As originally published here on Treble’s Best Albums of the ’90s.
For all intents and purposes, someone like me should not really know the real Liz Phair. Or, I should say, a more typical version of me should not really know the real Liz Phair. If I were not a person that also happens to be a bit of an indie music geek, then suffice it to say that I would only know Liz Phair as the glamorous, more watered-down shell that she became in the post-Y2K era. Not to discount her still-existent talent and candor – but we can’t deny that the development of Phair circa 2000 was more streamlined for, well, the mainstream.
Throttle back to 1993, however, and we take a closer look at Exile in Guyville. The theme is obvious simply from the title of this debut album: Phair’s existence and self-recognition as a talented female musician trying to make it in the emerging indie rock movement that was dominated by bands of the male variety (particularly in Chicago at that time). And while the legitimate talent and groundbreaking ability of this male majority should not be undermined, the absence of female also cannot be ignored.
Flash forward to today – 2008, when the rock and roll landscape is in a wholly different place. Is the argument and ethos of Exile in Guyville still relevant? I would personally say that, yes, it is, and that indie rock is still a boys’ club. Like the concept of feminism and gender equality in general, things are of course better than they were less than 100 years ago when women were first granted suffrage (a right to vote that was awarded, with hesitance, after extensive efforts). But at the end of the day, progress is still slight. And I’d hope that slight is not something that we’d consider acceptable, but, well, what do I know? At least we have Exile in Guyville in its 15th year of existence: a record that can be enjoyed as a lesson in pop music, but also understood as a keystone within our social development (or lack there of). And just in time for Exile‘s deluxe re-release after being so long out of print, it appears that Phair’s message is not lost, nor is the excellence of this album any less respected.
The burgeoning rocker successfully fused indie rock and pop into 18 significant tracks on Exile, which, as quoted by Phair herself in interviews, was a song-by-song reply to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. At the very least, it’s a loose tribute to that album, and ultimately the final version of what had surfaced under Phair’s original moniker of Girly Sound in 1991. The lyrics are shamelessly sexual and self-effacingly bitter, running like a dialogue from a scorned yet unequivocally confident woman. She was already strong during a time when women were learning to be strong; she sets an example of an unapologetic exterior and a dirtier version of the feminine sex appeal that was not yet the norm. “Fuck and Run”? “Girls! Girls! Girls!”? “Stratford-On-Guy”? She wants to be your “blowjob queen”? These songs are all unabashed, elegantly structured, infectious, and undoubtedly real. In particular, “Flower” is so intensely awesome and powerful that it’ll give you chills.
It’s striking to think that we’re examining the debut from the very same artist whose 2004 self-titled album received the infamous 0.0 rating on Pitchfork. And perhaps it was the subsequent period after Guyville that managed to break Phair: the higher-up men in the industry who either loved her or hated her and ultimately took credit for her, grand expectations for a live show that fell flat, demands from the media over the years for female musicians to fit a particular mold in order to “make it.” It was all there, and at the end of the day, Liz Phair is still human. But she’s still got plenty of fight left in her, and I can’t wait to see her use it.
The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street
Martha Wainwright – Martha Wainwright
Fiona Apple – Tidal