Liz Phair in 1998. (Photo: Paul Natkin / Getty Images)
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Between the Grooves of Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville’

Thirty Years of ‘Guyville’: Liz Phair and Life in Gen-Exile

Liz Phair’s ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’ Turns 25

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Liz Phair’s indie rock landmark Exile in Guyville is truly sui generis, a one-of-a-kind moment in history where everything aligned at just the right time and place.

4. “Dance of the Seven Veils”

“I only ask because I’m a real cunt in Spring / You can rent me by the hour.”

And then there was “Dance of the Seven Veils”, the gobsmacking fourth track on Exile in Guyville, and our first taste of Liz Phair’s unparalleled ability to be haughty, naughty, playful, and pernicious all in the same breath. It is also serves as our introduction to Phair’s more abstract tendencies, stringing together erotic and vaguely menacing imagery in deceptive lullaby rhyme. It’s an apt successor to the pseudo-sexual-spiritual interlude “Glory”, but “Veils” seemingly forgets all the gentility of its predecessor; here, rather, Phair is at her wryly seductive best, disingenuously self-flagellating as she voices her demands and desires so her male subject needn’t do the dirty work (and is perhaps is robbed of his own sure to be underwhelming response).

That Phair marries a relatively straightforward plea for her rocker lover to quit being such a bastard (“Johnny my love / Get out of the business / It makes me wanna rough you up so badly”) with overt references to the Salome / John the Baptist beheading myth / Biblical passage / whatever veracious weight you prescribe it (“I have got a bright and shiny platter / And I am gonna get your heavy head”) is testament to the cunning complexities of Phair’s composer mind. Phair cherry-picks her allusions here, making substantial use of sparse ingredients, and sets a peculiar — but purposeful — tone by invoking a provocative cultural signpost and pairing it with what would otherwise be a pedestrian tale of romantic frustration.

This Johnny character (who recurs not only later on the record in the even more beguiling abuse and abandonment romp “Johnny Sunshine”, but also on future albums, including the opening track of Phair’s 2005 soft-rock tapestry Somebody’s Miracle, though there he’s addressed as a more stately “John”) frustrates her to the point of fantasizing about wrapping him in plastic and “pumping [him] full of lead”. And yet Phair’s poetic dreams of annihilating him betray a paradoxical desire to keep him, what with her expressed urgent need to “get a preacher” who can “skip the ‘until death’ part”. Her aggression is, in its way, a form of submission.

Likewise, Phair’s struggle to both obliterate and reclaim Johnny is mirrored in her brilliant if blush-inducing, use of the word “cunt” at the heart of the track’s chorus. One of the English language’s most confounding terms, with its murky etymologies and particularly harsh phonetics, it has been both celebrated and reviled by feminists, scholars, and artists. Phair surely understands — and exploits — that ongoing tension, branding herself a “cunt” as a means of exonerating herself for the dog-in-heat visual she conjures while also verbalizing how Johnny may very well regard her but would never utter aloud because he — like the other Guys in the ‘Ville — mistakes shying away from taboo as a display of sensitivity rather than an act of ambivalence Phair sees through.

Setting the word “cunt” to music, embedding it into a sonic narrative as she does, is also something Phair knows, quite rightly, will alter how the listener hears and digests the word: it is uttered not in a moment of misogyny or anger, but with a soft, churchly reverence. Appropriately, “Veils” is awash in electric guitars that have an almost aquatic — baptismal? — effect, heard also in subsequent tracks “Explain It to Me” and “Flower”, where passivity and aggression collide (albeit for contextually diametrical reasons). Later, when she professes to know “all about the ugly Pilgrim thing” and extends the reference by punning that “entertainers bring May flowers”, Phair is, in essence, shrugging off those very puritanical notions of sexuality’s ugliness, emphasized by her (however incidental) beautification of term so often deemed repugnant.

That’s a lot of heavy lifting for one small song.

5. “Never Said”

Liz Phair once said that she composed Exile in Guyville not for fame or for the masses but rather “made the whole album for a couple of people to see and know me.” This is the kind of difficult and complicated confession that makes Guvyille so powerful and, ultimately, so effectively subversive. Phair was aiming not high, but pointedly, wishing to prove herself capable and courageous to select naysayers in the Chicago indie scene. It’s only fitting then that “Never Said”, the lead single from Guyville and arguably its most “radio friendly” track, the one ostensibly chosen to pique listener interest and introduce Phair to the world, would be a song where she repeatedly, defensively, and sometimes unconvincingly swears that she “never said nothing”. In her first bid to be heard, to communicate something of herself and her musical message, she promised that she hadn’t “utter[ed] a sound”.

“Never Said” offers familiar narrative elements: a supposed-to-be-secret tryst, the juvenile practice of takesiesbacksies, the spreading and denial of rumors, and the aching frustration of being stuck somewhere between the truth and someone else’s manipulation of it. Musically, it’s one of the album’s highlights, and like any good single from just about any good record, it easily and successfully stands on its own merits. But for all of the catchiness of its single-line chorus, its era-appropriate layering of grungy and wailing guitars, its shimmery drum beats and modest tempo shifts, “Never Said” is startling in its undoing of the four previous tracks’ character developments. In one fell swoop, that quiet control Phair’s persona has taken (so far) over her album-long circumstance all but disintegrates as she performs this backpedaling act, suddenly cornered in a damned-if-she-do-or-don’t predicament, the sovereignty she’s claimed for herself so abruptly undermined.

She’s powerless against these anonymous gossips (“Don’t know where you heard it / Don’t know who’s spreading it around”) that have so persuasively turned a lover against her. What’s worse, the perceived accusations hurled at her (Phair cleverly sings only in response and never dignifies the insinuations by verbalizing them) allow him to call Phair’s every move, past and present, into question (“Don’t look at me sideways / Don’t even look me straight on / And don’t look at my hands in my pockets baby / I ain’t done anything wrong”). Of course, her attempts to clear her name, as convention goes, only threaten to solidify her guilt. Phair’s insistent, obsessive need to remain in this fight, as opposed to walking away or ignoring the chatter, may well betray insecurity that the tracks preceding “Never Said” seemed to suggest she’d moved past. Or perhaps it suggests a desire for a kind of justice, to hold her accuser’s feet to flame and make him accountable for the callow position he’s taken and put her in, escaping his own culpability by simply refusing to look her in the eye or name names. Or maybe, it’s all of the above. For a song so sparse and devoid of details, it imposes a wide conceptual valley.

Finally, let’s consider the curious video clip for “Never Said”. Shot on a sunny day at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory in 1993, we see images of Phair waist-deep in shallow water, goofily pretending to drown, cautiously traipsing about a greenhouse as though it were a jungle, and dancing around with her guitar, her huge smile and twinkling blue eyes warm and inviting in a way that is at odds with the song’s lyrical content. Phair appears to be having the time of her life, and there are even animated photo booth strips of her grinning and posing that appear intermittently in the corners of the frame. These carefree, outdoor scenes are intercut with shots of two hipster boys in a dark room giggling and whispering to one another like schoolgirls, giddily, secretly bopping along to something on the radio. Phair may not have “let the cat out”, but that visual says it all.

6. and 7. “Soap Star Joe” / “Explain It to Me”

The two couldn’t sound more dissimilar — in fact, nothing else on Guyville sounds even remotely like “Joe”—and yet when their sequencing is taken into account (not unlike my previous meditation on “Help Me Mary” and “Glory”) alongside their shrewd parallels and contrasts, it further spotlights how it is the accumulation of Guyville’s subtleties that ultimately round it up to in-your-face heights. Not the deadpan assertion that Phair “want[s] to fuck you til your dick is blue” (but we’ll get to that eventually, never fear).

“Soap Star Joe” begins like a bedtime story, Phair, in the same husky, mock-macho affect employed on “6’1””, telling us of a “hero in a long line of heroes, looking for something attractive to save”. The verses are punctuated with various “they say” disclaimers, which either warn us that the yarn she’s spinning is hyperbolic and untrue, born of judgment and hearsay, or in fact so typical and true that she’s boasting her expert ability to paint this portrait with her eyes closed. “Joe” wears tight blue jeans and too much aftershave, has thinning hair, apparently waves his dick around like he was “sprung from the skull of Athena” then “rode in on the back of a pickup…and won’t leave town til you remember his name”. Phair’s vocal performance on “Joe” betrays an ambivalence that suggests she’s either singing about no one in Guyville or just about everyone in town.

By the time the song ends, the bedtime story has morphed into something more like an obituary, a sad rendering of a man desperate to stand out, someone who thinks himself “famous but no one can prove it” and “looking for some lonely billboard to grace”. What Phair is dissecting here, ultimately, is our very American obsession with stardom, but rather than obsessively work his denim-ed ass to the bone trying to make it happen (as celebrity-craving women so often must), he’s lazily waiting to be discovered, afflicted with a laughable, debilitating case of high self-esteem and inflated expectation. The imagery Phair assembles in “Soap Star Joe” is at times silly and confused because “Joe” is kind of silly and confused: he expects adoration and attention and can’t understand why it hasn’t found him yet. As the guitars screech and shuffle, and the drums rattle like garbage pale lids crashing down a deserted alley, Phair coolly—tauntingly, in a way—instructs “Joe” to examine his surroundings, informs him that if he’s hoping to “check out America”, well he’s already “looking at it, Babe”.

It’s also worth noting that “Joe” is the first time on Guyville where Phair narrates from a third person perspective, the lyrics devoid of “I” or “me”. She’s observing closely and educating both her subject and her listener, the song playing as a cautionary tale, a helpful audio-visual aid to help us identify—and then avoid, pity, whatever we’re most inclined to do—a Guy like “Joe”. And yet the song also achieves its sense of empowerment—for Phair, not poor “Joe”—without being smug or self-satisfying. There’s nothing exploitative or demeaning or dirty here, a classy move further extended by Phair on “Explain it to Me”.

It only takes the first moment or two of “Explain It to Me” to realize how drastically Phair reverses the tone set by “Joe”. Though she’s once again singing about a male subject, this time, she’s comforting instead of cutting. “Explain It to Me” functions almost as a “prequel” to “Soap Star Joe”, Phair maybe imagining the circumstances that made “Joe”—and perhaps the other Guys in the Ville—so morally and emotionally diffuse, so at once egotistical and numb to the effects of their actions on the women around them. I’ve been singing along to “Explain It to Me” for well over a decade now, and yet it was only during my marathon Guyville spins that I came to realize Phair was saying, “tell him to jump higher” as opposed to “tell them”. This gender specification is, of course, as crucial as it is fascinating. A song that many very strongly associate with such a strong female record—I remember clearly how effectively and necessarily it was used at the conclusion of the now-classic, female-driven indie Thirteen — is all about the “him” and not the “me”.

The story is simple: Phair narrates the tale of a boy who can’t quite measure up to the expectations set by an unnamed, pressurizing entity (parents? media? society?) The song has few lyrics, and the delivery of those lyrics is evocative of creepy schoolyard rhymes one doesn’t realize are unsettling until a much older age (“Give him your medicine / Fame injection”). When Phair laments that “you never could explain them to me”, we’re unsure if she’s now singing from the perspective of the boy who will grow to be a Guy or if she’s addressing those who made him into “Soap Star Joe”, wondering how they could damage him so recklessly and leave him—and her—to “piece it together”.

Regardless, Phair is articulating the complexities of this confusion and how the lack of closure or resolution continues to cycle and infect all those who dare seek an emotional attachment to someone like “Joe”. Like “Dance of the Seven Veils” before it, “Explain It to Me’s” sound profile can be best described as aquatic—the opening lyric: “Head underwater / Keeps getting wider” (the opening lyrics are “head underwater”), the implied cleansing is also extremely overwhelming. Our “Soap Star Joe” is overwhelmed, too, and while Phair may knowingly, rightly critique his future incarnation, she remains empathetic and sensitive enough to examine and explore the origins of his troubling lack of awareness. It’s only through that generosity — even though she knows she’s never going to receive it back — that she can avoid her own drowning.

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