(Dad, don’t read this.)
If you’ve never heard of Liz Phair’s extraordinary first album Exile in Guyville (which sold under 500,000 copies), it’s okay.
But 20 years ago, it was deeply relevant to a section (an admittedly small section) of the population, namely liberal arts college-attending, sexually active women. And a few indie-minded guys (i.e. these women’s would-be boyfriends). It was ballsy and fucking brilliant. The only other female artist I can think of who comes close to touching on female sexuality as bluntly as Phair is PJ Harvey.
If you are in any shape or form today a hipster (whether male or female), I strongly encourage you to go listen to this album (then also check out Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg). This is the album that put Matador Records on the map. (Is Matador even still around? I suppose I’ll need to Google that.)
Phair wrote Exile in Guyville as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet. It’s a no-holds-barred rock-n-roll album that talks frankly and provocatively about female sex and sexuality.
Think I’m exaggerating?
Here’s a sample of lyrics from “Flower”
“Every time I see your face,
I get all wet between my legs…
Every time I see your face,
I think of things unpure, unchaste,
I want to fuck you like a dog,
I’ll take you home and make you like it…
I want to be your blow job queen.”
How about “Fuck and Run” — which is an under-appreciated classic as far as I’m concerned.
“I want a boyfriend, I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like
Letters and sodas, letters and soda
I can feel it in my bones
I’m gonna spend another year alone
It’s fuck and run, fuck and run…”
No other woman musician (that I am aware of) sang like this 20 years ago, when I was busy discovering sex. And I don’t think many are singing like this now. (If I am wrong, please let me know in the comments!) I was also discovering the struggle between the desire to be a sexually independent woman and someone who wanted a boyfriend. The “sexual revolution” as it was played out in the very early 1990s for me was a tricky balance beam of owning my sexual freedom and also my desire for a traditional gender relationship.
As Jessica Grose points out in Slate, Phair does other aspects of being a woman well, too. Motherhood, divorce, the desire for marriage (see “Jealousy” from Whip-Smart, and “Polyester Bride” from whitechocolatesspaceegg). But without “Fuck and Run” she wouldn’t have been heard in the first place.
Phair may be one of the reasons I have distain for acts like Taylor Swift and Britney Spears, and a little more patience for Lady Gaga and P!nk. I tend toward more punk-pop and grit (again, see PJ Harvey) than bubble gum. In my humble opinion, Exile in Guyville deserves a revival.
Although I won’t be able to play it in the car for my kids.
My Top 10 Liz Phair Songs
1. Fuck and Run (Exile)
2. Never Said (Exile)
3. Flower (Exile)
4. Canary (Exile)
5. Supernova (Whip-Smart)
6. Jealousy (Whip-Smart)
7. Polyester Bride (whitechocolatespaceegg [wcse])
8. Perfect World (wcse)
9. Big Tall Man (wcse)
10. Little Digger (Liz Phair) (this one will break your heart)
What album that no one else has heard of hit you right between the eyes?
12 thoughts on “Exile in Guyville Turns 20”
OMG! Fuck and Run is one of my favorites! My “boyfriend” introduced me to her. Now my husband 🙂 Matador IS still around, I am somehow on their mailing list.
Interesting. I hope they are still releasing indie rock. I think they were Pavement’s label too.
I won’t say that she is nearly as blunt as Phair but I would name Tori Amos as singing about sex 20 years ago. Me And A Gun off her first album is a gut punch song (sung completely without accompaniment) about her rape.
Ah, yes, Tori Amos. She was influential as well. Little Earthquakes is still one of my top five albums.
I believe the Andrews Sisters Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy is all about blowing.
What’s a “traditional gender relationship?” Is the gender traditional, or the relationship? Do you have a pamphlet I can read, or maybe you can send me some drawings.
Maybe there’s a distinction to be made between “blunt” and “explicit.” You know, because I don’t think the use of metaphor necessarily makes something less blunt, although it may not be as explicit. Or maybe I’m just splitting hairs. But I think about songs like this:
Humidity is rising – Barometer’s getting low
According to all sources, the street’s the place to go
Cause tonight for the first time
Just about half-past ten
For the first time in history
It’s gonna start raining men.
It’s Raining Men! Hallelujah! – It’s Raining Men! Amen!
I’m gonna go out to run and let myself get
Absolutely soaking wet!
Rising…getting low…soaking wet. I think you’ll find a lot of female R&B lyrics much older than twenty years using similarly barely codified SEX TALK, long before any of these suburban white hipsters were gleams in the eyes of their traditionally gendered parents. Maybe it’s a cultural thang. I’m gonna have to research some old LaBelle records to be sure.
But I get what you mean about explicit. I love Polyester Bride, and I wore out my Little Earthquakes CASSETTE.
Yeah, that’s right…CASSETTE.
Ah, yes, metaphor. Metaphor has always been rich in music from Nina Simone “Put Some Sugar in my Bowl” to Led Zepplin “squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg” (or was that Robert Johnson? Darn it!). But that’s what I’m talking about. Almost all rock’n’roll and R&B/blues was metaphor for sex, which, bring it on. (Also: drugs.) But Liz Phair! (And I will concede Tori Amos.) They looked like me. They were my age. They put into explicit words a lot of the thoughts that I was having about teh sex. Hence, the fact that they stick with me.
Plus, I can listen to nina simone in the car with my children. And occasionally do!
Did you see her play Guyville at the Rex? – I think it was in February.
No, because I did not know she was there.
I’m a terrible music fan.
Album that hit me between the eyes? Warren Zevon, “The Wind.” He wrote and recorded it between the time he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and his death. It’s the most moving collection of music I ever heard.
Oh, that is one powerful album, I agree. It had a profound impact, and it make me think of two losses in my own life (Dan’s Aunt Beth, and our son Gabriel). I can’t make it through the song “Stay” without sobbing.
Wow, I am still processing that bombshell about the Andrews Sisters. Gimmee a moment here.
Okay. Girls, of course, have always been much more sophisticated than boys, what with their fancy metaphors and mysterious lady parts. As knucklehead guys, we just sat around and snickered at songs like Aerosmith’s “Big Ten Inch Record,” The Who’s “Squeezebox,” and Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Then, we’d get all hot and bothered by Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights,” although it such a loooong song. Who needed that much time? 🙂
This isn’t really on par with the gut impact described by RPM and te other commenters, but what the hell. My sophomore year I had a radio show on the campus station with my roommate, Max, and a mutual friend, Bob. We had a slot, 9pm to 1am on Friday nights, that proved us to be the social dweebs we were but actually got us some listeners One night we got a request from one of Bob’s frat brothers* for something “sexy, violent, and romantic” to enhance that night’s activities w/ his girlfriend. We were all kind of clueless but fumbled through the stacks of LPs (yes, ALL VINYL; the studio didn’t get a CD player until the following year) until we came across Bryan Ferry’s “Boys and Girls,” an album that, quite simply, is sex in sonic form. We played “Slave to Love,” a song that captured ALL of us with one simple lyric:
We’re too young to reason
Too grown up to dream
What better summation of the lives of 18-to-20-year-olds?
We got RAVE reviews from the frat brother the next day. Needless to say, we each taped the LP and reserved it for–special occasions. I later bought the CD. It’s no classic of chaotic relationships à la “Rumours,” but it’s a DAMN fine album.
*The requesting frat brother died later that year along with another of Bob’s frat brothers and another student; they were driving to Oberlin for an academic conference and got hit head-on by a drunk driver. None of the boys had been drinking or otherwise under the influence. Later that year, at the end of fall semester of my junior year, we lost another classmate, Tom Schultz, in the Lockerbie bombing as he flew home from a semester in London, a program that I had come within millimeters of taking myself. Yes, I still have baggage. The college’s memorial to the three frat guys the still flourishes in the front lawn of University Hall: https://www.dropbox.com/sc/71g9z400zpqpdqo/-cpXTnr-es. Tom has a similar memorial that I don’t have pictures of.
Sorry for an old man’s maundering.