“Twenty-five years ago, Liz Phair came up with an interesting concept for her debut album: She would record a song-by-song reply to the Rolling Stones’ classic 1972 double LP Exile on Main St. Eighteen songs later, she had the cheekily titled Exile in Guyville, a brash, candid and swaggering album that became a key addition to the alternative-rock canon.”
That quote came from a Rolling Stone article plugging the 2018 release of the 25th-anniversary Exile in Guyville box set that followed the 15th-anniversary re-release of Exile in Guyville in 2008, complete with bonus tracks and a DVD depicting the album’s creation. Prior to that release, Exile in Guyville had gone out of print and there were no digital versions available. Quite a fall for an album that Pitchfork rated the 5th best . . . check that . . . list revised four years later . . . 30th best album of the ’90s.
Allow me to put all that information in perspective:
- Like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone is and has always been a shill for the music industry. One should approach their material with caution and due skepticism.
- Exile in Guyville is not exactly a song-by-song reply to Exile on Main St. Liz Phair wrote some of the songs before the concept was born, so there was some after-the-concept jimmying involved. In the article quoted above (titled “Liz Phair Breaks Down ‘Exile in Guyville,’ Track by Track), she only mentions the corresponding Exile on Main St. songs twice. It’s more accurate to say that Exile on Main St. served as a project plan template that helped Liz focus her songwriting efforts and organize previously-written material; it also served as an occasional guide to production. Feel free to waste your time trying to connect this song to that one, but methinks the alleged connections are more distraction than elucidation. The only people who could have possibly given a shit about a “reply” to a 21-year old album were Baby Boomers who believe that all double albums released during their salad years automatically qualify as classics.
- What is truly relevant about the creation of Exile in Guyville is what Liz wrote in the introduction to her autobiographical collection of essays, Horror Stories:
It’s hard to tell the truth about ourselves. It opens us up to being judged and rejected. We’re afraid we will be defined by our worst decisions instead of our best. Our impulse is always to hide the evidence, blame someone else, put the things we feel guilty about or that were traumatizing behind us and act like everything is fine. But that robs us of the opportunity to really know and care about one another. It closes a door that could lead to someone else’s heart. Our flaws and our failures make us relatable, not unlovable.
I learned this when I released my debut album, Exile in Guyville, back in 1993. I wrote those songs during one of the hardest periods of my life. I had no money, and I was lonely, confused about the future and angry about the past. The lyrics reflected my reality in an unflinching, unapologetic, and sometimes explicit way that people deeply connected with. Fans came up to me at my concerts expressing gratitude and admiration for my bravery in telling the truth, because it made them feel a little less isolated and overwhelmed by their own difficulties. They heard themselves in the music, not me.
Phair, Liz (2106-02-06T22:28:15). Horror Stories (Kindle Locations 106-107). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It’s a pretty solid bet that most of those fans were young women. The songs on Exile in Guyville view life in the patriarchy through the eyes of a heterosexual young woman with a subversive streak who, in addition to experiencing the endless communication problems that afflict many intimate relationships, happens to find herself mixed up in the male-dominated indie scene in early ’90s Chicago (referred to as “Guyville” in a song by Urge Overkill), and by extension, the male-dominated music industry. Because all industries are male-dominated**, from tech to fashion to construction to porn, the experiences described and feelings expressed in Exile in Guyville are pretty much universal. You don’t have to be a rock star, a backup singer or even a groupie to understand where Liz Phair is coming from.
And you certainly don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the album. My sense is women appreciate the album because it’s validating: there isn’t much that Liz has to say that we all haven’t thought before (though she says it a lot better). The simple act of a woman giving voice to those thoughts in a public forum encouraged women to have more confidence in their perceptions of reality and talk openly about those perceptions. The album works for men because it’s an opportunity for enlightenment. This isn’t the stuff that a woman says to be nice in order to avoid placing a dent in your oversized ego—this is what a woman really thinks and feels while you’ve got your head up your ass thinking about what a helluva stud you are.
Gender and iconic rock stars aside, Exile in Guyville is an enjoyable album on many levels. First and foremost, Liz Phair was seriously on her songwriting game when she developed this material; the language is fresh and full of clever twists. Despite (or because of) the pain she was experiencing, there is a healthy amount of black humor in the lyrics to help lighten the mood. Liz’s guitar style is more strummer than picker; she sounds like a rocker who did a lot of acoustic solo gigs at small bars and coffee shops and tried to compensate for the absence of a full band by emphasizing rhythm and bottom-string bass. When that style is transferred to a full band environment, it creates some interesting contrasts and textures that give the music a down-to-earth quality. While her voice has limited range and relatively little belt-out power, she overcomes those limitations with wry deadpan and conversational phrasing. The production is excellent, largely because Liz and Brad Wood (who played several instruments on the album) were on the same page.
I will now break down each track on Exile in Guyville while restricting my references to The Rolling Stones and their shitty album to the bare minimum.
“6’1″”: The album opens with a snappy little rocker featuring assertive strumming from Liz and a marvelous bass counterpoint from Brad Wood. Liz delivers the song in a flat voice that wanders on and off-key, giving this tale of schadenfreude an appropriately sour tone. The story features Liz bumping into one of her exes on her way to work, a guy quite reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker in “Bar Italia” navigating his way through the effects of another all-nighter. Liz is not particularly happy to see him but does take a certain pleasure in his continuing decline:
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
But all the money in the world is not enough . . .
And I kept standing six-feet-one
Instead of five-feet-two
And I loved my life
And I hated you
I always laugh when I hear Liz deadpan, “And I hated you,” reveling in the guilty pleasure of cutting an asshole down to size.
“Help Me Mary”: This is the track with the most obvious connection to Exile on Main St, so let me clarify my stance on that album.
I loathe Exile on Main St. I think it was one of the worst things The Stones ever did. They recorded it at a mansion about fifteen minutes away from my current abode and I’m afraid to drive by the place out of fear I might catch whatever The Stones had when they made that pile of crap.
Exile on Main St. is a guys album. “The lyrics are pretty much rock cliché with occasional roads that lead nowhere and a few naughty words thrown in to titillate the mindless. ‘Moronic Party Album’ pretty much sums up Exile on Main St,” I wrote in my review. It’s the sound of supposedly mature men reverting back to adolescence under the influence of heroin (and whatever else was available) and recording their drug-fueled debauchery in the mansion’s basement. Listening to that album reminds me of all the creepy teenage guys who tried to force themselves on me at various parents-are-away parties: slurry, sloppy, slobby, stupid pricks who deserved the blue balls I gave them with my patented knee-to-nuts move.
“Help Me Mary” is the reply to “Rip This Joint,” a song that Liz described as “all about sort of the attitude of these rock guys that would just kind of roll into town, create trouble, sleep with other people’s girlfriends and leave a big mess behind.” Bingo! “Rip This Joint” is a paean to male musician entitlement, a celebration of the inalienable right of rock stars to trash hotel rooms, fuck ’em and leave ’em.
True story: I have a friend who used to work at one of the more exclusive hotels in Seattle. About ten or so years ago, this posh establishment had the pleasure of hosting a world-famous rock star in town on a one-night tour stop. This is a guy whose net worth exceeds what you or I will earn in a dozen lifetimes. During his thankfully brief stay, he not only inflicted serious damage to his suite but stole one of the paintings from the room! This is a guy who probably carries a monogrammed, diamond-studded paddle to the auctions at Christie’s! Why on earth would he steal an obvious reproduction? Because he could.
The experience Liz describes only involves male musicians from the Chicago indie scene, but give a guy a guitar and a loyal following of twenty or more and he thinks he’s Mick Fucking Jagger:
Help me, Mary, please
I’ve lost my home to thieves
They bully the stereo and drink
They leave suspicious stains in the sink
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
I make myself their friend
I’ll show them just how far I can bend
When faced with toxic, drunken masculinity, Liz adopts an attitude of “safety first,” a wise but ultimately frustrating decision. When she sings the second go-round of that exceptionally vivid line, “They play me like a pit bull in a basement,” you hear the depth of that frustration in the way she spits out the word “basement.” Liz closes the song making two requests of Mother Mary. One is the old turn-the-other-cheek stand-by (“Temper my hatred with peace”); the second is sweet revenge (“Weave my disgust into fame/And watch how fast they run to the flame”). As things turned out, the success of Exile in Guyville earned a hostile response from indie purists, so I guess the virgin wasn’t of much help either way.
Compared to The Stones’ boisterous, slipshod performance on “Rip This Joint,” I’ll take the assertive drive of “Help Me Mary” anytime. Liz is seriously hot on dual rhythm guitar, propelling the song forward with clean, syncopated chords that meld strong attack with delightfully bright overtones. I also love her vocal overlays over the “egg me on” line (and wish there had been more of them).
“Glory”: Liz isn’t quite done with her analysis of the behavior of egomaniacal rockers. In “Glory” she describes a local player whose schtick involves a combination of cold intimidation and evocative displays of a very large tongue. The guy may have absconded the tongue idea from The Stones or Gene Simmons; then again, he might just be advertising his prowess in the art of cunnilingus—Liz doesn’t really say. What’s most interesting here is the music, featuring Liz on acoustic guitar and a low-tone organ remarkably free of reediness. This time she adds vocal overlays formed by echoing “you are” to punctuate the line “You are shining some glory,” a tongue-in-cheek line par excellence. After two solid rockers, it’s nice to hear well-executed haunting acoustic music.
“Dance of the Seven Veils”: Regarding this song, Liz told Rolling Stone, “He (Johnny) was the roommate who was basically – and rightfully so – convinced that I had bitten off more than I could chew and this was going to be a disaster.” Taking her word for it, the song is a rather gruesome revenge fantasy where Johnny’s going to buy it via either a) a gangland-style hit or b.) decapitation and his head on a platter a la Salome. Other than the memorable line, “I ask because I’m a real cunt in the spring,” the song doesn’t work for me.
“Never Said”: I can understand why “Never Said” turned out to be the album’s hit, given its formulaic adherence to repeating the hook ad infinitum, but I consider it one of the least interesting songs on the album. “[This was] just kind of like about the music scene and how catty it was. People were always getting upset about something that someone had said about their band or whatever the latest gossip was,” said Liz to Rolling Stone. I suppose the experience is transferable to other catty environments (like high school), but I never played those games and have a hard time relating to the lyrics. There isn’t anything wrong with the performances; the song just doesn’t grab me. I’m embedding the video because I like Liz’s smile and the way she wields a guitar.
“Soap Star Joe”: Things get much more interesting the second you hear Liz flying on heavily reverbed guitar and even more interesting when John Casey enters the fray with a wickedly hot harmonica. The subject matter here is dating older guys, a subject in which I have a great deal of experience. It’s a weird dynamic—most of the older men I dated were basically nice guys but so pathetically insecure:
He’s just a hero
In a long line of heroes
Looking for something attractive to save
They say he rode in
On the back of a pickup
And he won’t leave town
‘Til you remember his name
She later describes Soap Star Joe as “looking for some lonely billboard to grace,” a brilliant line that tells me Liz probably dated some agents, either in real estate or insurance. Deep inside they know they’re just one of a million other agents and try to compensate by working hard to “be someone.” They want to be heroes because America values heroes. Lacking access to Erymanthian Boars, Lernean Hydras or any of the other labors of Hercules, they turn their midlife crisis into a heroic quest in search of young babes to make them appear “heroic” (kind of like the Vikings did by plundering all the good-looking blondes and taking them home instead of engaging in garden-variety raping and pillaging). Joe’s “heroism” involves finding “something attractive to save” because all women need saving and it’s nice to save your most cherished possessions so you can show them to the boys and tell them to go mix some drinks.
In a stirring rebuke to the concept of American exceptionalism, Liz ends the song by holding up the mirror, and the image we see is not the sculpted, ripped, loaded-with steroids-body depicted in those dreadful action films or the suave ladies man reading his lines off cue cards in the afternoon soaps:
Check out the thinning hair
Check out the aftershave
Check out America
You’re looking at it babe
The thing is, you can never get through to these guys because peeling back the layers would hurt too much. I think Liz realized that, capturing the pathos of it all instead of just poking fun.
“Explain It to Me”: “I love the songwriting. I think of that as a perfect little jewel song,” quoth the artist about “Explain It to Me.” Well, I’ve cautioned readers about taking the word of the songwriter when it comes to song meaning or quality, but in this case, I have to agree with Liz. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon kind of song, one that sounds like she created it while messing around at the upper reaches of the fretboard and stumbled onto something magical. You can hold that magic in your very own hands by checking out the tablature on Ultimate Guitar (note the 1st fret capo instruction that enables you to play in Bb major). Even without the special effects and the looming bass, you’ll find the pattern perfectly delightful.
Liz claims that the song is about a fallen rock star, but while there’s enough evidence in the song to support that view, I think “Explain It to Me” is best appreciated as a lesson in the success-failure dynamic that governs every profession in humankind: musicians, athletes, professors, playwrights, the works. All success comes with the pressure to keep going, do better the next time, show them that you’ve still got it and let them know that it’s too early to classify you as a has-been:
Tell him to jump higher
Tell him to run farther
Make him measure up
Ten times longer than you ever should
Sigh. Human beings have a hard time grasping the concept of “enough is enough.”
“Canary”: We’re almost at the halfway point in the album and haven’t once mentioned that naughty word, “feminism.” Way back in 1994, Liz Phair told Jon Pareles of the New York Times (half-seriously) that “she worries about becoming ‘the next feminist spokesmodel.'” Twenty-four years later, Jessica Bennett of the Times asked her about that statement:
Bennett: When “Guyville” first came out, you told The Times that you didn’t want to become “the next feminist spokesmodel.” Did you?
Phair: I’m sort of a feminist spokesmodel for, I guess, putting your voice out there, believing you have something to say and maybe sex-positivity or something. I have been placed there because there was a sense that I was the girl next door who just picked up a guitar and went onstage and said what everyone was thinking. And it felt empowering to me and it felt empowering to the people that heard it, especially the women. So, the accidental feminist spokesperson. I do get uncomfortable with the label because I feel like there are people that could be far more eloquent about it, historically so.
Liz Phair was not Bikini Kill trying to spark a revolution, and I think it would have been a mistake for her to consciously push a feminist agenda on Exile in Guyville. What worked for Kathleen Hanna wouldn’t have worked for Liz Phair. Her strength as a songwriter is the ability to make the personal universal.
That talent is beautifully displayed on “Canary,” a piano song that Liz said was “about the loss of innocence and facing the pressures of being a young woman in the world and what men want from you while you’re still kind of on the cusp of your childhood.” She presents the song in the form of the internal dialogue that runs through her head, delivering the lyrics in a voice that sounds like she’s sleepwalking. The tension in the song comes primarily from the piano, particularly towards the end of the song when her keyboard strokes become louder and more insistent—and it’s there that she verbally expresses the pressure that accompanies repression:
I clean the house
I put all your books in an order
I make up a colorful border
I clean my mouth
‘Cause froth comes out
That froth is never very far from the surface if you’re a woman in Guyville.
“Mesmerizing”: I don’t know of any other songs that have used the egg toss as a metaphor for boy-girl relationships, but it works on many levels: trust, connection, staying connected during periods of physical separation, the anxiety attached to growing distance. The song has a laid-back feel accentuated by background conversation, playful guitar interaction and the sound of a growling dog in the fade. Nothing monumental here, just a pleasant diversion from the heavier stuff.
“Fuck and Run”: Liz and the band get right down to business in “Fuck and Run,” with guitar-drums-bass quickly and tightly establishing the beat for two short measures before Liz jumps in with her modern tale of woe. While I celebrate the freedom presented to women by The Pill (and I’ve been celebrating it most every day for about twenty-five years), the manufacturers failed to include any instructions on how to communicate effectively when engaging in sexual relations with serial partners. I hate to repeat my personal “mama done told me” advice, but maman was very explicit about the importance of communicating my needs and expectations before the act and insisting that my potential partner do the same. “Look. I think it might be nice to fuck you but I’m only interested in one fuck at the moment and I can’t promise anything beyond that. I’m not interested in going steady or planning a wedding. I like doggy-style, me on top and missionary; I love sucking dicks and you’re more than welcome to taste my pussy. How do you feel about that?” I have to admit that most of the responses fell into the category of “um, er, well, I, uh,” but eventually we’d come to an understanding and proceed with the naughtiness. It wasn’t foolproof, largely because so many people are out of touch with their feelings, especially feelings about sex.
In “Fuck and Run,” Liz finds herself exhausted by the expectation that all roads lead to sex, the superficiality of casual fucking and all the bullshit that comes with it:
You got up out of bed
You said you had a lot of work to do
But I heard the rest in your head
And almost immediately I felt sorry
‘Cause I didn’t think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn’t think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
“But I heard the rest in your head” is not simply “women’s intuition.” Combined with the following line, “And almost immediately I felt sorry,” it’s an admission that she was locked in the same cycle of dishonest communication. She also realizes that physical connection doesn’t always scratch the loneliness itch (“I can feel it in my bones/I’m gonna spend another year/my whole life alone.”) Man, this shit is getting old:
It’s fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was twelve
Twelve is a pretty early age to start (I waited until I was fourteen), and there’s no way an experience at that age can be anything but fuck-and-run because you just heard dad’s car coming up the driveway and you need to shove the guy into the nearest closet. Liz finally figures out what she wants—a relationship, tender moments, hanging out, playing Scrabble—a real honest-to-goodness boyfriend!
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over?
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?
And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas
“Fuck and Run” vanishes as quickly as it appeared, a suitable ending for a no-nonsense rocker with a message of crystalline clarity.
“Girls! Girls! Girls!”: After telling you that Liz is more of a strummer than a picker, she launches into a song featuring her energetic picking on those fat bottom strings. The sound of frantic low-note plucking creates a sort of eeriness suitable for an exposé of the dark side of the feminine character. “You can manipulate the system to your advantage, as well, which as women, we do both,” Liz explained, and she’s 100% right. When direct paths are closed to you and you want or need something really badly, you can either quietly wimp out and send a donation to NOW or you can undo the button right above your cleavage and get the fucking job. As much as I’d love to convince myself that I got a Director’s job because of my intelligence, superior skill and bilingualism, I know that the guys who made the decision saw me as eye candy and a possible squeeze on a business trip. You may think that the men were evil farts who view women as nothing more than pieces of ass, but I shared in the evil by manipulating the vulnerability emanating from their hungry penises.
Because I take full advantage
Of every man I meet
I get away almost every day
With what the girls call
What the girls call
What the girls call,
The girls call murder
Yes, we do feel guilty about our manipulative ways, but if the men in power weren’t so frigging obtuse, we wouldn’t have to play these stupid games.
“Divorce Song”: This is one of the songs Liz wrote pre-concept, a slice-of-life tale about a couple on the cusp between friends and friends-with-benefits bickering on a road trip. The cause of the bickering is pretty obvious: both parties engage in indirect, incomplete, contaminated communication and neither considers how their words may land on the other. Although hardly an original storyline, Liz lays it out in a way that heightens the tension in the car, a milieu where neither party can engage in face-to-face communication. Picture both of them with their eyes fixed on the road ahead, seething with hurt and anger, taking potshots at each other without having to make eye contact. The key line in the story is “But if I’d/you’d known how that would sound to you/me,” marking the essential problem and the missed opportunity. The song ends without resolution, the micro-aggressions unaddressed, remaining true-to-life right through to the end. Following the lead from the thematic influence, Brad Wood mimicked a classic Charlie Watts rhythmic arrangement that provided the steady beat in support of Liz’s offbeat syncopations.
“Shatter”: At this point in the album, we encounter a series of experimental works that deviate from standard pop/folk/rock song format and give Liz the opportunity to stretch her wings and (hopefully) keep the listener engaged. “Shatter” opens with an extended meditation where Brad Wood melds Liz’s guitar with controlled feedback, creating an almost orchestral feel in the process. In this case, the lyrics aren’t half as interesting as the music, and my gut tells me it would have been better to just let Liz meditate on guitar and leave it at that. “Shatter” is one of the more successful experiments.
“Flower”: And then there are experiments that should have never made it out of the lab. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have no problem with sexually explicit language. When Liz delivers lines like “I want to fuck you like a dog,” “I want to be your blow job queen,” and “I want your fresh young jimmy/Jamming, slamming, ramming in me,” and “I’ll fuck you ’til your dick turns blue,” I’m thrilled by the display of female aggressiveness.
But those lyrics should have been attached to a searingly hot rock arrangement, one that demands that you grind your hips and shake the fuck out of your fanny . . . you know, LIKE MANY A ROLLING STONES SONG. Instead, we get a weirdly robotic arrangement reminiscent of the limp soundtrack attached to early video games before the technology matured to allow orchestral arrangements. When I listen to “Flower” today, I don’t think of hot, heavy, sweaty sex, but those newfangled sex robots that are now a “hot” item thanks to Covid-19. Yuck.
“Johnny Sunshine”: Now, if Liz and Brad had taken the pounding rhythm of the first half of “Johnny Sunshine” and applied it to the lyrics for “Flower,” they might have had something. Alas, that terribly exciting tempo is wasted on an exaggerated tale about a guy leaving a broad after stealing her car and her horse, then killing her cat by burning it in antifreeze. Later, the song suddenly shifts to a sort of round, à la “Frère Jacques,” a move that makes no sense, either narratively or musically. Strong pass on this one.
“Gunshy”: And I’ll have to pass on “Gunshy” as well. The detuned guitar sound is interesting, but the story is a bit thin and the tempo/musical shift in the chorus is both awkward and disruptive.
“Stratford-On-Guy”: This reminds me of the comment Thom Yorke made after seeing Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet: “I couldn’t understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away.” I’ve always found it puzzling when people choose to remain in no-win situations or stay in places that suck WHEN THEY CAN JUST GET UP AND LEAVE. A change in perspective can work wonders and help you realize you’re not the center of the universe.
“Stratford-On Guy” (the title is a pun calling out the pretentiousness of the Guyville scene) finds Liz flying the friendly skies high above Guyville, realizing how small and insignificant it is from that vantage point. What I love about the song is the poetry—having done more than my fair share of air travel in this lifetime, I’ve rarely read any description of the passenger experience as accurate as the one Liz draws for us:
I was flying into Chicago at night
Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
The sun was setting to the left of the plane
And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow
In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out like credits on a screen
The earth looked like it was lit from within
Like a poorly assembled electrical ball
As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid
The plan of a city was all that you saw
And all of these people sitting totally still
As the ground raced beneath them, thirty-thousand feet down
I also like how she points out that decompression from the stressful situation you’re escaping (work, Guyville, lousy relationship) and the emergence of a new perspective take time to manifest: “It took an hour, maybe a day/But once I really listened the noise just fell away.” Too bad it’s unlikely that we’re ever going to view air travel as a healing experience in our immediate future . . . we could all use some perspective right now.
“Strange Loop”: We close with the bright guitar (Liz attributes the sound to an old Peavey amp) of “Strange Loop,” a song that about relational reconciliation—not the superficial kiss-and-make-up bullshit but the mutual acceptance of the truth that while strong personalities can ignite conflict by simply being in the same room at the same time, the real conflict is the inability to accept the other person for who they are instead of wishing they were someone else:
The fire you like so much in me
Is the mark of someone adamantly free
But you can’t stop yourself from wanting worse
‘Cause nothing feeds a hunger like a thirst
The narrator backs off from the blame game because fighting is both exhausting and fruitless, admitting her own contribution to the difficulties: “I always wanted you/I only wanted more than I knew.” Interestingly, the song ends with an extended jam that sounds more like falling apart than coming together, but guess what? Relationships require constant care and feeding, and they’re going to get noisy and sloppy because human beings are noisy and sloppy.
Exile in Guyville was the victim of Shiny New Thing Syndrome, a debilitating condition that also distorted the reaction to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (as we’ll see in our next episode). This happens when a budding artist releases something that appears to be groundbreaking and music critics desperate to maintain their relevance exaggerate its virtues and ignore its flaws in case it turns out to be The Next Big Thing. When the artist fails to meet inflated expectations on the next release, critics attempt to rewrite history (like Pitchfork with their ever-changing best-of lists) and reappraise the work that got them so excited. It should have been pretty obvious from the experimental stuff that Liz Phair was going to expand her horizons; unfortunately, her audience wanted Exile in Guyville: The Sequel.
My take is this: Exile in Guyville is clearly a superior debut album that broke new ground by presenting a woman’s perspective on life in the patriarchy using language that defied cultural expectations of how women should behave, think and feel. Liz Phair said the unsayable and shared her thoughts about the unthinkable, influencing listeners and other women artists to do the same. The music is generally solid, marked most of all by Liz Phair’s unique approach to guitar and rhythm and her ability to tell great, true-to-life stories.
I’ll close with another excerpt from her interview with Jessica Bennett, who gave Liz the opportunity to comment on current events involving women:
Bennett: In almost every interview I do now it feels like we reach the point where I have to ask about #MeToo. There’s almost no instance where the person, if female, hasn’t faced some type of harassment or mistreatment. What has been your experience?
Phair: Well, of course not. Everybody went through it. Every single woman went through it. It’s the way our entire society is structured. Everything is structured around men. We still don’t pay the first lady! That blows my mind.
Bennett: What do you make of this moment?
Phair: I’ll tell you where I’m at with it. I’m at the point where I don’t feel like I have to do anything differently. I think it’s all on men now. Like, they’re just going to have to deal with it. They’re going to have to do their therapy, do their thinking, do whatever they need to do — cry together, whatever the fuck it takes. I just don’t feel that I need to help. And I’m not in any way antagonistic toward men, that’s the weird part. This is old, old news for me. And it just is a matter of, this isn’t ours to explain to you anymore. It’s common sense. Like, let them deal with it. They’re the ones with the problem.
It’s old news for me, too, Liz . . . it’s old news for all of us.
p. s.: I hear Liz is opening for Alanis Morissette on her 25th Anniversary of Jagged Little Pill tour, an arrangement I find deeply . . . ironic.
**Note: Some may object to the statement, “all industries are male-dominated.” If you google “female-dominated industries,” you’ll find a whole lot of jibber-jabber about “female-dominated professions” like nursing, teaching, retail and HR as if greater numbers amount to “industry domination.” People in those jobs don’t dominate anything beyond their own bailiwicks. More importantly, the system in which they work was set up by men based on masculine values. Not even the limited number of female CEOs can change that reality.
While this may sound like the ultimate in stupid, I never have applied nor will I ever l apply my fairly respectable skills in marketing analytics to drive traffic to this site. Sure, I want people to read my stuff, but marketing analytics and strategy is what I do to pay the bills—something I’d rather minimize and forget. I write about music because I love listening to music and I learn a lot in the process of writing about it.
But I do find statistics endlessly interesting. Last week I published my 500th post and thought I’d check my all-time stats to see how the browsing public has responded to my efforts. The data I found most fascinating is contained in a table that shows posts in descending order of hits. My marketing instincts immediately took over and I found myself looking for patterns in the data. In this case, the patterns were obvious—the data told me exactly how to drive people to altrockchick.com and how to scare them away:
- Graphic sexual content
- Reviews of ’60s and ’70s music
- Reviews of women artists
- Reviews of ’90s music
- Graphic Sexual Content: My most-read posts are no longer available on the site: a four-part history of how I got into BDSM. All four of those posts outperformed any of my music reviews; the post with the most hits (the one with graphic descriptions of an all-night multi-participant BDSM scene with graphic photos of moi) received four times as many hits as my most-read music review (The Kinks’ Preservation albums). However, some of my highest-charting music reviews contain more than just a touch of erotica: The J. Geils’ Band’s Full House Live (#9) and Sade’s Love Deluxe (#16) in particular. Sex sells. Duh.
- Reviews by Decade: Of the top 20 reviews, 8 are from the ’60s, 10 from the ’70s, 1 from the ’90s, 1 from the 00s. I’ve written more reviews of ’70s music than any other decade, then the ’60s, then the ’90s. Given the ratio of output to response, the ’60s are my best-performing decade; the ’90s are my worst.
- Women Artists: Sade’s #16 is the highest-performing review by a woman, but that lofty status is compromised by the abundant sexual content. Next comes PJ Harvey at #30, Sinead O’Connor at #54, then Dusty Springfield at #74. Of the 20 worst-performing reviews, 8 cover the work of women artists. Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline—fugghedaboutit.
- Keys to Increasing Traffic: Stick with the ’60s and ’70s. Ramp up the tits-and-ass routine. Don’t do ’90s reviews until millennials reach retirement age. Avoid female musicians like the Coronavirus.
- What’s Next on Altrockchick.com: A seven-part series on Women Musicians of the ’90s. Fuck the stats.
The decision to do the series was inspired by a tweet I read arguing that women heads of state are doing a far better job of managing the pandemic than leaders sporting a penis.
I agree with that assessment, but it’s not as impressive an achievement as one might think. When your competition is Trump, Boris Johnson and Xi Jinping . . . shit, my dog could have done a better job than those clowns.
I have long believed that the world would be a happier place if women were in charge, though my vision of the perfect future involves female sexual domination and keeping men on a very short leash so they don’t start fighting with each other and blowing things up. For now, I’d be happy to compromise for that elusive state called “equality,” but as is true in any situation involving power, those in power (men) have little motivation to give it up. I don’t expect to be treated as an equal during my lifetime. That sucks.
My mother began schooling me in feminism at an early age with particular emphasis on Camille Paglia’s “anti-feminist feminism.” The main message was that human culture has long repressed and restricted the manifestation of the human potential in those unlucky souls equipped with vaginas and that I should prepare myself to expect that the majority of men would attempt to diminish me and keep me in my place. Maman urged me to fight every insult, every act of discrimination and every stereotype that promulgated the notion of male superiority. She also encouraged me not to hate men, as most of them were just trying to live up to societal expectations of manliness and didn’t really have their hearts into the machismo thing.
That was good advice, but the constant strain of having to justify one’s existence and fight off the assholes who view you as nothing more than another piece of ass develops into a low-grade fever that always stays with you. And while most of the men I interact with treat me with respect, my years of volunteer work at domestic violence shelters in three countries tells me that toxic masculinity still qualifies as acceptable social behavior. Women are always at least subliminally aware that the rapist, frustrated incel or wife-beater can turn up in their lives at any time.
Some women embrace the submissive role because it gives them a sense of security or syncs with their religious beliefs. Most women I know resent it but learn to temper their response and consider the slings and arrows the price of admission to the employment market and its not-very-solid promise of economic independence. You learn to suck it up and move on.
But way back in the early ’90s a motley crew of young women decided the whole suck-it-up thing was bullshit. Some of them formed bands or pursued independent music careers and sung about their experiences as women in a patriarchy. To varying degrees, they expressed the rage that many women felt but wouldn’t dare express in polite company. The first wave came out of the Pacific Northwest, a punk movement tagged with the label Riot grrrl, with an emphasis on the “grrr.” Soon, other women protesting the status quo would emerge in both the US and UK, some with styles more suited to mainstream audiences.
This series will explore the music and messages of a fairly diverse group of female musicians who, along with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, helped ignite what was called “third-wave feminism.” I should disclose that I have a hard time identifying myself as a “feminist” or associating myself with any “movement” because all such movements devolve into factions marked by trivial arguments over dogma and who-gives-a-shit power struggles. If you’re unclear about my position regarding these questionable agents for social change, I refer you to the greatest religious film ever made, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the People’s Front of Judea.
The six albums I’ll be reviewing in this series are: