Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
The reissue of the seminal debut from indie-rock’s original riot grrl.
In 1991 — at least five years before the first blog was identified as such — Oberlin art history grad Liz Phair quietly sent around a series of home-recorded cassettes she'd made under the moniker Girly Sound. The recordings were crudely rendered, rudely conceived (covering such post-feminist subjects as “Black Market White Baby Dealers” and “Willie the Six-Dicked Pimp”) and immediately caught the ear of alt-nation's underground cognoscenti, who recognized an art-damaged rebel without a cause when they heard one. Those recordings quickly went down in rock history as one of the finest albums of its era, maybe even of all time: she released 1993's Exile in Guyville, which for all intents and purposes reads today as an eighteen-track, album-length blog, replete with all the technologically-enabled oversharing and snarktastic, hit-and-run gender politics this description implies.
Phair was living at home with her parents in Winnetka, Illinois (suburbia being the best locale from which to wage war on an unsuspecting, male-dominated rock hierarchy) when she began re-recording some of her early Girly Sound demos with producer Brad Wood. What took shape was originally touted as a song-by-song response to Pussy Galore's noisy assassination of the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main Street — a claim that no longer seems plausible (is “Girls! Girls! Girls!” really Phair's answer to “Turd on the Run?”); the record helped paint her as something of a pop-culture pirate princess from the get-go. The album quickly established its no-holds-barred M.O. with “Glory,” an ode to cunnilingus ostensibly meant to “empower” but equally intended to shock, to determine which people were paying attention (and most certainly, the little girls understood, championing Phair as their tough-talking older sister almost immediately). This was followed in rapid succession by rough-and-ready autobiography that portrayed Phair as little but “a cunt in spring, you can rent me by the hour” (“Dance of the Seven Veils”), a scheming pleasure addict who “jumps when you circle the cherry” (“Canary”), a commitment-phobic tramp who secretly wishes for a boyfriend who “makes love ‘cuz he's in it… and all that stupid old shit” (“Fuck and Run”), employs devastatingly personal self-critique (“How sleazy it is, messing with these guys”) on “Shatter” and showcases her signature Girly Sound tune “Flower,” a multi-Liz madrigal promising some anonymous indie rock dude she'll be his “blowjob queen” and “fuck you and your minions too” (unfortunately changing the “and your girlfriend too” lyric from her original tapes). All of this devastation was delivered in a voice so deadpan and emotion-free it was described by Rob Sheffield as “Peppermint Patty on a bad caffeine jag” and came across like the alt-nation's musical answer to another Liz, Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose self-skewering pseudo-confessional narratives also oddly prefigured the stylistic norms of the blogosphere by a number of years.
How an album so prescient and influential — one can argue that Alanis Morrissette owes the entirety of her career to the firewalk first traveled on Guyville — ever disappeared from Matador's catalog is beyond me, particularly when you consider that in this post-digital, file-sharing age, nothing should ever truly go “out of print.” But the album's re-release, while not offering anything particularly revealing in the way of extras save for Phair's interpolation of “Wild Thing” as something of a Mean Girls rewrite, does underscore its importance by stripping away the pretend-porn veneer that originally defined it and revealing the core of what it was, is, and always shall remain: the document of a generation of women in transition, preparing the way for what the New York Times recently described as the lingua franca of the internet, a dialogue that, by turn, has emerged as “smart yet conversational, funny in a merciless way, righteously indignant but comically defeated, where every man [cheats] on his partner and all the women are slutty.” Welcome, boys and grrls, to the 21st Century.