I recall playing “Flower” for a friend when I was home on spring break, circa 2002, having just recently become absorbed in the wonders of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. Her response? “That’s the filthiest thing I’ve ever heard.”
This friend was no prude, mind you: she was a raven-haired, pale skinned, strategically pierced Nine Inch Nails enthusiast studying Psychology. And yet, something about the song stirred a very clear and very immediate sense of disgust within her and an impulse not only to skip the track, but to change the CD altogether. I was also instantly mortified at just how poorly I had mis-anticipated her reaction (and made me wonder if I, a 20-year-old male, was misunderstanding and connecting to a piece of text that simply was not meant for me*).
When preparing to write this week’s Between the Grooves entry, it crossed my mind to perhaps let the lyrics stand for themselves, a piece of potty-mouthed poetry doubling as a Litmus test for potential Guyville listeners: if you can read the lyrics to “Flower” — aloud, preferably — and you’re more intrigued than put off, blushing but not balking, pull up a seat, grab some headphones, and take it from the top.
“Flower” is arguably the Guyville tune least in need of argument at all. It is the most vulgar by a mile, sure, but it is also one of the record’s most important offerings, a song that transcends (or sacrifices, depending on perspective) the necessities of narrative, context, and genre in order to achieve its unconventional form. Musically, it’s little more than sustained amplifier feedback with short, measured bursts of aquatic-tinged distortion (I’ll refrain from any “wet” punnage). Lyrically, it’s a heady, unnervingly frank twister of sexual scenario, and the album’s most provocative tonal puzzle: imageries of dominance and submission crisscross over one another with discomfiting insistence, aided by Phair’s darkly comic layering of her choirgirl-falsetto over her husky main vocal. It’s an obvious production move, sure, but utterly effective in its lack of irony or subtlety. Phair isn’t out to teach us a lesson about the Madonna/whore complex, to profess anything of the tension between homemaker and homewrecker; rather, she’s articulating something primal and confusing that exists in each of us, an instinctive vacillation between sleazy and sweet expressions of physical love.
Which brings me back to my friend, rejecting “Flower” when I thought it would, at worst, elicit nervous laughter, and at best excite and empower her. Why was it that she could sing along, without shyness, to NIN’s Trent Reznor proclaiming his desire to “fuck you like an animal” but was so turned off upon hearing a voice closer to hers make similar erotic demands? Men detailing what they’d like to do to or have done to by women is old hat in every corner of our culture, music certainly no exception. But women, historically, aren’t supposed to speak of sex the way men do, right? And after all, isn’t that the implicit invitation in the very explicit “Flower” and of Guyville as a whole? Remember that Phair isn’t alone on that track; she’s harmonizing with another voice, the sing-a-long serving as a kind of solidarity. Phair extends this communal intention to recent live performances of “Flower”, typically plucking a young woman or two from the crowd to join her on stage and sing beside her. While Phair instructs and nurtures her impromptu TAs through the song with confidence, there’s a palpable sense of exhilaration, embarrassment, and bad-assery coursing through their veins. It’s a reminder of what “Flower” and Phair and Guyville have given them: the permission, if even for just a hair over two minutes, to tap into and vocalize baser instincts without the threat of stigma and with the security that you’re never doing so alone.
* I recommend taking a listen to Pansy Division’s notable 1995 cover of the song. The male vocal both underscores the original’s defiance with regards to gender expectation and adds a queer perspective that transforms the song altogether.