If you’re anywhere between the ages of 17-25, you may only remember Liz Phair for her 2003 hit single, “Why Can’t I?” — a sickeningly plastic piece of pop that I, for one, somehow still can’t help but sing along to between gritted teeth, coerced by hazy memories of the sticky backseats of minivans and after school sleepovers.
That said, it would be a disservice for any young music lover — especially one enamored with the current climate of confessional indie rock poets and DIY imitators — to overlook the intimate, assertive, and revelatory 1993 debut album that is Phair’s “Exile In Guyville.”
The record’s foundations are in cassette tapes released under the name Girly-Sound, that were recorded in Phair’s childhood bedroom shortly after her graduation from Oberlin College in 1991.
Though these tapes were shared with just two people initially, they quickly gained momentum after being duplicated and circulated within the tape trading subculture of Chicago indie scene. After contacting the head of Matador Records directly, Liz Phair was signed in 1992 and began work on “Guyville” with producer Brad Wood.
The album was brilliantly concocted with such raw power and audacious declarations of romantic longing, sexual liberation, and ferocious critiques of the male-dominated rock scene, that it left a poignant mark on indie rock that remains deeply felt today.
“Guyville” was touted during its original release (and today) as a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones’ 1972 double album masterpiece “Exile on Main St.” Though there is some debate on whether “Guyville” was actually arranged in this way or if this was merely a conceptual device created for marketing purposes, the album triumphs more than enough to stand as a cohesive, groundbreaking statement, sans the hazy conjecture.
Throughout 18-tracks, Phair expertly crafts numerous punchy responses to the real inhabitants of “Guyville” and champions a resistance to the status quo of a chauvinistic, male-dominated rock scene. That said, what makes Guyville so intensely personal and relatable for so many is its ability to keenly illustrate the small frustrations of young life and blow them up into danceable ballads, perfect for backing the often petty but undeniably real situations of teenage/college life.
“Help Me Mary” details her frustration with longing to be a part of a community that requires her to adhere to a rigid set of standards that silences her rage and reduces her to merely an object of their game. “I make myself their friend/I’ll show them just how far I can bend”—words applicable to anyone who’s felt the pressure to keep up appearances with apathetic peers who undervalue your work and are indifferent to your existence. “Never Said” can serve as an anthem for navigating catty situations that inevitably arise in young communities: “I don’t know where you heard it/Don’t know who’s spreading it ‘round/All I know is I’m clean as a whistle, baby/I didn’t utter a sound.”
Other tracks, such as “Divorce Song,” exist in the brutal reality of small quibbles with a significant other and the seemingly earth-shattering effects that can come along with the mundane: “And it’s true that I stole your lighter/And it’s also true that I lost the map/But when you said I wasn’t worth talking to/I had to take your word on that.” “F*ck and Run,” on the other hand, features lyrics that can work in conjunction with familiar questions one may find themselves asking when navigating the messy, 20-something/college dating scene:
Question: HOW did I end up here and why did I let this happen (again)?
Corresponding lyric: “I woke up alarmed/I didn’t know where I was at first/Just that I woke up in your arms/And almost immediately felt sorry”
Question: How come everyone is in a relationship these days, huh? Why won’t anyone date ME? Where is the romance! I demand to be wooed!
Corresponding lyric: “I want a boyfriend/I want all that stupid old shit/Like letters and sodas”
You get the point.
While the openly sensitive tracks perfectly describe feelings that one can feel embarrassed to express aloud (or that only make it to Finsta), “Exile in Guyville” makes its victory laps in the tracks that feature the full capacity of Phair’s unnerving grit and menacing candor. Those tracks are remarkable due to just how unabashed they are and how they can make you feel empowered with every snarly lyric that’s delivered with Phair’s signature monotonous vocal style.
On the kicking opening track, “6’1”, she revels in her ability to demand that her presence be heard beyond the limitations of her stature: “And I kept standing six-feet-one/Instead of five-feet-two/And I loved my life/And I hated you”. “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and “Flower” perfectly exhibit Phair’s ability to completely go against what is expected from her delicate image and release unnerving, vulgar, and even murderous lyrics over hauntingly repetitive instrumentals. And it totally rules.
With “Guyville” recently celebrating its 25th anniversary with an expansive re-issue set from Matador — as well as a first time (!) remastering of the original Girly-Sound tapes called “Girly-Sound to Guyville” — it’s making waves yet again and creeping its way back into the hearts of original die-hards and new discoverers alike.
The album remains incredibly impactful to this day because Liz Phair created a space for moody rockers looking to kick some ass and take some names, while also exploring the heartbreak and sensitivities that come with being a young person.
You can still hear traces of Guyville today when Soccer Mommy coos “I don’t want to be your f*cking dog” or when Snail Mail unapologetically declares “And if you do find someone better/I’ll still see you in everything/Tomorrow and all the time”. You can hear it in the unwavering sincerity of Japanese Breakfast’s “Road Head” or in the alluding to what lies ahead for a potential love interest in Goat Girl‘s “Throw Me a Bone”.
In the aftermath of “Guyville,” Liz Phair’s work became gradually removed from the qualities that made her debut remarkable, making her subject to ridicule from the community that had once adored her every move.
However, Phair has once again returned to the “Guyville” space she created with an instantly sold-out summer tour that’s inviting a new generation of fans to celebrate the record that defined a uniquely complicated time for a countless amount of people. As it has proven for over two decades of listeners, a listen to “Exile In Guyville” can validate your fears, give words to your deepest sensitivities, and turn your angst into power.
Once you hear it for the first time, it will stick with you forever.
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