How Liz Phair Challenged the Rock Patriarchy With ‘Exile in Guyville’

The fact that Exile in Guyville's music and lyrics are timeless – that it could even be made in 2018 and still sound relevant – only further enhances its stature as a bonafide classic.

Girly Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set
Liz Phair
4 May 2018

Soccer Mommy. Snail Mail. Jay Som. Frankie Cosmos. Those are just some the current female indie artists who owe a substantial debt to Liz Phair. Their musical DNA can be traced to Phair’s esteemed debut album Exile in Guyville. That outstanding work provided the template for ‘bedroom pop’, in which any young and aspiring artist can write, record and produce their own songs literally in their own room. Exile in Guyville provided the spark for future generations of women artists to take control of their own sound and vision.

When it was first released on 22 June 1993, Exile in Guyville was not only critically-acclaimed but challenged the rock patriarchy and took people by surprise: here was a young woman from an affluent part of Chicago who tackled subjects such as loutish men, the trials and tribulations of relationships, gender inequality, and female sexuality with edge, poignancy, and humor. There were few female voices at the time who expressed the oppressiveness of male dominant culture in such a bold and confrontational manner until Exile in Guyville. “It was like your neighbour: the girl next door who you wave to on the school bus broke out with this inner life that was turbulent and simmering with resentment and loneliness,” Phair recently told The Independent’s Ilana Kaplan about the record: “It was like seeing the girl next door go nuclear.”

Naturally, Exile in Guyville has been a regular mainstay on best-of album lists. In 1998, Rolling Stone‘s Neva Chonin called it “an album that perfectly captured the experiences of young women stranded between puberty and adulthood”. In commemoration of Guyville‘s 25th anniversary milestone, Phair’s old label Matador Records recently reissued the record as part of a boxed set, Girly Sound to Guyville, as it pairs the original album with Phair’s self-made pre-Guyville recordings under the ‘Girly Sound’ moniker; it also contains interviews as well as essays by the critic Ann Powers and Phair herself.

The road to Guyville has been well-documented: Phair, who studied art at Oberlin College in Ohio, returned to her parents’ home in the Windy City after stints in New York City and San Francisco. During that period in the early ’90s, she recorded her own music at home on a four-track with her only voice and guitar; it was never really meant to be heard publicly, according to Phair years later. That became the ‘Girly Sound’ recordings, and she passed on those tapes to two supportive friends, Chris Brokaw and Tae Won Yu, both of whom dubbed those cassettes and sent them out to others. Eventually, Phair’s music drew the attention of Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records, which eventually signed Phair to a record deal.

In what was an inspired choice as far as album concepts go, Phair modeled her 18-song record after the legendary double album Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones, who, with the exception of Led Zeppelin, were the ultimate patriarchal macho rock band of the ’70s. Phair’s own record was a reaction to the male-dominated rocker scene in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, hence the term ‘Guyville’ (A good portion of the songs that appeared on Exile in Guyville were drawn from the Girly Sound tapes, which we’ll discuss a bit later). The album’s opening cut “6’1” – which is a dead ringer for Main St.‘s leadoff track “Rocks Off” – perfectly sets the overall tone of the record. On that song, the female narrator takes aim at a male chauvinistic lout, beginning with “I bet you’ve long since passed understanding / What it takes to be satisfied”; then she later goes in for the kill with a witty kiss-off: “And I kept standing six-feet-one / Instead of five-feet-two / And I loved my life / And I hated you.”

Whether it’s just Phair solo with her voice and guitar, or her being accompanied by supportive and sympathetic co-conspirators in bassist/drummer Brad Wood and guitarist Casey Rice, there’s musical variety on Guyville: from bravado-sounding rockers like the punchy “Never Said” (which is probably the closest thing to a surefire radio-friendly single off the record) and the driving yet dreamy “Johnny Sunshine”; to the stripped-down and intimate fare such as the stark and atmospheric “Glory” and the piano balladry of “Canary.” It’s a credit to Phair that she didn’t cede any control as far as how the music should sound, which is impressive for an artist working on her first record; in that way, the lo-fi approach on Guyville doesn’t make the record feel calculated but rather as rock and roll at its most basic and purest form.

But production and performances aside, the power of Guyville lies in the words. When it comes to the female point of view on bad dudes, bad relationships, and sex, Phair’s lyrics – a combination of directness and stream-of-consciousness – are quite revelatory. She takes on the machismo of the Guyvilles in the world with her pointed lyrics, such as the dirt-bag guys portrayed in “Help Me Mary” who treat the underappreciated female narrator as some kind of den mother; “Stratford-on-Guy,’ another rocker,’ is about getting away from the Guyville scene (“It took an hour, maybe a day / But once I really listened the noise just fell away”); and the powerful “F–k and Run,” in which the protagonist ruminates about romantic lotharios who love’em and leave’em.

Another of Phair’s strengths is her narrative storytelling abilities; she depicts a relationship on the rocks during a bumpy road-trip on the rocking “Divorce Song” (“And it’s true that I stole your lighter / And it’s also true that I lost the map / But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to/I had to take your word on that”). And on the song “Girls! Girls! Girls!”, Phair does a gender role reversal with the female protagonist playing the romantic manipulator: “That if I want to leave, you better let me go/Because I take full advantage of every man I meet.”

Undoubtedly, the eye-openers from the record are Phair’s candid perspectives on female sexuality and lust that still feels both shocking and brave. On “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Phair references the c-word (“I only ask because I’m a real c–t in spring”), a term that has recently been in the news; and especially the nursery-rhyme/spoken-word flow of “Flower” that contains provocative and frank lyrics that make Madonna’s take on sex in her songs rather quaint, such as “I want to be your blowjob queen…I’ll f–k you ’til your d–k is blue.”

Phair recently told Rolling Stone‘s Brittany Spanos about that particular track: “I felt like everywhere I turned, people were denying my experience of my own sexuality...I felt like it was really important to want overtly and to lust and to be able to own my own sexuality. I was scared to do it, but I felt like it was important to take the territory back for myself.” As much there is bravado in the songs, there are also poignant moments in Guyville in the form of the slower and reflective songs, conveying a sense of her experiencing personal vulnerability and securities, such as on “Shatter”, and the exquisitely moody “Gunshy,” of which Phair recently commented to Rolling Stone that it was about society’s expectations of women as well a fear of getting married. The record concludes somewhat optimistically with “Strange Loop”, with the narrator experiencing an epiphany of sorts: “Baby, I’m tired of fighting/I always wanted you/I only wanted more than I knew.”

If there is another reason now to revisit Exile in Guyville, it is because of this new boxed set, Girly Sound to Guyville, that contains the official and proper release of 38 songs from the three Girly Sound cassettes that Phair recorded by herself (Yo Yo Buddy Yup Yup Word to Ya Muthuh, Girls!Girls!Girls!, and Sooty). So crucial were they in the development of Guyville, and that fact they had been bootlegged, the Girly Sound recordings have taken on an almost-mythic quality similar to that of Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes and the Beach Boys’ Smile sessions.

These rough-sounding tapes offer sketches of songs that sound both familiar and different to the tracks that would appear onGuyville; for instance, on the Girly Sound recording of “Never Said” titled as “Clean”, Phair’s voice sounds more soulful like she’s actually singing as opposed to her deadpan delivery on the Guyville version. Several of the songs from the cassettes could’ve fit thematically on Guyville – among the standouts include “Easy Target”, “Open Season”, and “In Love W/Yrself”. There’s also a cover of the Troggs’ hit “Wild Thing”, with additional lyrics by Phair, in which she portrays the female subject with a little more character depth than on the original song. Some of the other tracks from the Girly Sound recordings would eventually end up on Phair’s albums after Guyville, including “Shane” and “Chopsticks” for 1994’s Whip Smart, and the brilliant “Polyester Bride” from 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg.

The experience of listening to the Girl Sound tapes make you feel like you are right there in the room with Phair as she’s playing guitar and singing about her personal feelings – this is literally where the bedroom pop of today had started. And something that gets overlooked amid the provocative lyrics is Phair’s plucky guitar playing that feels both direct and intimate. The writer Amanda Petrusich said this about Phair recently in Pitchfork: “She’d taught herself how to play guitar, and because she hadn’t been schooled in all the foundational moves, she inadvertently invented her own kind of scrappy and idiosyncratic style.”

Phair’s music output since Guyville has been met with varying degrees of praise and criticism over the years (the most polarizing of them was her self-titled record from 2003, which in retrospect has been somewhat unjustly maligned). To her credit, Phair wisely never did an Exile on Guyville II, perhaps realizing that she set a standard that was impossible and pointless to duplicate. Guyville‘s musical legacy lives on through today’s many female indie singer-songwriters; two years ago the band Frankie Cosmos performed a set entirely devoted to the album. “She says really smart things and doesn’t go back at them at all,” Snail Mail singer/guitarist Lindsey Jordan recently told me about Phair. “Everything she does seem so eloquent and deliberate. She’s a genius and definitely one of my favorite songwriters of all time. I really got into alternate tunings because of the Girly Sound tapes, which I was exposed to before Exile in Guyville. Her songwriting has done a lot for me.”

And the themes of Exile in Guyville continue to resonate, especially now in the context of the #MeToo movement and the hostile attitudes of this current administration toward women’s rights. While #MeToo has put a renewed spotlight on sexism and gender inequality, Phair was already addressing those things a quarter of a century earlier on her debut record. The fact that Guyville‘s music and lyrics are timeless – that it could even be made in 2018 and still sound relevant – only further enhances its stature as a bonafide classic.

RATING 9 / 10