[7 May 2013]
Liz Phair’s seminal Exile in Guyville opens with “6’1”,” arguably the record’s hardest, grungiest early ‘90s rock moment. It is an act of sheer bravada on Phair’s part—the musical equivalent of a freshly incarcerated inmate slugging the largest, meanest mother in the shower stalls—as she encounters a former flame (“All the bridges blown away / Keep floating up”) and spends three fabulously caustic minutes assuring him that while she’s only gotten better with time (“I kept standing 6’1” / Instead of 5’2”), he’s visibly shrunken in stature (“I loved my life / And I hated you”). It’s an ultimate act of sizing up—and cutting down—set to music, one of many subtly humorous moments constructed by Phair’s perverse intellect (though, compared to the album’s subsequent tracks, it is by far one of the tamest).
Guided by Brad Wood’s assertive, quick drums and bouncing bass line, and punctuated by Phair’s distorted guitar rattlings, this opener tricks listeners into thinking Guyville will very well keep up this righteous tone and brisk pace; as the album pulses forward, though, we’ll soon realize that this actually one of the few exhilarating, raucous blips on an LP that instead goes to and stays in some pretty melancholy places for most if its run. The track’s placement is also important and telling with regard to the overarching narrative of Guyville in the sense that, while the rest of the album has Phair waffling back and forth between somberly faulting herself for her relationships’ many disintegrations and seeking to understand, and make understood, the wrongs committed against her, she aims at her “6’1”” subject with absolutely clarity, grit, and certainty. “I bet”, she posits, “You fall in bed too easily / With the beautiful girls / Who are shyly brave”. Her authority seemingly comes from experience, and we can bet as listeners that she herself has been one of his “shyly brave” ladies, fallen into that very trap, which adds both a poignancy and a self-consciousness to the confrontation. That juxtaposition of “shy” and “brave” is careful and important, and as the record progresses, an appropriate characterization of Phair’s dichotomous introspection.
Though later tracks might suggest “6’1”” is simply Phair putting on a façade and that she’s spent all of her confidence upfront in this early energetic burst—even the toughness in her voice is reminiscent of a child furrowing her brow and sucking in her cheeks to sound bigger and badder than she is, stomping about to make herself heard—she more than sells the song’s nonchalant fury. We hear echoes of this gruffness throughout Guyville to be sure; it allows the listener to recall, when Phair is in the thick of the record’s more tender, defensive, or erratic places, that she’s capable of achieving this kind of self-satisfaction and some semblance of reprisal.
A staple of her live shows throughout her career, “6’1”” remains one of the definitive tunes in Liz Phair’s catalog. She’d revisit this direct thematic territory again most closely, and surprisingly, a decade later in “My Bionic Eyes”, from her eponymous pop record. It is another moment of appealing arrogance, where Phair struts her stuff before someone who’s smacked her down in the past, and whether bluff or boast, commands that he witness her rising above and walking away.