relationships detailed throughout the record aren’t just romantic, but also reflect her complicated relationship with Chicago’s indie music scene, which she was a part of; forever feeling like an outsider desperately trying to make it in. This desperation fueled her defiance when writing and recording, and inspired much of her album’s lyrical content.
From the very beginning with “6’1″,” Phair channels a new persona full of bravado and laced with false confidence, mirroring the demeanor of the men she is surrounded by. This bravado brings with it an idea of what the rest of the album will deliver: promising more arguments, tension, and self assuredness to come. But by the next track, “Help Me Mary,” her mask of bravado starts to slip. Through her pleas to Mary to help her deal with citizens of Guyville, Phair shows her audience just how hidden she really feels in that male dominated scene.
“Dance of the Seven Veils” provides even more evidence for Phair to show how much of an underdog she is in Guyville/Chicago. This time, the Johnny she’s singing to and about is not a romantic lead but actually a roommate who does not believe in her, telling her she has bitten off more than she can chew and is not cut out for this scene. The beginning of the album is designed to welcome listeners into the scene, providing some specific examples of what type of guy lives in Guyville before Phair dives too deeply into her own issues.
While the album is centered in the experiences of women, the male gaze is never far behind.
Men are such a strong pillar of life in Guyville that in order to stay true to the environment she was writing, recording, and living in, it only makes sense for men to feature so prominently in the record. It serves as another reminder that society will always cater to men before ever considering women. Ever since childhood, Liz Phair had to learn how to navigate an impossible world that expects her to stay forever young yet old enough to be objectified, to be competent enough to live on her own but not too independent to never want a man.
“Canary” chronicles the loss of innocence all girls feel when coming of age. The song is full of the anger, resignation, and fear that all simmer below the surface of every girl once she’s thrust into a very adult role; a feeling that stays with her well into adulthood. “Canary” plays like an old memory that keeps resurfacing with its circus-esque piano melody and nostalgic-sounding distorted reverb.
“Fuck and Run” adds even more imagery of childhood sexualization with its chorus of “It’s fuck and run, fuck and run / Even when I was seventeen / Fuck and run, fuck and run / Even when I was twelve.” While “Fuck and Run” focuses more on how Phair approached sex as a young woman, the idea of feeling ashamed for not having a steady boyfriend is central to the song. The guilt and shame women feel for their sexual freedom is something that men rarely ever feel the need to be guilty about, more often than not, they are applauded for their sexuality.
Liz Phair lays out her complicated relationship with masculinity throughout the whole album. Sometimes she wants to show how differently she is treated just for being a woman, while other times she explains how she also adheres to societal rules in order to please men. On one hand, “Help Me Mary” allows Phair to put the powerlessness men attribute to her as a woman on display, and on the other hand, “Mesmerizing” is Phair’s way of showing her audience how powerless she can make herself feel around men. The last line of the song is “mesmerizing to you,” Phair doesn’t want to mesmerize anybody, she wants to mesmerize one guy in particular. Her worth and power depend on his desire for her. “Flower” takes this desire even further. Phair goes in detail about what exactly she thinks of her crush and what she wants to do to him.
One of the contributing factors to the wild success of Exile in Guyville and the sudden popularity it brought Liz Phair was due to her songwriting.
The lyrics for “Flower” could easily pass as a page from her childhood diary. The blunt descriptions she uses to convey the unchaste thoughts her crush brings to her mind take all the romance out of the poetry of her lyrics. Through this style of writing, which was uncommon at the time, especially not for a female artist, Phair invites us to take a peek at her internal monologue.
Not only were the blunt, confessional lyrics intriguing for listeners, but Phair’s deadpan line delivery when singing was also unheard of at the time, again especially for women. Singing in a deadpan voice gave a lackadaisical quality to the lyrics that provides a stark contrast with the taboo nature of the content. “Fuck and Run” for example, is about a woman waking up the morning after a one night stand. This was not normally the type of story songwriters would consider writing about, but Liz Phair wrote and sang about it in such a casual way that it placated the situation, effectively normalizing it and giving off the same feeling of someone talking to a close friend about their relationship issues. Her deadpan delivery is used in “Fuck and Run” to shield herself from the opinions of others, giving the illusion of nonchalance. “Shatter” combined the same intimately confessional lyrics and soft, deadpan vocal delivery as “Fuck and Run,” instead this time those two effects created a more vulnerable song, one that gives listeners insight into how Phair views herself.
By the time the end of the record and the end of her relationship come to a close, the bravado Phair was channeling in the beginning has faded away. The songs start to become more vulnerable, with increasingly more raw and intimate lyrics weaseling their way into the record; all the while, Phair’s lyrics become more and more confessional.
In “Gunshy,” she simply lays out her fears and insecurities about being a woman in society. There is no bravado or flashy musical flairs to accompany her as she sings, just a couple of guitars and her voice. By stripping it down so much, Liz Phair is able to expose the emotion of the song, detailing her feelings of loneliness now that her relationship is over and she is not sure how to move on.
Even though the record could be bleak at times, Exile in Guyville ends on a hopeful note with “Strange Loop.” The whole album has followed Liz Phair as she goes through several relationships, and it ends the same way all her previous relationships have ended: By breaking up. This breakup isn’t as volatile as some of the others were; it ends in the comfortable reconciliation of knowing that both parties are imperfect and ready to move on.
From the ashes of this burnt relationship, this finished album, Liz Phair rose to fame.
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© Nash Kato
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