Liz Phair On Demanding A Voice In 25 Years Of 'Guyville'

May 3, 2018
Originally published on May 4, 2018 2:21 pm

When Liz Phair's debut album, Exile in Guyville, broke onto the indie rock scene in 1993, it was at a time when the music industry was very into shock value.

"My way of doing that was to sort of take agency of my sexuality and just say, like, shocking things in this little girl voice to see if anyone would notice," says Phair.

People did notice. Her graphic, feminist lyrics rattled rock and roll, and her double LP became one of the most well-loved albums of its time.

Now, it's being reissued with a massive, 25th-anniversary box set that includes the remastered double album, never-before released demos known as the Girly-Sound tapes, and a short book that details the history of the album's creation.

When she wrote Exile in Guyville, Phair was a 20-something living in Chicago's Wicker Park, unemployed but making art, and crashing with her then-boyfriend in a grimy apartment.

That's when she found a tape that would change her life: The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St.

"I kind of pulled it out of this box of cassettes, and I said, 'Is this a good one? Is this the best one they ever did?'" Phair remembers. "And I think he [my boyfriend] said something sarcastic like, 'Yeah, why don't you do a double album?' as if it was the most ludicrous thing he could possibly suggest. And in that moment of this just like rock-solid determination, I was like, 'Okay, I will!'"

That angry determination drove her. She made a track-by-track response to one of the most oppressively masculine albums of all time, filling in the other side of the story.

"I'm kind of 'shipping' The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St.," Phair says with a laugh. "I'm kind of writing my stories in, I'm writing the women's stories in, or in certain songs I'm kind of agreeing with them."

Across genres, the early to mid-'90s was a time when women were asserting control. They were challenging misogyny and insisting their voices be heard. Phair was doing that in a way no one else was — in part, because she was demystifying the most powerful force in rock and roll: sex.

Lyrics like, "Every time I see your face / I get all wet between my legs," lacked the coy euphemisms and ambiguity of pop songs traditionally sung by women. She cast off flirtation, and instead embraced frank provocation.

"Popular music has always been a vehicle for talking openly about sex, but often that's happened in very exaggerated terms," says NPR' Music's pop critic Ann Powers, who wrote an essay about the album for the box set. "The brilliant thing Liz Phair did was to talk about sex in a normal tone, as if it were a part of her normal life."

Still, Guyville wasn't all lust and obscenity. Powers points out the more nuanced levels of conversation Phair was staging were often overlooked. Sure, she was talking about dating and screwing; but she was also talking about the insecurity, yearning and lonliness that so often mark a person's early-20s.

"When I hear the record, I hear the loneliness; I hear the uncertainty," Phair says. "It's bravado, but it's almost like that young person's bravado when you don't really have the chops, but you mean to get there, you know?" she laughs.

At the time, the rock scene — particularly the guys in the rock scene — didn't know how or if they should receive her.

"Phair was a bit of an outsider and she didn't conform to what a cool underground woman was supposed to be like," Powers says. "People used to say 'Oh, she looks like a cheerleader.' To that I say, who cares what she looks like? It's the music she makes that matters."

Phair started writing music before Guyville, under the name Girly-Sound, in 1991. She made three extensive bedroom recordings, which until now, were never commercially released, though they made the rounds among the underground taste-makers of Wicker Park. Looking back on them today, they fill out a picture of an artist who, despite her age, had a remarkable clarity of sound and perspective.

"What we learned from the Girly-Sound tapes is Liz Phair always had a really eclectic approach to her music," says Powers. "The '90s was a time when pop was being frowned upon by 'cool people' that Liz Phair hung out with, but she always wanted to explore the realm of pop."

Take for example the Girly-Sound song "Love Song." It's a six-minute wrecked confessional that starts out with typical Liz Phair snark: "This is another story about love / What a surprise." She goes on: "But I don't care if you don't wanna hear it."

In "Love Song" you can hear her developing as both a lyricist and musician — singing with that gruff sadness that comes into focus on her later work. It's strikingly similar in character to Guyville's "Shatter," one of the most devastating songs Phair ever wrote.

When Guyville came out a couple of years later, Phair wasn't a full-fledged pop star — the album barely scratched the bottom of the Billboard Top 200 charts — but she was gaining steam. She'd was signed to the hip indie label Matador, and Guyville became one of its biggest hits, selling around 500,000 copies. Phair went into rotation on MTV and made the cover of Rolling Stone. Over time, Guyville took on a life of its own — gaining a mythic status that would go on to define her career.

"The girl that made that album — it feels like a different person," Phair says today. "It feels like me, but not me."

That tension is at the heart of the vicious backlash Phair later faced. In 2003, she released her self-titled album featuring the Top 40 hit "Why Can't I." Her early fans accused her of selling out and the album received a rare 0.0 rating from the online music magazine Pitchfork.

But Powers argues the Girly-Sound tapes show that Phair always had a sense of pop, and they offer a look at how that sensibility developed over time.

"I always think it's really wrong when people say that after Exile in Guyville Liz Phair moved away from what she did best because she made records that were more connected to pop," Powers says. "This is what she always wanted to do — it was just about seizing the means of production and as those means became more accessible to her, she went for it."

Today, Guyville resonates in a new way. It was an album born of rage — a demand to be seen and heard — not unlike the conversations happening now with the #MeToo movement.

"I felt like 'Guyville' was back in force," says Phair. "I felt this instant connection to that feeling of, 'Hey! You will not silence me, and you will not shut me up.'"

While things are certainly better, the figurative "Guyville" of Phair's world exists in new forms today and, like Phair 25 years ago, women are still talking back.

"Women are finding their voices to say what their experience is and I think that's extremely parallel to what I was trying to do with that record," Phair says. "I was demanding a voice for myself."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Twenty-five years ago this week, Liz Phair released her debut album, "Exile In Guyville," and upended the indie rock scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOAP STAR JOE")

LIZ PHAIR: (Singing) He's a just a hero in a long line of heroes looking for something attractive to save.

CORNISH: It came at a time when rock was very into shock value.

PHAIR: My way of doing that was to take agency over my sexuality and just say, like, shocking things in this little girl voice to see if anyone would notice or get the irony.

CORNISH: Her lyrics were graphic, feminist, and they rattled the music industry. The double LP became one of the most divisive, well-loved albums of its time. Now "Exile In Guyville" is getting a re-release. The massive 25th anniversary box set includes remastered music and never-before-released tapes. NPR's Alyssa Edes has more.

ALYSSA EDES, BYLINE: Liz Phair was in her early 20s when she wrote this album. She was living in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood unemployed. And she says her personal life was a disaster.

PHAIR: I'd graduated from college. I'd moved out of my parents' house. But at the same time, I hadn't put on the proper jacket of adulthood.

EDES: She spent a lot of time hanging out at bars with dudes, getting people to buy her drinks and listening to live music. Then she found a cassette tape that would change her life...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "ROCKS OFF")

EDES: ...The Rolling Stones' "Exile On Main St." It was in the grimy apartment she was sharing with her then-boyfriend.

PHAIR: I kind of pulled it out of this box of cassettes, and I said, like, is this a good one? Is this, like, the best one they ever did? And I think he said something sarcastic like, yeah, why don't you do a double album, as if it was the most ludicrous thing he could possibly suggest. And in that moment - this just, like, rock-solid determination. And I was like, OK, I will.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKS OFF")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) He don't come around no more. Is he checking out for sure?

EDES: She took "Exile On Main St.," one of the most masculine albums of all time, and made a track-by-track response. Take the Stones' "Rocks Off" versus Phair's "6'1"."

PHAIR: In "Rocks Off," he bumps into someone that he used to date, and he's sort of doing the walk of shame back from where he's been all night. And he's sort of describing how in her eyes, she's looking at him with this resentment. And so for "6'1"," I pretended to be the girl that he bumped into.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "6'1"")

PHAIR: (Singing) I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are shyly brave. And you sell yourself as a man to save...

EDES: "Guyville" came out at a time when the music industry was beginning to change. Many female musicians were challenging misogyny and insisting their voices be heard. Phair was doing that in a way almost no one else was in part because she was demystifying the most powerful force in rock 'n' roll, sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLOWER")

PHAIR: (Singing) Every time I see your face, I get all wet between my legs.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Popular music has always been a vehicle for talking frankly and openly about sex, but often that's happened in very exaggerated terms, you know? The brilliant thing that Liz Phair did was to talk about sex in a normal tone.

EDES: That's Ann Powers, NPR music critic who wrote an essay about "Guyville" for the new box set.

POWERS: Phair was a bit of an outsider, and she didn't conform to what a cool, underground woman was supposed to be like. People used to say, oh, she looks like a cheerleader. To that I say, who cares what she looks like? It's the music she makes that matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIVORCE SONG")

PHAIR: (Singing) And when I asked for a separate room...

EDES: Powers says Phair was clapping back at the idea that she wasn't equal not unlike what's happening today.

POWERS: I think that's very similar to the conversations people are having right now in the light of the #MeToo movement. There's a lot of wiping away the assumptions about what women can do and saying, hey, this is what equality looks like on the ground. And that's what Liz Phair said, too, in her music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIVORCE SONG")

PHAIR: (Singing) I would have stayed in your bed for the rest of my life just to prove I was right that it's harder to be friends than lovers.

EDES: "Guyville" resonates now for Phair personally, too. She says it's the feeling of needing to tell someone, you will not silence me.

PHAIR: Women are finding their voices to say what their experience is, and I think that's extremely parallel to what I was trying to do with that record. I was demanding a voice for myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIZ PHAIR SONG, "NEVER SAID")

EDES: Phair says, don't underestimate the girl next door. Alyssa Edes NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER SAID")

PHAIR: (Singing) I never said nothing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.