By Joe Vallese
PopMatters, August 4, 2023
“Your record collection don’t exist / You don’t even know who Liz Phair is.” This playful admonishing of a much younger lover is, in many ways, the most telling moment on Liz Phair’s controversial eponymous 2003 album. The once reigning (blowjob) queen of the indie rock scene, Phair celebrated the tenth anniversary of her near-universally praised debut album Exile in Guyville by highlighting her hair and shortening her skirts, enlisting the services of production team The Matrix (responsible for the likes of Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi” and Hillary Duff’s “So Yesterday”), and, on the album’s cover art, wielding her guitar to strategically obscure her topless torso in lieu of actually playing it on the record. That Phair had made such an abrupt, transparent grab for mainstream success left diehard fans confused and heart-hurt, while the very music critics who had canonized Guyville as an inimitable masterpiece scratched their heads; that Phair was so unapologetic about her infectious but inconsequential “Why Can’t I?” became a summer radio hit (and later anthologized on Now That’s What I Call Music! 14, respectively) and relished the derisive debate it sparked surprised no one.
Phair’s songs and persona have always been brimming with rebellion, sometimes subtly, sometimes screamingly so. The more critics and fans tried to pick apart and figure out if Liz Phair was all some colossal joke orchestrated by a cunning feminist artist or simply a frustrated, recent divorcee who had spent the previous decade in dowdy clothes on the Lilith Fair realizing she’d best do something drastic to keep herself relevant, the more Phair fired back. She most notably penned a retelling of the fable Chicken Little in response to Meghan O’Rourke’s assertion in the New York Times that Phair had committed “career suicide”. Phair was once again eliciting shock and awe among listeners but for seemingly all the wrong reasons.
But hasn’t Phair been confessing her professional and personal dissatisfactions all along? Wasn’t Guyville initially so resonant because of how it articulated stark truths and confusions but promised no resolutions and often didn’t even identify or suggest a path toward one? Wasn’t its sense of introspective despondence—tempered with the occasional playful moment—its greatest charm? And its reception history only seemed to fulfill the album’s prophecies, its preoccupations with desperately wanting to break into and out of “the business”. Despite Guyville’s distinction of being one of the biggest-selling albums in the history of Matador Records, its numbers never quite translated to financial security for Phair, and she never knew the luxury of coasting on name or face recognition in her day-to-day, as she once hilariously analogized when asked about Madonna, she declared the pop icon “a speedboat, and the rest of us are just the Go-Gos on water skis”.
Guyville is dripping with this discontent and moody ambivalence: it’s widely known that Phair essentially fell into her musical career, writing and recording fuzzy, loosely structured demos on a four-track recorder—later referred to as the Girly Sound tapes—that became the basis for Guyville and much of the material on subsequent records. Phair suddenly found herself enmeshed in a game she hadn’t set out on playing in the first place, and as she composed Guyville (under the guidance of lo-fi virtuoso Brad Wood), she was also crafting a sharp exposé of the very world was she entering, of the male figures who were both championing and marginalizing her. No doubt Guyville was, at least in part, so warmly received because Phair was so ardently fetishized as the mythological “cool girlfriend”, the one who loves sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll and won’t hound you for commitment. There was something unintimidating, deceptively inviting about the way in which Phair skewered the male figures in her songs. The un-careful listener might miss the sarcasm, might misunderstand the hurts, resentments, and lamentations Phair so masterfully cloaks in each track’s minimalist narrative, alternating voices and roles, hoarse whispers and paper-thin falsettos, sometimes within the same song.
To be sure, Phair shoulders responsibility for her actions on Guvyille in ways that might invoke a misperception that she’s often exonerating the men who are either smothering or shunning her (it is never made quite clear just how she’s defining this “exile”—has she been stranded among these “guys” or pushed out by them?). What’s perhaps really being said, or “never said”, is that the lack of openness or responsiveness on the part of the men essentially incites Phair (or her female characters in song) to have the conversations seemingly by herself. Phair makes herself accountable for all the questioning and answering, bearing the brunt of this lesson learning for all involved. And in doing so, she creates a sneaky sense of dual comfort—a self-identifying empathy from the legions of women who saw and still see, themselves in Phair’s plights and a deceptive haven for the men who halfheartedly endeavor to be sensitive and culpable for their agency in these melodramas but don’t quite realize just how exposed they really are as the targets at which Phair aims.
And so, when Phair set out to reinvent herself a decade later, it also forced upon listeners the arduous task of questioning and reexamining Guyville (and its successors Whip Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg, both of which matched the raw integrity of her debut in places, but also bore markings of the accessibility and conventional structures Phair seemed to crave). Had it all been bullshit? Was this always who Liz Phair yearned to be, or worse, secretly was? Phair’s intellect had never been called into question, but now with such blatant calculation factored into it, what did this all suggest? Had we been duped? Had Phair simply gotten “lucky” in those early days? And what would become of Guyville’s hipster credibility? Would all those critics need to recant and amend their “of the ‘90s” and “all-time” lists? Would the cool-conscious have to toss Guyville in the trash or listen to the album on their iPods at lower volumes in public places? Would one know have to qualify, when filling out their Facebook or OkCupid profiles, “early Liz Phair” in the space allotted to declare your favorite musicians?
The result of this ensuing frenzy? Nothing much. The small successes of Liz Phair fizzled as most pop ventures do, and her next album, a lite-FM-VH1-fest ironically titled Somebody’s Miracle, failed to yield a hit single or garner any attention, positive or negative. Phair would quietly emerge shortly after to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Guyville, embarking on a small club tour in which she performed the entirety of the record from start to finish for the first time, her own tribute to the record and the fans who helped keep it spinning over two decades. And there were no hard feelings to be found: crowds flocked to the sold-out shows and sang along passionately to every track, which eased Phair’s notorious, ever-present stage fright. Naturally, Exile’s anniversary once again prompted countless articles, interviews, and retrospectives, more affirmations of its power and preservation. When Phair released a downloadable album in 2010 entitled Funstyle seemingly out of nowhere, that was essentially a stylistic hodgepodge of the work she had been doing scoring TV shows to pay the bills, spoken-word comic bits about the record label that had rejected the music, coupled with a few tracks of demo-ish quality that evoked the essence of her early work, few balked or bit.
So why, despite having not made a considerable musical dent for some time now, does Phair continually earn this “forgiveness”—forgiveness she’s not particularly asking for? Regardless of context or circumstance, Guyville is still just an amazing album. It is one of those rare, perfect start-to-finish entities; 18 tracks—a curious but effective mix of somber and salacious—set off in rapid fire, each possessing at least one slap-in-the-face lyrical moment you don’t quite recover from until you’re well into the next song. Guyville is truly sui generis, a one-of-a-kind moment in musical history where everything aligned at just the right place and time and, as a result, has forever become a document that can never be bested or replicated—not even by Phair herself.
In terms of literal voice, Phair has never proclaimed herself one of our more gifted songbirds. In fact, it is that deference to the limitations of her vocals, married with her idiosyncratically proficient guitar skills, that has always allowed Guyville to resonate so deeply with listeners. It is more than the ability to confidently sing along to Phair without feeling as though you’ve just murdered the tune; its accessibility affords us the opportunity to recite her lines as we would poetry: the prose is there to be admired, shared, and ultimately inhabited.
Phair may well concur with and appreciate this assessment. Or she might tell me to fuck off.
It is in the spirit Phair’s fluid reverence for Guyville that I approach this edition of Between the Grooves. Phair, in her very public bid to change the course of her career, pulled back the curtain on that mystifying space between the artist and her art, for better or worse, and she’s been doing so ever since. She vacillates between plainly telling us that she “doesn’t live for music” as many of her peers do, which frees her up to try other things (she’s also a visual artist, a book reviewer, actress, and writer, to telling the LA Times that she “is going to get [this next record] right” and has a “fantasy…this comes out on Matador”. These kinds of revelations and flip-flops may potentially drain some of the pleasure or reward out examining Guyville track-by-track over the course of a long series. But in my deep and unbridled respect for Guyville, as a longtime fan who has continued to check in on Phair with each project, I am committed to taking the plunge, mainly because it is only in the aftermath of Guyville that we—and perhaps Phair—are able to understand its grander implications truly.
These admissions, however contradictory, merely reaffirm that Phair’s openness, her ability to spotlight her flaws and either face them down or shrug them off, are ultimately what willed Guyville into existence. And perhaps Guyville continues to shine so brightly and will perpetually be considered such a fine, special album because every time Phair distances herself from it in some way, the more its singular brilliance is illuminated. The songs on Exile in Guyville are all of note, all worthy of reflection and thoughtful consideration because they are at once so deeply focused and so defiantly open-ended—precisely who Liz Phair was then, is today, and will continue to be tomorrow.
Liz Phair’s seminal Exile in Guyville opens with “6’1””, arguably the record’s hardest, grungiest early ‘90s rock moment. It is an act of sheer bravado on Phair’s part—the musical equivalent of a freshly incarcerated inmate slugging the largest, meanest mother in the shower stalls—as she encounters a former flame (“All the bridges blown away / Keep floating up”) and spends three fabulously caustic minutes assuring him that while she’s only gotten better with time (“I kept standing 6’1” / Instead of 5’2”), he’s visibly shrunken in stature (“I loved my life / And I hated you”). It’s an ultimate act of sizing up—and cutting down—set to music, one of many subtly humorous moments constructed by Phair’s perverse intellect (though, compared to the album’s subsequent tracks, it is by far one of the tamest).
Guided by Brad Wood’s assertive, quick drums and bouncing bass line and punctuated by Phair’s distorted guitar rattlings, this opener tricks listeners into thinking Guyville will very well keep up this righteous tone and brisk pace, as the album pulses forward, though, we’ll soon realize that this actually one of the few exhilarating, raucous blips on an LP that instead goes to and stays in some pretty melancholy places for most of its run.
The track’s placement is also important and telling with regard to the overarching narrative of Guyville in the sense that, while the rest of the album has Phair waffling back and forth between somberly faulting herself for her relationships’ many disintegrations and seeking to understand, and make understood, the wrongs committed against her, she aims at her “6’1”” subject with absolute clarity, grit, and certainty. “I bet”, she posits, “You fall in bed too easily / With the beautiful girls / Who are shyly brave”. Her authority seemingly comes from experience, and we can bet as listeners that she herself has been one of his “shyly brave” ladies, fallen into that very trap, which adds both a poignancy and a self-consciousness to the confrontation. That juxtaposition of “shy” and “brave” is careful and important, and as the record progresses, an appropriate characterization of Phair’s dichotomous introspection.
Though later tracks might suggest “6’1”” is simply Phair putting on a façade and that she’s spent all of her confidence upfront in this early energetic burst—even the toughness in her voice is reminiscent of a child furrowing her brow and sucking in her cheeks to sound bigger and badder than she is, stomping about to make herself heard—she more than sells the song’s nonchalant fury. We hear echoes of this gruffness throughout Guyville to be sure; it allows the listener to recall, when Phair is in the thick of the record’s more tender, defensive, or erratic places, that she’s capable of achieving this kind of self-satisfaction and some semblance of reprisal.
A staple of her live shows throughout her career, “6’1”” remains one of the definitive tunes in Liz Phair’s catalog. She’d revisit this direct thematic territory again most closely, and surprisingly, a decade later in “My Bionic Eyes”, from her eponymous pop record. It is another moment of appealing arrogance, where Phair struts her stuff before someone who’s smacked her down in the past and, whether bluff or boast, commands that he witness her rising above and walking away.
2. and 3. “Help Me Mary”/ “Glory”
In preparation for this Between the Grooves series, I held a number of conversations about Exile in Guyville with fellow listeners and writers. During one of these chats, friend, and essayist Suzanne Richardson noted—with affection—that the opening notes of “Help Me Mary”, Guyville’s second track, are curiously reminiscent of your standard early ’90s sitcom theme song. It was a comparison I’d never considered, but after a few recent spins, the observation feels oddly spot-on. There’s a boppy bounciness about the tune, a merry completeness to it that feels as though it is introducing and framing a familiar, digestible narrative. This is not to diminish the song’s power, mind you; on the contrary, it highlights Phair’s supreme ability to blend tones and moods, to have the music tell us one thing while the lyrics shrewdly convey another.
The story here is simple — hit up Google, and you’ll find dozens of variations on it, either courtesy Phair herself or the countless critics who have taken the opportunity to seize on what feels like one of the most literal, autobiographical moments on the album to angle their analyses (alongside later track “Divorce Song”, also often reduced to its easiest rhyme): Phair sings of having to endure a shitty roommate and his revolving door of too-cool Chicago rocker buds (a bit of research reveals them to be the Urge Overkill “guys”, and that they actually assisted in coining the album’s title) who intimidate to her to the point where she confesses a survivalist need to “practice all [her] moves” and “memorize their stupid rules”. It’s a universal roommates-from-hell tale, a twisted take on a Real World scenario: this is the true story of a girl who lives in a loft with a rude jerk and his gang of grody, grungy friends who “bully the stereo and drink, [and] leave suspicious things in the sink”.
“Mary” is, on the surface, the most juvenile-in-theme and perhaps accessible track on the record, but since this is a Liz Phair joint, what’s boiling beneath is always far more telling and complicated. For starters, it’s a serious leap from the previous track, “6’1””, where Phair’s confident aggression is on full display and in high gear. There’s a breeziness about that number, an emotional openness, its arms stretched wide without ever grazing a boundary. But mere seconds later, we’re seemingly in backslide, now envisioning our guiding voice as a paranoid prisoner in her own home (“I lock my door at night / I keep my mouth shut tight”).