It feels like we’re living through the ‘90s all over again right now. Everywhere you look, reboots of shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, slip dresses and Dr. Martens in Urban Outfitters, and reunions of bands like the Breeders and Smashing Pumpkins dot the current pop culture landscape. This is not unusual; we’ve found ourselves in these throwback eras before (think the ‘70s obsession with the wholesome ‘50s, or the ‘90s homages to the swinging ‘60s). Pop culture is cyclical, and when faced with uncertainty and turbulence (which we have in abundance), recalling “simpler times” of decades past provides some sort of semblance of familiarity and comfort.
And so, in the midst of this ‘90s resurgence, Liz Phair’s explosive and divisive 18-song debut Exile in Guyville turns 25 years old. The album came at the right time and place: in the midst of the (mostly male) rise of indie rock and trailing on the riot grrrl movement. Nearly three years in the making, it emerged as a fully-formed articulate, confident, and cutting concept — a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tome Exile on Main St. — paired with unpolished and imperfect vocals and instrumentation. It was an enormous “fuck you,” as Phair once recalled in an oral history on its making, to “people say[ing] ‘you can’t do this, you aren’t good enough to do this, you don’t know what you are doing’” giving Phair “enough rage in me to say, ‘I have as much of a voice as anyone.’”
Guyville topped the Village Voice’s esteemed Pazz and Jop poll the year of its release and thrust Phair into the role of an artistic wunderkind, even though she never thought of herself as a one, much less as a serious musician. “I was just a neighborhood kid who wanted to show the boys I could do it, too,” she told Mojo in 1994. In the decades since its release, the album has served as both a boon and a ball and chain: a critically-lauded record most artists dream of making, but one all of her subsequent work would be unfairly measured against.
Marking its anniversary is a new, expanded box set and short U.S. tour that will revisit the series of demo tapes that informed the album’s sound and concept. Revisiting emblems of pop culture from years past, and celebrating their milestone anniversaries, often drips with rose-colored nostalgia. But Exile in Guyville’s anniversary is different. To revisit Exile in Guyville in 2018 is to reckon with something that is not nostalgic, but something that strangely still feels current and all too relevant.
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