‘Exile in Guyville’ at 25: Still, if not more, relevant


This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.

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.

Exile in Guyville is a coming of age album, one that grapples with what it’s like to be a modern 20-something American woman: supposedly liberated, but not much better off than her mother, facing an insurmountable amount of societal pressures to look, act, and think a certain way. Phair wrote the majority of the album in ‘90s suburban Chicago, which the band Urge Overkill had previously deemed “Guyville”: a wasteland of “alternative” bros who, for all their feigned enlightenment, made it more than clear that, even though women were, in theory, their equals, in practice, in they would never really be their equals.

What if, in the 25 years that have passed, Guyville didn’t change or even get better? What if it just moved and grew? Women face just as many threats as they did in the early-90s. Guyville still very much exists in 2018, only now it’s come to encompass other gentrified, creative communities, be it by geography (like Bushwick) or industry (like the studio film system), or even digitally (like Twitter) — pockets where women are oppressed in some way or another.

“There’s a million Guyvilles,” Phair told the Washington Post this April. “‘Guyville’ could be a catchphrase for any oblivious community that has no idea that they’re shoving people to the side. I don’t know where it isn’t.”

Listening to Exile in Guyville today, I constantly have to remind myself that this album is almost as old as I am. It is not lost on me that I’m the same age as Phair was when it was released. Its words feel like they easily could have been written by me, by a friend, by other young, female artists coming up today, like Angel Olsen, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, or Frankie Cosmos — all musical daughters (or maybe younger sisters) of Liz Phair. For me, and perhaps for many young women my age, Exile in Guyville is one of those albums that feels more fitting now than ever before.

Phair recently compared her album-making process to creating historical documents. “I’m doing these things to log on to history,” she told The Cut. “Like, ‘A woman lived in this time, and this is what it was like for her back then.’”

While Exile in Guyville does carry the weight of its time in some senses, its tie to a specific period lies mostly in the details: the paper map in “Divorce Song,” the stereo in “Help Me Mary,” the tight blue jeans styling of the titular “Soap Star Joe.” For the most part, Exile in Guyville seems to resist the trappings of history. Her words still sting, the taste of hurt and disgust and shame and anger in all of her words remain vivid, prescient, even. Art that both defines an era and transcends it is rare and worthy of discussion: What does that sort of status say about the art itself? More, perhaps, what does it say about our collective society?

In her 2014 book on Exile in Guyville for the 33 ⅓ series, critic Gina Arnold wrote: “Phair’s record brought out the uglier side of the indie rock scene, in the process highlighting the way that women artists, both there and elsewhere in the popular music world, are often undervalued as both listeners and consumers.”

Exile in Guyville pointed out that these problems existed then, but listening to the album now, I’m still hit with a stream of remembrances of offenses — some big, some small microaggressions that add up — that have come with being a woman in the music scene today.

I think about the conversation I once had with a male music writer who had just earlier asked me on a date. He ranted about why I was wrong to dislike a prolific male musician with a history of misogynistic behavior: “Most musicians are huge dicks,” he said. “Just put your gendered prejudices behind you.”

I think about the record store clerks who ask me if I’m looking for something “as a gift for my boyfriend.” The guy behind the counter at a used shop who rolled his eyes and told me to “just order a reissue at Urban to go with your Crosley” when I asked if they ever sell Sonic Youth.

I think about all the music dudes I meet at concerts, in record stores, and on dates, who always seem to test me, the ones who ask me what the rarest vinyl I own is, tell me that if I’ve never heard this or if I like X over Y, then I’m not serious, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. The ones who try to make me feel like I don’t belong.

I think about one of the most recent shitstorms of male @s I’ve brought upon myself on Twitter — the ones that happen every now and then when I casually denounce specific men or say simply that their art does not excuse their bad actions. Instantly, I recall the grown man telling me that a heavily researched piece I wrote wasn’t valid because I’m a woman, and that he saw my agenda as playing the victim card: “I get it. It’s the era of #MeToo and righting wrongs from 30 years ago. Getting justice for all those slighted for being female in a male world.”

“I was so disrespected,” Phair told Rolling Stone in 2010. “Being a woman in music back then, at least the level I was, was like being their bitch. Sit there, look pretty, bring us drinks and we’ll talk about what music is good and bad. And it was almost understood that women’s taste in music was inferior. […] I was so angry about being taken advantage of sexually, being overlooked intellectually.”

Did Phair know something as a 25-year-old then that those of us living out our mid-20s now still have yet to figure out? A way to rise above her situation, maybe? Did she think that calling it out then would maybe lead to a change for now? How many of us girls listen to her today and wish we could wrap our arms around her like a friend and say, “Oh, but Liz, things are going to get so much worse”?

They make rude remarks about me / They wonder just how wild I would be / As they egg me on and keep me mad / They play me like a pit bull in a basement, and for that / I lock my door at night / I keep my mouth shut tight / I practice all my moves / I memorize their stupid rules

It takes Phair barely over three minutes on Exile in Guyville before she rips into the types of men who have tried to keep her in her place in “Help Me Mary.” They’re the ones who overrun her home — in her case, Wicker Park’s indie scene — and trap her, reducing her to a mothering role. Their ridicule is just barely above that of a schoolyard “you can’t play with us” taunt, nagging her with “you can’t do this” and “you don’t belong here” to her face incessantly. Instead of biting back, she swallows her anger, internalizes it and uses it as a fuel to learn their game, to get so good at it that she ends up besting them in the end. But can she really best them in the end? No matter how good Liz Phair got, she is still, at the end of the day, a woman.

In a recent essay on the prominent gender biases present in music criticism for The Outline, critic Leah Finnegan argues that perspective when writing about art matters: “How does the journalist see the world, and how do they place art in it? If you’re paying attention, an article will reveal those biases. It will sometimes tell us more about the writer than what the writer is writing about.”

Early criticism of Exile in Guyville and profiles of Phair were primarily written by men who missed the point entirely. Rolling Stone’s initial review lumped it in with PJ Harvey’s not-really-all-that-similar Rid of Me, describing both as albums by angry women exacting a strange sort of revenge, exploring “the toxic consequences of intimacy with lacerating explicitness […] relationships don’t just end, they splatter. Yet listen closely, and you’ll hear these women laughing under their breath.” Meanwhile, Spin pushed their criticism further, calling Phair a “well-off Winnetka, Illinois brat” who wrote an album of “songs about all the boys she’s fucked and how soon they fucked her over.”

Attempting to follow an album that had set such a high standard would be difficult for anyone. Yet while many of Phair’s later records — Whip-Smart, whitechocolatespaceegg, and Liz Phair — were solid works, full of tender, piercing, tough, and smart songs about being a woman in this world, each faced subsequently fading reviews that placed more emphasis on her looks than her music — mostly written by male critics. Her career withered.

“Men can make middling, maudlin art and be celebrated, and women artists face harsher scrutiny while doing the same thing, and usually better,” Finnegan wrote in the same Outline piece. I can’t help but wonder how Phair’s career could have been altered if more women were writing about her back then. Women who understood what she was talking about, who didn’t reduce songs about complicated issues we face to maudlin drivel or the shallow venting of a girl who is simply angry.

But more distressing than the theme of how female artists continue to be mistreated is the theme that life as a young woman in America continues to be, more or less, the same. Maybe even worse.

Whatever happened to a boyfriend? / The kind of guy who tries to win you over. / Whatever happened to a boyfriend? / The kind of guy who makes love ‘cause he’s in it. / I want a boyfriend. / I want a boyfriend. / I want all that stupid old shit / Like letters and sodas / Letters and sodas

In 1968, Virginia Slims famously began marketing their cigarettes to women with a tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby!” The strides Gen X’s mothers had made for women’s liberation in the ‘60s and ‘70s had allowed women of the ‘90s to boldly own their sexuality as something casual, their wants and desires equal to a man’s. Except it wasn’t that simple, and on the song “Fuck and Run,” Phair laments the disposable turn that dating life had taken. Had we really come a long way? Hardly.

Twenty-five years later, on an unusually warm April night, a friend and I were explaining Tinder to two parental figures over dinner. This was not the first time we’ve had to break down the State Of Meeting Men in 2018 to people who are our elders, but the first time I was struck by how exhausting it is, how demoralizing, how my resigned, yet defensive, argument that this swiping and scheduling our way to hookups thing just is the way it is makes no sense.

“Guys don’t talk to us in real life,” I insisted. Sitting back in my chair, I dropped my fork on the plate in front of me as defeated punctuation. “The only way to meet a guy now is on an app, and they pretty much all just want to have sex and nothing else.” They looked at us incredulously.

Millennial women share a desire planted by Baby Boomers and driven home by Gen X: That we can be independent women who don’t need men in our lives. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when independence becomes tiring; times when you know that even though you can do it all by yourself, you don’t really want to. Millennials are 48 percent more likely to have sex before even going on a first date with someone, even though we’re 40 percent more likely than Boomers to think sex is better with an emotional connection. Virtually having access to sex at any time is making us feel increasingly more hollow.

Sitting across from a couple who had been together for nearly half a century, Phair’s “Fuck and Run” lyrics came to mind. We both find ourselves wanting what the women who came before us have and had: stability, a relationship, affection, love. That admission terrifies us, in a way. It makes us feel like we’re betraying our generation and the freedoms we’ve earned, when, really, we’re just allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, allowing ourselves to be human.

So 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

In “Never Said,” Phair’s powerlessness against pervasive gossip and doubts recalls the strains of #MeToo. While Phair centers the track around adamance that nothing happened and #MeToo is focused on the insistence that something happened, what they both share is the painful sense that being a woman and being a person believed to be telling the truth are, at times, mutually exclusive.

When faced with doubts, both Phair and women today are forced to aggressively defend themselves as they see their reputations ruined. Past actions are called into question, personality traits turned against us, and our repeated insistences — done to keep our names “clean as a whistle” — are seen as lies or exaggerations, at best, admissions of guilt, at worst.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that a frustrating number of people think women are making false #MeToo claims: 31 percent categorized false claims as a major problem; 45 percent called them a minor issue. Do we really still think that women lie more often than not?

Why does it seem that men are believed unequivocally, but when women tell the truth, they are wrong until proven right? Why do we have to work extra hard to fight suspicions? It’s a frustrating sticking point. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We’re not always seeking justice against aggressors, not always seeking revenge, as Phair may have been in “Never Said.” Sometimes, all we want is to be heard and accepted.

But for all its anger — and Exile in Guyville is an album full of a specific form of women’s rage — it still holds quiet moments of vulnerability. Its songs still depict evergreen, nuanced feelings so specific to this strange time period of delayed adult womanhood. The reflections on the city in which you live, the uncertain hope for a relationship with someone better than what you’re used to, the growing pains of doing and being what you want versus what is expected of you, and the encounters with the more realistic, perhaps sadder, side of elders you once considered heroic — all of those complicated situations live in the softer in-between moments of the album, from “Stratford-On-Guy” to “Shatter”, “Canary” and “Flower” to “Explain It To Me.”

It’s in these ebbs and flows that Exile in Guyville resonates. Guyville helped to usher in the transition between punks like Debbie and Viv and Siouxsie, who reached the bedrooms of young girls listening and made them feel like they weren’t so alone in their emotions and their anger, and alt-girls like Alanis and Fiona and Shirley, who built upon that rage, but let listeners know they, too, sometimes felt strange and misunderstood and were still struggling to figure everything out.

Listening to the album today can, on certain occasions, feel like listening to what the inside of your brain sounds like over the course of 24 hours, the rollercoaster of rushing thoughts and feelings that go through it. Angry. Excited. Sad. Hopeful. Complicated. So, maybe not much has changed in 25 years. Maybe being a 20-something girl still sucks in so many ways. But there’s a silver lining: At every step, we have this album in our ear, there to tell us that someone else, who is now older and wiser than we are at this moment, has been through all of this before and knows exactly how we feel.