Strange Loops: Liz Phair – “Johnny Sunshine” and “Gunshy”

Liz Phair
Exile in Guyville

“Johnny Sunshine” and “Gunshy”, the fifteenth and sixteenth tracks on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, respectively, share the distinction of being two of the album’s catchiest and most melodically affecting moments. “Sunshine” has a frantic but solid rock ‘n’ roll vibe about it, garage-grungy-guitars wailing over big, assured drums, Phair offering up just about every possible use of her vocal register to help build, maintain, and then ultimately break down the song’s structure. “Gunshy”, conversely, is a soul sister to the record’s previous deceptive moments of tranquility (“Glory”, “Explain It to Me”, “Canary”), all squeaky chords and amplifier gurgles to accompany Phair’s faint murmurs.

Without any attention paid lyrically, “Sunshine” is fun and odd, “Gunshy” unconventionally pretty and sort of soothing. What the two have most in common, though, is a kind of trickery: isolate the imagery and you’ll find that each contains some of Guyville’s most bizarre—firm reminders of Phair’s flair for hyperbole, invoking abuse in ways both subtle and cartoonishly surreal. This late in the Guyville game, we’re numbed to it all, grooving along to Johnny’s latest hateful antics, floating away on the cool-breeze sonic climate of our “Gunshy” protagonist’s miseries. It seems that Phair too realizes we’ve reached a place where all shock value has expired, the placement of these tracks side by side (especially following the inhibition-deflating “Flower”) mirroring the “nothing surprises me anymore” tone in Phair’s voice and the narratives themselves.

“Sunshine”, of course, reintroduces us to the Johnny character (and Guyville archetype) that first appeared on “Dance of the Seven Veils” (he returns, even more sadistically, to Phair’s erotic delight on 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg). On “Veils”, Phair seduced Johnny through submission; on “Sunshine”, she’s lost all power: Johnny’s thrown her out of the house, changed the locks, absconded with her car—he’s even murdered their cat by dipping it in antifreeze. The latter is particularly disturbing, even if Phair is being facetious (we can’t help but recall the proverbial cat she didn’t let out in “Never Said”). But Guyville is chock full of toxic relationship woes, and the overall picture that “Sunshine” paints isn’t charting new territory: Johnny’s a dick, Phair is overdosing on his mixed messages, and she’s lamenting being cast aside even though she clearly recognizes that her time with him has left her emotionally and materially destitute.

And that’s where “Sunshine”, well, shines among the other tracks of its ilk: Phair groans that she’s “been taken for everything [she] own[s]” and “hustled badly”, that colloquial “hustle” often linked to gambling and the monetary. Love’s always a gamble in Guyville, so it makes sense that two would crossover (interestingly, the more forthright “Divorce Song” never even insinuates the material in its dissection of the matrimonial, lighters and maps aside). This isn’t an uncommon thread on Guyville; after all, last time we heard of Johnny, Phair was begging him to “get out of the business”. If we adjust our thinking ears, we can hear Phair’s dissatisfaction with Johnny to truly be (well, at least equally) one of irritation at the loss of her earthly goods as opposed to those of the spiritual kind. Sure, Johnny hightailing it out of town is an emotional drain but Johnny hightailing it out of town with all her shit?—well that’s as tangible and realistic a cause for grievance as anything on Guyville.

If we sustain this line of thinking, “Gunshy” serves as an appropriate aftershock following the trauma inflicted by Johnny Sunshine, a fever dream in which Phair envisions the doldrums and captivity of conventional married life had they kept on (not unlike “Canary”). “See monkeys / Do monkeys / Story of my life”, she sighs, comically and sadly encapsulating the plight of the routine-afflicted homemaker. Phair crafts “Gunshy” through a lens of commodity, again dancing with and railing against the notions of possession that apply in the marital realm. For men it is as easy as “send[ing] three bucks to a comic book” to “get a house car and wife” while for women the costs are much greater. The absence of autonomy and control in “Gunshy” unsettles Phair as much as “taking out the garbage on Tuesday nights”, the song’s character voice telling us “the small things are the only things [she’ll] fight”. As the title suggests, she’s hesitant—to say the least—about ever putting herself in this kind of position again, and given the examples of good love gone bad (or love that was never all that good to begin with) exhibited by “Sunshine” steering clear of that potential path seems prudent. “Gunshy” fades out with a loop of Phair hissing “wife” with an air of disdain, a solidification of her intention to resist convention—to her mind, the most dangerous submission of all.

Previous Installments



*“Help Me Mary” / “Glory”

*“Dance of the Seven Veils”

*“Never Said”

*“Soap Star Joe” / “Explain It to Me”



*“Fuck and Run”

*“Girls! Girls! Girls!”

*“Divorce Song”