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Music

Strange Loops: Liz Phair – "Girls! Girls! Girls!"

Musically, “Girls! Girls! Girls!” is a taut, stretched rubberband of a song that comes so close to snapping but never does -- a kind of sonic blue-balling -- refusing to offer any sense of release as Phair expertly weaponizes her sexuality.


Liz Phair

Exile in Guyville

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 1993-06-22
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After the frazzled-but-fickle shamefaced lament of “Fuck and Run” (discussed last week in a special roundtable edition of Between the Grooves’ Exile in Guyville series), “Girls! Girls! Girls!” serves as both a musical interlude that helps usher in the record’s moody second half and also as a kind of response to the previous track, which left us -- and Liz -- with a sense of uneasy ambiguity regarding the implications of its aftermath. My guest commentators noted that “Fuck and Run” places important, if somewhat subliminal, emphasis on one of Guyville’s major conceptual conceits: that Liz is enacting an ultimate act of feminism and rebellion by daring to do what the men are doing. Even if she doesn’t actually enjoy or feel good about it.

But “Girls! Girls! Girls!” makes the argument that she’s just fine with it, and in fact thriving. She’s just left the strange-in-the-moment but all-too-familiar “Fuck and Run” bed, and is now making the immediate, conscious decision to be “cool with it”. She’s either progressed in record time, severely regressed emotionally, or she’s simply wavering, right on schedule -- as we’ve learned by these close and frequent listens and examinations of her lyrics there’s always, for Phair, a sense of fluidity to emotion, esteem, and self-worth. She needs not take a stand or identify herself just now, if ever, with a sense of permanence; rather, she needs only to be true to how she feels in the wake of a particular encounter. And in this instance, she feels pretty assured.

“If I wanna leave”, she warns the Guys in the Ville, “you better let me go / Because I take full advantage of every man I meet”. This doesn’t quite sound like the Liz from 40 seconds earlier, crawling out of her skin in light of her predicament but also wishing her bedfellow would just fucking ask her to stay a while longer (and mean it), and yet this all makes complete sense. Rather than doing the proverbial “walk of shame” from her one night stand’s apartment, she’s made an instant transformation, a decision to default to confidence and culpability, to take ownership over the situation, that tried and true self-defense mechanism that turns embarrassment into ego. In crowning herself a maneater, she’s behaving in a masculine way, aggressively assuming the demeanor and mindset of her own aggressors before she can fall prey once again. “You’ve been around enough to see / That if you think you’re it / You better check with me”, she reminds her subject -- but has he actually seen anything like her? Has anyone ever spoken to or treated him this way? Or is she simply aligning herself with how he behaves? Phair insists that she “get[s] away / Almost every day / With what the girls call murder”, but that sort of prowess and sexual conviction isn’t quite reminiscent of the voices of the previous ten tracks. “Dance of the Seven Veils” comes close, but that song’s hot-and-bothered-ness was still working towards the goal of keeping the object of her lust (and fury) nearby; on “Girls”, Phair seeks (or claims to seek) detachment, to clear the path for the space she promises she’ll need to take.

Musically, “Girls! Girls! Girls!” is one taut, stretched rubberband, a piece of sonic suspense that comes so close to snapping but never does. Phair speaks her vocals almost in murmur and the guitar -- bouncy, bassy, nervous -- matches the grayness of her tone. It evokes a sense of old Hollywood noir seduction crossed with the sensibilities of a Quentin Tarantino trailer. It’s fitting that the song would serve as a so kind of blue-balling, refusing to offer any sense of release as Phair expertly weaponizes her sexuality. What’s more, the title “Girls! Girls! Girls!” calls to mind sleazy marquees and billboards advertising “gentlemen’s” clubs, commodifying women, alerting men to their presence and availability with phallic exclamation points that double as directive arrows to the source. But as whimsical or tongue-in-cheek as the track’s naming, it also enacts a kind of consistent failure on Phair’s part, a tendency to overstep the boundaries of her own awareness, of becoming one of the Guys as a means of subversion but soon forgetting herself and falling for their shit once again. This won’t be the last time Phair’s will is quickly broken (as evidenced in next week’s examination of “Divorce Song” and “Shatter”) or the last time she rebuilds and steels herself for a fight (future entries “Flower” and “Gunshy”). But after all, it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, right? And after after all, aren’t they simply just taking their cues from men, whose shiftiness is rarely questioned and never subjected to trite idioms as explanations -- or indictments -- of their behavior?

Previous Installments

*Introduction

*"6'1""

*"Help Me Mary" / "Glory"

*"Dance of the Seven Veils"

*"Never Said"

*"Soap Star Joe" / "Explain It to Me"

*"Canary"

*"Mesmerizing"

*"Fuck and Run"

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