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

Liz Phair's massive <em>Exile In Guyville </em>reissue comes out May 4.
Elizabeth Weinberg
Courtesy of the artist
Liz Phair's massive Exile In Guyville reissue comes out May 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Phair performs at the Lounge Ax in Chicago in 1993.
Marty Perez / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Liz Phair performs at the Lounge Ax in Chicago in 1993.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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