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.
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.