Great Moments in Badass Rock History: Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville"

Liz Phair was a "bad girl," and she knew it, and she didn't care. That was a little revolutionary.

Today is my birthday -- as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows because I won’t shut up about it -- and my habit on birthday mornings is to indulge in a bit of self-reflection, usually set to music of an earlier era. I know, boring. But it’s my birthday, so I can do what I want!

This morning I listened to Tori Amos’ “Under the Pink” straight through, and it seemed the natural followup was Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” which reminded me of the time in high school when all my friends forgot my birthday. And then they felt horrible about it. This is why I TELL PEOPLE now.

“Exile in Guyville”’s title was a reference to both the Rolling Stones’ album “Exile on Main Street” and to the male-dominated Chicago music scene in which Liz Phair evolved. This album had an enormous influence on me, curious given that much of the subject matter -- mostly blunt commentary on sex, love, and relationships -- was not something I was particularly engaged in at the time.

But I listened to it so much that even today when my chronically-on-shuffle iPod chooses to play “6’1”,” I sing as a reflex, the lyrics forming in my mouth like a muscle memory I can’t resist: “I bet you fall in bed too easily / With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave / And you sell yourself as a man to save...”

There were certain albums of my teenage years -- I was 16 in 1993, when “Exile in Guyville” was commercially released -- that I listened to so often that they seem seared into my psyche forever. As a result, my memory for Exile is meticulous; I remember every note so keenly I swear I can hear the album inside my head as perfectly as if it were playing in the room with me. I studied it with the reverence of a religious scholar; I was convinced that Phair understood mysteries of love and sex that I would never unravel on my own.

This is not to say that I ever related to Liz Phair; she was always far cooler than me, far cooler than I could ever see myself being. Phair was the proto-hipster, a woman simultaneously feminist and disaffected, her carelessly magnificent debut album a passionate shrug. I did not understand her at all. To some extent, I still don’t.

Liz Phair sang candidly about promiscuity with a mixture of self-deprecation and deadpan delivery that I found mesmerizing as a relatively chaste teen. In “Dance of the Seven Veils,” she confesses, “I only ask because I'm a real cunt in spring / You can rent me by the hour.” In “Fuck and Run” Phair wonders, “Whatever happened to a boyfriend?” before singing:

And I can feel it in my bones I'm gonna spend another year alone It's fuck and run, fuck and run Even when I was seventeen Fuck and run, fuck and run Even when I was twelve

But it was the notorious “Flower,” an expression of straight-up dirty-talk desire -- one of its more restrained comments was, “I want to be your blow job queen” -- that shocked me most. It was like porn; it may as well have been for the mixture of horror and fascination it held. Should I even be listening to this?

To be fair, Phair’s straightforwardness was not particularly titillating, at least not in the sense that sexy ladies singing about having sexy times usually was, and though her music may have sounded “like porn” to my chaste teenage ears, it was really just the sound of a lady owning her sexual proclivities.

Phair’s songs about sex were radical because she owned her role in them, and sang them from her own perspective, rather than putting on a persona simply to please straight dudes, or to reinforce the conventional wisdom about what proper women were supposed to be like, both in real life and inside their heads. In “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Phair sings, with characteristic self-awareness:

Because I take full advantage of every man I meet I get away almost every day With what the girls call, what the girls call What the girls call, the girls call murder

Liz Phair was a "bad girl," and she knew it, and she didn't care. That was a little revolutionary.

Phair got flack for lots of things besides her songs about sex. Her voice was untrained, to put it mildly, and she had a habit of singing in a key a bit low for her. As a result, on the surface “Exile” sounds like the vacant musings of a deliberately careless teenager more than it sounds like a real album, but that was a huge part of its charm.

Further, “Exile”’s inner liner featured a series of fuzzy polaroids of a young woman in her underwear, one of them featuring her topless, covering her tits with satin-gloved hands. The rushed assumption by most was that these were pictures of Phair herself, leading to questions about how “seriously” she might expect to be taken as an artist, by portraying herself in such a sexualized manner.

The irony -- and it was the 90s, you know, so there was always irony -- was that the woman in the pictures was not Phair.

More ironic still was that in Phair’s image on the album cover, a tiny bit of her pixelated nipple is just barely visible in the lower right hand corner. Given that the cover image didn’t reproduce the expected cheesecake sexy-girl stylings of the polaroids, it went unnoticed. But the fact remains that Liz Phair managed to release an album with her nipple on the cover and no one cared. At least not about that.

“Exile” was one of the most highly critically-acclaimed albums of the 90s, and to this day holds a place for many critics amongst the best albums of all time. And unlike many of the CDs I played to death as a teen, “Exile” holds up to the nearly 20 years since its release very well, and its influence on many subsequent artists is obvious.

Its influence on me is less apparent, but it did inspire me to start thinking about sex and gender as less black-and-white constructs and more in shades of grey. I still don’t relate to much of what Phair sings about on “Exile”, but the album remains as mesmerizing today as it was to my 16-year-old self. As Phair asserts in “Strange Loop,” the album’s closing track: “The fire you like so much in me / Is the mark of someone adamantly free.”

That much I can agree on.