“I only ask because I’m a real cunt in Spring / You can rent me by the hour.”
And then there was “Dance of the Seven Veils”, the gobsmacking fourth track on Exile in Guyville, and our first taste of Liz Phair’s unparalleled ability to be haughty, naughty, playful, and pernicious all in the same breath. It is also serves as our introduction to Phair’s more abstract tendencies, stringing together erotic and vaguely menacing imagery in deceptive lullaby rhyme. It’s an apt successor to the pseudo-sexual-spiritual interlude “Glory”, but “Veils” seemingly forgets all the gentility of its predecessor; here, rather, Phair is at her wryly seductive best, disingenuously self-flagellating as she voices her demands and desires so her male subject needn’t do the dirty work (and is perhaps is robbed of his own sure to be underwhelming response).
That Phair marries a relatively straightforward plea for her rocker lover to quit being such a bastard (“Johnny my love / Get out of the business / It makes me wanna rough you up so badly”) with overt references to the Salome / John the Baptist beheading myth / Biblical passage / whatever veracious weight you prescribe it (“I have got a bright and shiny platter / And I am gonna get your heavy head”) is testament to the cunning complexities of Phair’s composer mind. Phair cherry-picks her allusions here, making substantial use of sparse ingredients, and sets a peculiar — but purposeful — tone by invoking a provocative cultural signpost and pairing it with what would otherwise be a pedestrian tale of romantic frustration.
This Johnny character (who recurs not only later on the record in the even more beguiling abuse and abandonment romp “Johnny Sunshine”, but also on future albums, including the opening track of Phair’s 2005 soft-rock tapestry Somebody’s Miracle, though there he’s addressed as a more stately “John”) frustrates her to the point of fantasizing about wrapping him in plastic and “pumping [him] full of lead”. And yet Phair’s poetic dreams of annihilating him betray a paradoxical desire to keep him, what with her expressed urgent need to “get a preacher” who can “skip the ‘until death’ part”. Her aggression is, in its way, a form of submission.
Likewise, Phair’s struggle to both obliterate and reclaim Johnny is mirrored in her brilliant, if blush-inducing, use of the word “cunt” at the heart of the track’s chorus. One of the English language’s most confounding terms, with its murky etymologies and particularly harsh phonetics, it has been both celebrated and reviled by feminists, scholars, and artists. Phair surely understands — and exploits — that ongoing tension, branding herself a “cunt” as a means of exonerating herself for the dog-in-heat visual she conjures, while also verbalizing how Johnny may very well regard her but would never utter aloud because he — like the other Guys in the ‘Ville — mistakes shying away from taboo as a display of sensitivity rather than an act of ambivalence Phair sees through.
Setting the word “cunt” to music, embedding it into a sonic narrative as she does, is also something Phair knows, quite rightly, will alter how the listener hears and digests the word: it is uttered not in a moment of misogyny or anger, but with a soft, churchly reverence. Appropriately, “Veils” is awash in electric guitars that have an almost aquatic — baptismal? — effect, heard also in subsequent tracks “Explain It to Me” and “Flower”, where passivity and aggression collide (albeit for contextually diametrical reasons). Later, when she professes to know “all about the ugly Pilgrim thing” and extends the reference by punning that “entertainers bring May flowers”, Phair is in essence shrugging off those very puritanical notions of sexuality’s ugliness, emphasized by her (however incidental) beautification of term so often deemed repugnant.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting for one small song.