As the black sheep of ’90s indie rock, Liz Phair pioneered a messy, raunchy and subversive approach to sex that changed both the male-dominated musical landscape and norms for female sexuality. Annie Fell reflects on how Phair’s debut album Exile in Guyville changed her life, and wonders if it holds up to scrutiny 25 years on.
The cross that left-leaning cishet white men have to bear is that, no matter how liberal or radical they consider themselves, they will still probably unwittingly conduct their personal lives as members of a ruling class. Dudes who spend a lot of time talking the social justice talk but almost never actually walking the walk make up a significant percentage of most “alternative” cultures, both now and back in the early ‘90s when Liz Phair was making a name for herself in the fledgling Wicker Park indie music scene.
Phair’s debut album, Exile in Guyville—which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year—is a track-by-track response to Exile on Main St. by The Rolling Stones, the patron saints of Liberal White Dudes Who Don’t Realize They’re Just Like Every Other Dude. Mick Jagger’s songs about hubristic sexcapades found their subversive female counterpart twenty years later in Phair’s musings on cheating boyfriends, cocky boy-men, and meaningless hookups. It wasn’t intended to be the kind of empowerment porn that calls out misogyny in classic rock (or whatever) but rather just a document of what it’s like to be a young woman fucking around – a narrative that, as evidenced by Phair’s strategy in Exit in Guyville, was noticeably absent from the musical canon.
Much of the buzz surrounding Phair at the time of the album’s release was prompted by her unabashed raunchiness. Exile in Guyville’s cover features Phair topless (aside from an unzipped hoodie, which she holds open like a flasher) – the hint of a nipple peeking just above the edge of the album. The album’s contents left little else to the imagination. In “Glory,” Phair sings of a musician with a “really big tongue that rolls way out,” evocative of both getting head and Mick Jagger’s signature (and, at this point, kind of corny) waggling tongue. “Fuck and Run” sees Phair in the aftermath of a drunken hookup, waking up alarmed in an unfamiliar room and lamenting that it’s been “fuck and run,” even since she was 17. In the album’s most infamous song, “Flower”—which, according Spin’s oral history of Exile, even Phair was hesitant to release—she chants “I want to fuck you like a dog/ Take you home and make you like it.”
Phair’s sexuality was explicit and, unlike nearly every other representation of female sexuality in the media, it wasn’t played up for the male gaze. Her songs are like sonic diary entries, divulging the latent desires of a young woman. Sometimes she wanted to take the nearest guy at the Rainbo Club home and make him like it; sometimes she wanted a boyfriend (and all that stupid old shit, “letters and sodas”). The album has no coherent thesis statement other than that Phair wants what she wants, and sometimes those wants directly conflict with each other, but she’s gonna figure that out too so don’t worry about her.
As an added bonus to her rollicking eroticism, Phair’s sense of humor permeates the album. She had equal talent for self-deprecation and for eviscerating any dude who needed to be taken down a peg (e.g, the album’s opener “6’1”” starts with Phair taunting, “I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are shyly brave,” and she just as easily trills sweetly on “Dance of the Seven Veils,” “I’m a real cunt in spring.”) It’s nearly impossible to not feel like you already know her.
Liz Phair grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, the same place my mom grew up only about a decade earlier. Chicago’s North Shore is notoriously conservative, the perfect breeding ground for white kids who were raised in the upper crust, and then immediately became crust punks after moving to Wicker Park as young adults. (Now they move to Logan Square, but I digress). Winnetka is also less than a half hour drive south from where I was in the midst of growing up when I first heard Exile and realized I wasn’t the only one who noticed the political lameness of our native land. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard her music—always a contrarian, I was one of the few fans of her almost universally derided 2003 self-titled pop album when I was in fifth grade—but listening to Exile was the first time felt like I understood her as a person, rather than just an extremely clutch addition to the 13 Going on 30 soundtrack.
Listening to Exile in Guyville in full was a milestone akin to getting my driver’s license. As a 16-year-old virgin, “Flower” articulated my horned-up thoughts in a way that I hadn’t been able to. I didn’t yet understand the heartbreak of “Divorce Song” or the existential burnout of “Stratford-On-Guy,” but I certainly did know that I wanted to fuck the long-haired Michaels Arts and Crafts employee at my local mall, and probably especially like a dog. (I never got the chance—tragique!) The album was sexy because it wasn’t shrouded in euphemism; it was human, it was dirty, and, above all, it had a sense of humor. To me, Exile in Guyville has always represented what it means to be an adult woman.
My love for Exile now has much less to do with fucking (or fantasizing about fucking) than it does Phair’s prescient (to me) knowledge of how it would feel to be an adult woman existing in what feels like a sea of dudes. The thought of being exiled from Guyville can be so attractive; allowing myself to be the snarkiest, least chill version of myself when I’m not getting the respect I deserve, be it from a coworker or a male friend who thinks he fully Gets It but most likely never will, is very fun and wholly freeing. I don’t care about whether some dude thinks I’m cool or not, and that Liz Phair seems not to either has always been incredibly comforting. The experience of listening to Exile, and most of Phair’s subsequent albums, vacillates between feeling like I’m talking shit with my best friend, getting advice from the achingly cool older sister I wish I’d had, and eating greasy take-out alone in bed, completely self-satisfied.
While Exile in Guyville didn’t necessarily take a serious stance against the dick-swinging of classic rock, what it did do was arguably more important: it provided women with an earnest analog to it. Decades before the peak of Liz Phair’s career, women’s sexuality in music was exemplified one of two ways: either seemingly superhuman confidence, a la The Runaways or Carole King, or soft, seductive melodies like those of Earth Kitt and Joni Mitchell. But Liz Phair was messy; her sexuality was inconsistent and, more often than not, her desires contradicted each other. I don’t know if I can claim that Phair was the first woman to make unglamorous music about sex, but she did, at the very least, provide me with a guide to Being an Adult Woman. Everything I know, I learned from Liz Phair.