Tag Archives: third wave feminism

Ani DiFranco – Not a Pretty Girl – Classic Music Review (Third Wave Series)

Most of us grow up without much understanding of how the game of life really works. We tend to accept various myths handed down to us by parents, educators and other authorities and then get pissed off when we learn that they were full of shit and there we are, up the proverbial creek without a paddle. We then blame those “experts” for our inability to separate fact from fiction.

We also choose what we perceive, and our selective perception leads us to ignore data that does not fit with our image of how the world should work. We ignore obvious warning signs and plunge ahead armed with the naïve belief that things will all work out in the end.

Musicians seem to be more susceptible to naïve world-views than most, despite the plethora of songs written by established musicians alerting wannabe stars to the dangers of the music business. “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “Have a Cigar,” “For the Roses,” “EMI,” the entire Lola album . . . the list stretches on and on. They sign contracts without reading them. They trust management to handle all that accounting stuff. Not knowing dick about the economics of the music business, they are stunned to learn that a whole lot of shadowy figures have made away with a good chunk of their dough. “Robert owes half to Grenville/Who in turn gave half to Larry/Who adored my instrumentals/And so he gave half to a foreign publisher,” explained Ray Davies. His concerns were dismissed as entitled rock star bitching, but at the end of the decade, Pink Floyd almost went belly up because management had invested most of their money in venture capital schemes that didn’t pan out.

You would have thought that The Dark Side of the Moon alone would have set up those guys for life—the equivalent of a big lottery win. Sadly, the narrative of rock music is littered with management misdealings, most tragically in the case of Pete Ham of Badfinger. The statistics speak for themselves: of the billions earned in the music industry, musicians only pocket twelve percent.

However, it’s not all about the money. Many musicians have artistic yearnings and, as captured in the time-tested cliché “temperamental artist,” they want control over their music. They don’t want the suits to interfere with the creative process. Some artists sign with indie labels; others hawk their songs on places like Bandcamp. Though some indie releases manage to vault the many obstacles to success, the majority fall victim to the equation defined by Michael Crossley of French Letters (a now-defunct indie band):  independent release = “completely independent of distribution, promotion and attention.” The challenges facing the indie musician can’t be understated: the big three record companies control 88.5% of the market.

One of the rare indie success stories is Ani DiFranco. She managed to avoid the suits and retain independence by starting her own record company at the age of nineteen. In a retrospective interview with The Guardian last year, she explained her rationale: “If only white men are the delivery system, the translators, the sellers, the definers of the expressions of these diverse human experiences, then something is lost.”

Her record company (Righteous Babe Records) was truly a start-up; the original releases were cassette tapes she sold out of the trunk of her car and at merch tables. She built her reputation by targeting the college market, hoping that word-of-mouth and the support of women’s groups would eventually work wonders. After the comparative success of Out of Range, she signed a distribution deal that ensured that her sixth studio album, Not a Pretty Girl, could be purchased in both indie record shops and the big chains.

Befitting a conservative-budget affair, Not a Pretty Girl features a grand total of two musicians: Ani on vocals, guitar and bass and Andy Stochansky on drums and percussion. Ani was criticized by Fred Goodman of Rolling Stone for not going “big” on some of the tracks (“It would be a shame if someone as breathtakingly talented as she is allows dogma to prevent her from giving her songs what they demand”), but Fred completely ignored the truth that sensitive subject matter is often best presented in an intimate environment. If Ani had gone “big,” the songs Fred mentions would have sounded more anthemic and hence, more dogmatic. As it is, Ani provides sufficient power through her innovative guitar stylings, alternate tunings and vocal layering without weakening the evocative power of the lyrics.

As reflected in the title, a good chunk of the album forms a rejection of the “sugar and spice and everything nice” paradigm historically attached to women, with a particular emphasis on the cultural definition of “nice-looking.” When Ani’s at her best, she presents the inherent disadvantages of womanhood in conversations with an invisible partner or with herself instead of political abstractions. Her tone encompasses many moods—sometimes biting, sometimes sweet, but nearly always tempered with a sense of vulnerability. Listening to Ani DiFranco often feels like she’s right there in the room with you, having one of those unexpectedly deep conversations that develop over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. The effect is intentional and has been an integral part of her music since she launched her career. “The songs came so unedited that they connected me with other beings like myself, even when there were only a few people in the room,” she recalls. “I did it human-to-human. Those moments were so healing that I’ve stayed in search of them ever since.” (The Guardian)

The feedback loop that opens “Worthy” reflects the feedback loop described in the lyrics: the head game connected to uncertain self-esteem. Ani nails it when she connects doubts about our worthiness with the urge to push the other person away; “I’m not good enough for you” really means “I’m afraid to get too close.” Ah, humanity.

you think you’re not worthy
i’d have to say i agree
i’m not worthy of you
you’re not worthy of me
which of us is deserving
look at the human race
the whole planet at arm’s length
and we don’t deserve this place

Based on the songs that follow, “we don’t deserve this place” is meant ironically, as in “What a dump!” In verse two, she slips back into internal dialogue, owning up to the façade she’d like to present to her partner and her inability to pull it off:

what good is a poker face
when you’ve got an open hand
i was supposed to be cool about this
yeah i remember cool was the plan

Though she claims that the world is too good for her because she’s “such a naughty girl,” that admission proves to be the way out of the couple’s dilemma: “but when we’re together/we’re too good for this world.” Keeping each other at arm’s length by hiding behind the “I’m not worthy of you” game leads nowhere. The music has a nice laid-back flow with a simple chord structure (A-G with major 7th variations in the verse intervals) that gives Ani a great opportunity to fill the wordless spaces with melodic and soulful scat. The lyrics to “Worthy” are a fine example of poetic economy, but I just love it when Ani leaves words behind and just riffs with her gorgeous, expressive voice.

Ani rejects the opportunity to allow the wry humor and appealing music of “Worthy” to set the tone for the album, instead opting for a 180º with a spoken-word poem called “Tiptoe.”

Then she proceeds to do anything but tiptoe around the subject of abortion:

tiptoeing through the used condoms
strewn on the piers
off the west side highway
sunset behind
the skyline of jersey
walking towards the water
with a fetus holding court in my gut
my body hijacked
my tits swollen and sore . . .

i could step off the end of this pier but
i’ve got shit to do
and i’ve an appointment on tuesday
to shed uninvited blood and tissue
i’ll miss you i say
to the river to the water
to the son or daughter
i thought better of . . .

It takes a lot of guts to talk honestly about abortion (or even admit you’ve had one), especially in the United States where (unlike in most of the civilized world), abortion is still controversial. In her fascinating autobiography No Walls and the Recurring Dream, Ani wrote honestly and thoughtfully about her two abortions as well as the experience of becoming the mother of two children. I think my regular readers know where I stand on the issue; for those dropping by for a visit, I believe in unrestricted reproductive freedom and a woman’s absolute right to make her own choices regarding her body. I’ve never had an abortion, but if you want to call me a “baby killer” for holding those views, go fuck yourself and your patriarchy.

I’d rather focus on the brilliance of the poem. Ani has to tiptoe through “used condoms strewn on the piers off the west side highway,” reminding us that the men who want to control women’s bodies have the right to kill millions of potential babies in their pursuit of baby-free pussy. The visuals that arise from those words also beg the classic question, “Would you want a kid to grow up in a world as ugly and as hypocritical as this one?” Her resistance to the “uninvited blood and tissue” should tell anyone with a brain that as much as she resents the intrusion, she is more likely to resent eighteen years of child-rearing even more, adding one more fucked-up kid to a society already full of fucked-up kids. There is a tinge of regret for what might have been, but Ani “thought better” and accepted the fact that she simply wasn’t ready for motherhood at that point in her life. The river, the symbol of life, fertility and perpetual change, reminds her that the flow of her life will change, providing another opportunity for motherhood when she’s ready to accept the responsibility.

Though the next song bears the title, “Cradle and All,” it has nothing to do with reproductive controversy; it is a painting of a restless, anxious woman longing for the relief of the baby sleeping peacefully in the cradle. The tension she feels comes from a combination of an unsatisfactory relationship, the endless cacophony of New York City (“the city that never shuts up”) and a longing to return home to Buffalo, a place suffering from Rust Belt decline but hey, it’s home . . . it’s family:

and i moved there from buffalo
but that’s nothing
the Trico plant moved to mexico
left my uncle standing out in the cold
said here’s your last paycheck
have fun growing old

Ani is absolutely stunning on guitar here, fingers flying over and beyond the fretboard, integrating what for many guitar players would be “mistakes” or “happy accidents of sound” into a cohesive and compelling guitar performance.

“Shy” earned Ani a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. I think the Grammy people stuck Ani in the rock category because they really didn’t know what to do with her, so her loss to Fiona Apple was hardly . . . criminal. As with many an Ani DiFranco song, “Shy” defies genre categorization, and of the five performances nominated, “Shy” was the least rocking of the bunch. You also have to remember that the Grammy people gave Alanis Morissette the award twice and Sheryl Crow four times, so what the fuck do they know?

“Shy” should have received the award for Best Example of Concrete Imagery in Song, but alas, no such category exists. Ani doesn’t establish her mental state by saying, “I’m neurotic, vulnerable, lonely and a goddamned mess,” but by painting a scene that communicates the meaning with far more impact, demonstrating how an alien environment intensifies psychological fragility:

the heat is so great
it plays tricks with the eye
it turns the road to water
and then from water to sky
and there’s a crack in the concrete floor
and it starts at the sink
there’s a bathroom in a gas station
and i’ve locked myself in it to think

and back in the city
the sun bakes the trash on the curb
the men are pissing in doorways
and the rats are running in herds
i’ve got a dream with your face in it
that scares me awake
i put too much on my table
and now i got too much at stake

She then goes into push-pull mode, “lost in-between,” mulling through a range of choices—flirting, hide-and-seek, “veiled invitations”—that all come down to fear of intimacy. In the chorus, she finally works through the internal noise to describe what she really wants:

and you’ll stop me, won’t you
if you’ve heard this one before
the one where i surprise you
by showing up at your front door
saying ‘let’s not ask what’s next,
or how, or why’
i am leaving in the morning
so let’s not be shy

Though she goes on to imagine intimacy under “the muscular motel light” where “the sheets are twisted and damp,” you get the sense that “you’ll stop me won’t you” means more than a request to prevent repetition of an old joke or story. If her “shyness” fails her, she hopes that the guy will give her an out. Ani captures the strained psychological state described in the lyrics by not overdoing it, restraining her vocal to a limited melodic range and avoiding excess emotion. Andy Stochansky follows her lead beautifully, always seeming on the verge of breaking out into bash mode but staying right on the edge throughout the song.

Andy sits out “Sorry,” as this is an intensely personal message from Ani to an ex better handled through voice and acoustic guitar. The essence of the song involves regret (“i’m sorry that after all these years/i’ve left you feeling unrequited and alone, brought you to tears”) and partial acceptance of responsibility for the hurting, tempered by the need to manifest self (“and i don’t know what it is about me/that i just can’t keep still”). It’s “nothing personal,” but it sure feels personal to the other party. Ani could have said, “I’m not responsible for your dreams about our beautiful future together,” but she has enough empathy to appreciate that under different circumstances the positions could have been reversed. The feel of the song is appropriately mournful, a mood established by Ani’s sensitive and varied guitar pattern. The repetition of the bend on the second fret of the sixth string (tuned to low D) is mourning actualized. “Sorry” is a beautiful, if agonizing, piece of music.

“Light of Some Kind” continues the theme of relational imbalance, expressed with greater agitation. Much of that agitation comes from the series of clipped, partially muted guitar picking that falls somewhere between the sound of a telegraph and electronic hiccups. Ani delivers most of the song in clipped phrases as if she’s out of breath and flustered by the situation she finds herself in, adding more significance to the opening line, “I wish I didn’t have this nervous laugh.” What she’s nervous about is being honest—and she’s pissed about being nervous:

’cause every time i try to hold my tongue
it slips like a fish from a line
they say if you want to play
you should learn how to play dumb
i guess i can’t bring myself to waste your time

’cause we both know what i’ve been doing
i’ve been intentionally bad at lying
you’re the only boy i ever let see through me
and i hope you believe me when i say i’m trying
and i hope i never improve my game
yeah i’d rather have these things weighing on my mind
and at the end of this tunnel of guilt and shame
there must be a light of some kind
there must be a light of some kind

The “tunnel of guilt and shame” seems to come from having to admit her bisexuality (“she came up to me with the sweetest face/and she was holding a light of some kind”) to her boyfriend. At first, she seems to be in denial of the impact on their relationship (“and I still think of you as my boyfriend”); shortly thereafter the guilt she feels encourages her to suggest he do the same “And maybe you should follow my example/and go meet yourself a really nice girl”). That is a very awkward piece of communication, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have landed well with a straight guy, who probably found the joke belittling. Well, don’t say she didn’t warn you—earlier in the song Ani admitted, “’cause every time i try to hold my tongue/it slips like a fish from a line.” As all of my female bisexual partners have initially felt guilt about their desire for a woman, the song rings true for me (though I only experienced guilt after openly admitting it and hearing my teenage friends call me “sick”).

The guilt lasted as long as my next girl-to-girl fuck.

“Not a Pretty Girl” rings so true for me I can hear the bell cracking. As one who has been classified in certain quarters as a “pretty girl,” I can completely relate to Ani DiFranco’s refusal to accept that tag. According to custom, pretty girls are expected to be nice, projecting pleasantry from their useless brains located in their empty heads.  I have shocked hundreds of people of both genders by displaying behavior unbecoming of a pretty girl. I fuck girls. I’m kinky. I swear like a sailor. I smoke. I have a brain and expect to use it. And when I played baseball, I had no qualms taking out the second baseman to prevent the double play or resorting to a little chin music if a batter got too close to the plate.

The reaction to the disconnect between appearance and substance differs depending on gender. When women are confronted with the disconnect between my appearance and my true nature, they often seem confused, as if I make them unsure about who the hell they are. Men have been consistently disappointed to learn that I am intelligent and assertive because they don’t generally don’t feel comfortable with women who display those traits (ask Hillary). Men who think I’m hot want to save me from my sins, hoping that I’ll grow up someday and take my place in their trophy cabinet. I remember my mother telling me, “A man will gladly hold the door open for a pretty girl, but it’s usually the wrong door—the door that leads to dependence.”

Ani begins the song by rejecting the “damsel in distress” archetype and the notion that women are like kittens—sexual playthings who need to be rescued because they’re dumb enough to keep getting stuck in the tree. Where it really gets interesting is in the second verse, where Ani takes aim at the “angry woman” trope of the ’90s:

i am not an angry girl
but it seems like i’ve got everyone fooled
every time i say something they find hard to hear
they chalk it up to my anger
and never to their own fear

Many a protester against racism could sing those last three lines with conviction, over and over again. The music is ironically pretty, full of clean arpeggiated strums flowing nicely in 6/8 time. The simmering anger is expressed in Ani’s voice, and when she claims, “I have earned by disillusionment/I have been working all of my life,” her anger is the anger of those women who have found their voices squelched and their talents belittled by the workplace patriarchy.

My least favorite track is definitely “The Millions You Never Made,” largely because of the dissonant manic sarcasm of the last verse, but in part because I don’t think Ani achieved enough aesthetic distance to write about her personal battle for artistic independence in a way that the average person could relate to. This is one song that would have benefitted from a tongue-in-cheek third-person perspective. The following song, “Hour Follows Hour,” eschews the “big message” in favor of a vision of humanity as flawed but trying its best to make sense of the gotcha inherent in cause-and-effect: the truth that any “cause” initiated by a human being may not have its intended effect, so we need to forgive self and other for unpleasant surprises. It’s a gorgeous piece, soft, reflective and dominated by gentle, reassuring guitar.

As noted above, Ani DiFranco is a lousy fit for any genre you care to mention and she takes great pride in her individualism. That said, it’s not a “fuck you,” defensive individualism but a more inclusive orientation that respects another’s unique personality as well. She explores this theme in the deceptively sweet, partially tongue-in-cheek and cleverly written “32 Flavors.” The opening verse seems to be a response to a verbal abuser who has called her a dyke, a cunt, a godless feminist, an arrogant artiste or something along those lines. I love the way she refuses to turn the other cheek but instead chooses to disarm the intruder:

squint your eyes and look closer
i’m not between you and your ambition
i am a poster girl with no poster
i am thirty-two flavors and then some
and i’m beyond your peripheral vision
so you might want to turn your head
cause someday you’re going to get hungry
and eat most of the words you just said

She is not one cause, she is many causes; she is not one type, she is many types—so many that typification becomes meaningless. As she wrote in “Light of Some Kind,” “there’s a crowd of people harbored in every person,” so rather than attributing this phenomenon to some kind of personality disorder, it’s best to recognize that we all have our moods and that trying to define a person as “just one thing” is both silly and hurtful. The use of Baskin-Robbins’ 31 Flavors branding was a masterstroke; I estimate that at least half of the population in the United States would express shock and dismay if BR came out with a thirty-second flavor. Millions would be shouting “My brain hurts” in time with Michael Palin! The 32-flavors (and then some) may be beyond comprehension for many, but everyone understands the pop culture reference, making the meaning a bit easier to absorb.

In the second verse, Ani revisits the pretty girl/not-a-pretty-girl theme with a truism that reminds me of the weird experience of having people hate you for your genes:

and god help you if you are an ugly girl
course too pretty is also your doom
cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room

It was bad enough that I was considered a stuck-up conceited bitch because I was pretty; what made it worse was a girl telling me, “I hate it when you smile.” I started feeling guilty about being pretty, but after thinking about it, I was just flat-out pissed because I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. Mom and dad fucked one night and that’s what came out! Ani intimates that it’s only going to get worse once you pick yourself off the canvas:

and god help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying past

“32 Flavors” isn’t all about defiance or preparing women for the worst. Ani sings about doing right by her parents and the kindness that she lavishes on strangers—kindness not often returned but instead meant with inexplicable rejection:

just the kindness i’ve lavished on strangers
is more than i can explain
still there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights
just so i would think they were not home
and hid in the dark of their windows
till i’d passed and left them alone

Ani sings in an almost demure voice, contradicting the notion that power and passion equate to loud and aggressive. The disarming performance is further enhanced by melodic vocalizations between the verses, intensifying both the sweetness and the melancholy. The power of the song lies in the contrast between Ani’s soft voice and the power of her imagery; “32 Flavors” almost demands we reflect on the sheer unnecessity of mistreating and demeaning others.

Ani’s fingerpicking on this song displays her amazing dexterity and incredible sense of touch, the notes falling like gentle rain over wildflowers. The official blurb of the music business patriarchy could only find room for two women on their 100 Best Guitarists List (Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, down in the fourth quartile); I would argue that Ani DiFranco should have been on that list even if Not a Pretty Girl was the only record she ever made. Fuck those guys at Rolling Stone.

“Asking Too Much” is a fascinating monologue delivered over a detuned, dissonant guitar background and a loping sway that call up images of dark alleyways and mysterious figures looming in the shadows. Ani uses this template to express both her specs for an ideal partner and her frustration in making herself understood. I love the way she soft-growls the second line in this couplet: “I want somebody who has a tortured soul/some of the time.” Tortured souls can indeed be worrisome! When she launches into the extended last verse, I just like to sit back and enjoy the barrage of words tumbling out of her mouth, all stabs in the dark that eventually lead her to a definition of what she really wants: “in other words i want someone/who’s not afraid of themself.” “Do you think I am asking too much?” she queries, to which I respond, “Hell, no!” “Asking Too Much” is quickly followed by one of the shorter pieces on the album, “This Bouquet,” a pretty little number about songwriting and its expressive limitations. I find it interesting that someone so nimble with words would also have the humility to admit the shortcomings of linguistic communication.

The last “big song” on the album is “Crime for a Crime,” an attack on the process of injustice that ends with the death penalty. Ani believes (as do I) that the death penalty is really “trading a crime for a crime” to give the fearful masses a false sense of security. Ani goes first-person here, playing the role of a condemned prisoner to give the message more immediacy:

the big day has come
the bell is sounding
i run my hands through my hair one last time
outside the prison walls
the town is gathering
people are trading crime for crime

everyone needs to see the prisoner
they need to make it even easier
they see me as a symbol, and not a human being
that way they can kill me
say it’s not murder, it’s a metaphor
we are killing off our own failure
and starting clean

Unfortunately, the United States has done virtually nothing to improve their “justice system,” though the worldwide demonstrations against police brutality in the States may signal an awakening in that regard. I tend to be on the gloomy side of predictions when it comes to my former homeland because the layers of fear and denial have been around for centuries and may take centuries to remove. Remember, Europe had to destroy itself twice before getting over the war fetish, and Americans haven’t had anything close to that sort of upheaval since the Civil War. As they do with the Dream Speech, people may nod their heads in agreement with Ani DiFranco’s indictment of American “justice,” but are unlikely to do anything about the travesties she describes:

now we’ve got all these complicated machines
so no one person ever has to have blood on their hands
we’ve got complex organizations
and if everyone just does their job
no one person has to understand

you might be the wrong color
you might be too poor
justice isn’t something just anyone can afford
you might not pull the trigger
you might be out in the car
and you might get a lethal injection
’cause we take a metaphor that far

“Not a Pretty Girl” ends with “Coming Up,” where Ani makes her guitar sound almost like a celeste while Andy Stochansky adds an Asian flavor through sticks and cymbals. This quirky background serves as a curiously-tense overlay of Ani’s indictment of the inequalities in the American economic system, a massive anti-democratic structure built by “our father who art in a penthouse.” As the rich, white god “swivels to gaze down at the city” filled with graffiti and opportunity for exploitation, we find Ani somewhere near the bottom of the ladder:

i in my darkened threshold
am pawing through my pockets
the receipts, the bus schedules
the matchbook phone numbers
the urgent napkin poems
all of which laundering has rendered
pulpy and strange

While Father is up there above it all, “the ice clinking in his glass,” he sends her “little pieces of paper” (money) to ensure survival and not much else. Father has chosen to distance himself from the reality of the people who live on the periphery, but Ani sees in both the graffiti and her own sense of humiliation that Father is in more danger than his cocoon would lead him to believe:

but i love this city, this state
this country is too large
and whoever’s in charge up there
had better take the elevator down
and put more than change in our cup
or else we
are coming

These last two songs certify that Ani DiFranco is not only a feminist but a songwriter concerned with all forms of social injustice; a person who feels tremendous empathy for all the disadvantaged (which pretty much includes everyone who isn’t a one-percenter and even a few of those folks). While I’m having a great time immersing myself in women’s music of the ’90s, I feel deep frustration in knowing that the powerful poetry and compelling music I’m writing about will be marked with an asterisk: *woman-created. The asterisk describes how we demean women artists of all stripes with the often unspoken judgment, “She’s pretty good—for a woman.” I want to abolish that demeaning distinction . . . and in doing my research for this series, I came across a ray of hope in that regard.

I found it while checking out a live performance of “32 Flavors” on YouTube that I would love to post here if it weren’t for their stupid content sharing rules. I will admit that Ani’s performance brought me to tears, but what really hit me in the gut was a comment entered by a gent named Andy Wolf, who is now my personal hero:

There has really never been an artist quite like her. Lyrically she is a great American poet in the stratosphere of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan. As a vocalist she is among the angels. She has an underlying monastic chant that floats and flutters as if a dove finding wing. Her melodies are rich and layered. She makes me think of all the guitar gods as pawns to a queen. Her style is her identity and her commitment the purity of her identity; her muse has the whimsy of the minstrel and the courage of the troubadour. But no matter what I write it is all meaningless and she says it all so much better with reluctant pride: insecurity in this really good fucking piece of music.

Amen, brother.

Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville – Classic Music Review (Third Wave Series)

“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 . . .

It’s cold
And rough
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.

Go to next review in series: Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morissette

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