Music

Strange Loops: Liz Phair – "Soap Star Joe" / "Explain It to Me"

If we’re to properly consider “Explain It to Me”, one of the most beloved tracks on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, we must put it into relationship with its preceding number, “Soap Star Joe”, an oft-forgotten, discordant ditty that has all the charm and seriousness of a spaghetti western.


Liz Phair

Exile in Guyville

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 1993-06-22
Amazon
iTunes

The two couldn’t sound more dissimilar -- in fact, nothing else on Guyville sounds even remotely like “Joe”—and yet when their sequencing is taken into account (not unlike my previous meditation on “Help Me Mary” and “Glory”) alongside their shrewd parallels and contrasts, it further spotlights how it is the accumulation of Guyville’s subtleties that ultimately round it up to in-your-face heights. Not the deadpan assertion that Phair “want[s] to fuck you til your dick is blue” (but we’ll get to that eventually, never fear).

“Soap Star Joe” begins like a bedtime story, Phair, in the same husky, mock-macho affect employed on “6’1””, telling us of a “hero in a long line of heroes, looking for something attractive to save”. The verses are punctuated with various “they say” disclaimers, which either warn us that the yarn she’s spinning is hyperbolic and untrue, born of judgment and hearsay, or in fact so typical and true that she’s boasting her expert ability to paint this portrait with her eyes closed. “Joe” wears tight blue jeans and too much aftershave, has thinning hair, apparently waves his dick around like he was “sprung from the skull of Athena” then “rode in on the back of a pickup…and won’t leave town til you remember his name”. Phair’s vocal performance on “Joe” betrays an ambivalence that suggests she’s either singing about no one in Guyville, or just about everyone in town.

By the time the song ends, the bedtime story has morphed into something more like an obituary, a sad rendering of a man desperate to stand out, someone who thinks himself “famous but no one can prove it” and “looking for some lonely billboard to grace”. What Phair is dissecting here, ultimately, is our very American obsession with stardom, but rather than obsessively work his denim-ed ass to the bone trying to make it happen (as celebrity-craving women so often must), he’s lazily waiting to be discovered, afflicted with a laughable, debilitating case of high self-esteem and inflated expectation. The imagery Phair assembles in “Soap Star Joe” is at times silly and confused, because “Joe” is kind of silly and confused: he expects adoration and attention and can’t understand why it hasn’t found him yet. As the guitars screech and shuffle, and the drums rattle like garbage pale lids crashing down a deserted alley, Phair coolly—tauntingly, in a way—instructs “Joe” to examine his surroundings, informs him that if he’s hoping to “check out America”, well he’s already “looking at it, Babe”.

It’s also worth noting that “Joe” is the first time on Guyville where Phair narrates from a third person perspective, the lyrics devoid of “I” or “me”. She’s observing closely and educating both her subject and her listener, the song playing as a cautionary tale, a helpful audio-visual aid to help us identify—and then avoid, pity, whatever we’re most inclined to do—a Guy like “Joe”. And yet the song also achieves its sense of empowerment—for Phair, not poor “Joe”—without being smug or self-satisfying. There’s nothing exploitative or demeaning or dirty here, a classy move further extended by Phair on “Explain it to Me”.

It only takes the first moment or two of “Explain It to Me” to realize how drastically Phair reverses the tone set by “Joe”. Though she’s once again singing about a male subject, this time she’s comforting instead of cutting. “Explain It to Me” functions almost as a “prequel” to “Soap Star Joe”, Phair maybe imagining the circumstances that made “Joe”—and perhaps the other Guys in the Ville—so morally and emotionally diffuse, so at once egotistical and numb to the effects of their actions on the women around them. I’ve been singing along to “Explain It to Me” for well over a decade now, and yet it was only during my marathon Guyville spins that I came to realize Phair was saying “tell him to jump higher” as opposed to “tell them”. This gender specification is, of course, as crucial as it is fascinating. A song that many very strongly associate with such a strong female record—I remember clearly how effectively and necessarily it was used at the conclusion of the now-classic, female-driven indie Thirteen -- is all about the “him” and not the “me”.

The story is simple: Phair narrates the tale of a boy who can’t quite measure up to the expectations set by an unnamed, pressurizing entity (parents? media? society?) The song has few lyrics and the delivery of those lyrics is evocative of creepy schoolyard rhymes one doesn’t realize are unsettling until a much older age (“Give him your medicine / Fame injection”). When Phair laments that “you never could explain them to me”, we’re unsure if she’s now singing from the perspective of the boy who will grow to be a Guy, or if she’s addressing those who made him into “Soap Star Joe”, wondering how they could damage him so recklessly and leave him—and her—to “piece it together”. Regardless, Phair is articulating the complexities of this confusion, and how the lack of closure or resolution continues to cycle and infect all those who dare seek an emotional attachment to someone like “Joe". Like “Dance of the Seven Veils” before it, “Explain It to Me's" sound profile can be best described as aquatic—the opening lyric: “Head underwater / Keeps getting wider” (the opening lyrics are “head underwater”), the implied cleansing also an extreme overwhelming. Our “Soap Star Joe” is overwhelmed too and while Phair may knowingly, rightly critique his future incarnation, she remains empathetic and sensitive enough to examine and explore the origins of his troubling lack of awareness. It’s only through that generosity -- even though she knows she’s never going to receive it back -- that she can avoid her own drowning.

Previous Installments

*Introduction

*"6'1""

*"Help Me Mary" / "Glory"

*"Dance of the Seven Veils"

*"Never Said"

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

Ahead of Offa Rex's Newport Folk Festival set, Olivia Chaney talked about the collaboration with the Decemberists.

I was lucky enough to catch two of Offa Rex's performances this past summer, having been instantaneously won over by the lead single and title track from the record, The Queen of Hearts. The melodious harmonium intro on the track is so entrancing, I didn't want to miss their brief tour. The band had only scheduled a few dates due in part to other commitments and perhaps limited by their already busy schedules, the Decemberists are actively touring and had their own festival in the summer while and their friend, "sublime English vocalist" Olivia Chaney, had arrived from across the pond.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image