The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
In a just world, that is to say, the kind of world where journalists are able to identify and write about things that people will actually remember and care about 25 years in the future (to the point of getting excited over a remastered rerelease and demo tapes), the debut of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville in 1993 would have been marked in this paper with a full-blown classic Reader 5,000-word profile. Someone would have written a long essay about how Exile in Guyville and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, which had come out around the same time, marked a breakthrough: now women were singing about sex in public the way they’d always talked about it in private, that they wanted it, that they wanted to decide who they had it with, that they didn’t always feel sad when things went to shit—instead they felt pissed.
But instead, the release of Exile in Guyville was marked in the Reader by an 800-word preview/interview by Bill Wyman.
While no one knows what Exile on Main St. [the Rolling Stones album Phair claimed as her inspiration] is really about, I’d venture to say that it has something to do with the addictive, debilitating toxicity of things like sex, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. Those are Phair’s subjects as well, but while she acknowledges the dark side of the equation, she runs it all through a giddy, girl-o-centric grinder. Exile in Guyville‘s epic contextualization is leavened by an unshakabe pop-rock sensibility (“You can say I like classic rock”) that ties irresistible melodies and friendly, sometimes anthemic guitar riffs to recurring themes of lovesickness, carnality, emotional laceration, and the inter- and intramural gender wars. Her theses are sweeping and cheerfully kaleidoscopic, from postfeminist mournfulness (“Whatever happened to a boyfriend / The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?”) to post-postfeminist horniness (“I want to be your blowjob queen”), from dissections of the male psyche (“I bet you you fall in bed too easily”) to her own (“I get away / Almost every day / With what the girls call murder”).
Phair delivers the musical chops as well. Her remarkably facile voice sounds soft and biting one minute, soaring and regretful a few minutes later; she’s a hormonal rocker on one song, an abstract scatter the next. If she learned one thing from Exile, it’s that a good double album needs to include reach, ambition, surprises, and an overriding sense of a journey under way.
“I’m completely serious about success,” she told Wyman, “but I also realize the pitfalls of that, you know? But what’s going to happen to me if everyone thinks it’s hot shit? Am I ready for that? Am I prepared to achieve at the level I might have to? “
Later on, Wyman named it his top album of 1993, but he as he wrote in his end-of-the-year column, there had been considerable local backlash against Phair, Urge Overkill, and the Smashing Pumpkins, who had all risen to national stardom in 1993:
Of the trio, Phair (whose album was a number one on [New York Times critic Jon] Pareles’s list, number six on [LA Times critic Robert] Hilburn’s) had the roughest year as Guyville bit back. Growing up in public is no fun, and there’s no good advice (just a lot of it) about how to navigate the infrequently traveled path she seems to be on. The snarkiness of the local music scene is irrelevant to most normal people, of course, but Phair, for better or worse, live[s] in the midst of it and has endured its extreme, almost pathological preoccupation for about 11 months now. It’s difficult to overstate the sheer volume of noise about Phair around town, ranging from slurs about her personal life to endless discussions about when she actually first heard Exile on Main Street (the record she based Exile in Guyville on) to charges that her label (the acerbic Matador) wasn’t indie enough. As an amateur Phairologist and free-lance moralist I deem far too much of it nasty to be healthy and the very fact of its existence much more interesting than its substance. Phair’s certainly pushing somebody’s buttons.
But if he bothered to think about whose buttons Phair was pushing and why they were pissed off, he didn’t write about it. Maybe it was just too hard to say that the guitar-playing boys of Wicker Park were all butthurt that a girl had taken their record deal. Jessica Hopper got to it a decade later.
Almost as if he’d planned it to prove Wyman’s point, Steve Albini wrote a furious letter to the editor in response, which was printed with the headline “Three Pandering Sluts and Their Music-Press Stooge.” Of Phair he wrote, “Liz Phair is Rickie Lee Jones (more talked about than heard, a persona completely unrooted in substance, and a fucking chore to listen to).” (Wyman later wrote a lengthy story about the dust-up for New City that was mostly about himself and Albini, but he did take some time to blow up the Phair-Jones analogy.)
Steve Albini clearly wasn’t a young woman in 1993 or the next decade or so after that who was trying to figure out sex and why men like Steve Albini were so shitty and roommates so gross and how to say exactly what we wanted without feeling bad about it (because what if a dude doesn’t want what you want and then says you’re too demanding?). Listening to Exile now is like traveling back in time to meet with my younger self and visit the world I lived in then, when the Internet was still very small and sometimes the only way you had to figure shit out was either by talking to your friends who were just as clueless as you were or through books and music. Liz Phair was one of the only people out there who I felt was speaking directly to me, and for me, without requiring the sort of adjustments and shifts that most people who aren’t straight white men make so often that after a while, we stop realizing that we’re making them. Liz wasn’t just the object of someone’s fantasies. She had fantasies of her own. She wanted things. And she demanded them. And how great would it be to stand six foot one instead of five foot two, shyly brave, and tell some guy “who sell[s] himself as a man to save” that “I loved my life and I hated you.”
Plus, it was fun to invite boys over to our college apartment and put on Exile, specifically the song “Flower” (the one that goes, “I want to fuck you like a dog / I’ll take you home and make you like it” and later, “I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue”), and check their reactions. I’m not really sure what lesson they absorbed, but it was nice to pretend that they learned the one we wanted them to: that women are thinking human beings and want some agency in how they get laid. The ensuing years haven’t been exactly kind to that delusion, but hey. Youthful idealism and all.