Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Exile in Guyville: Liz Phair's Unruly Teenager

Since I've been writing about 30-year old albums this year (with at least one more to come), it seems only fair that I say something about Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair's landmark album, which turns 15 this month. And thanks to Sheila for reminding me that this was something well worth writing about.

You should read her entire post, but here's an excerpt:

But Exile in Guyville was a singular event, one of those albums that came along and expressed a truth about a certain KIND of person, in a certain KIND of environment ... Not all women are going to relate to the images of womanhood that Liz Phair exposes in Exile in Guyville, but if you do? You're hooked for good - because there's not a lot of other women out there doing what Phair did at that time. It's a messy and complicated and beautiful woman - I don't know, I'm thinking of someone like Chrissie Hynde, who seems to embody the same type of woman ... except Liz Phair does it in a mid-90s context, as opposed to 70s and 80s. Liz Phair is strictly Generation X, and so am I - poster children for the cliches of our generation. We're about the same age. We were in Chicago at the same time. Hanging out (in some cases) in the same crowd. The album came out as I was going through it, so listening to it for the first time was one of those uncanny "Holy sh*t, did she read my diary??" moments.

My perspective on the album is different, because my circumstances were/are different. With some exceptions, I've never been someone who goes straight to the lyric sheet of an album. There isn't one on Exile in Guyville, but I didn't go out of my way to figure out what she was singing about, and whether I could relate to it or not. It's true that some of the songs were pretty easy to figure out - "F*ck and Run," for instance, or "Girls! Girls! Girls!," and a couple of others (it's hard, for example, to miss a line like "I want to f*ck you like a dog and make you like it..."). But Phair's attitude is evident in the tone of every song, and in the self-assured way she sings them. From the first time you hear the album, you can just tell that this is an artist with the goods - someone who will be around for a generation.

In her post, Sheila makes reference to the fact that a lot of Phair fans find her later work to be a betrayal of the promise of Exile in Guyville (that discussion also takes place in some of the comments to her post). That kind of thinking has always driven me batsh*t crazy, not only because I think it's dead wrong, but also because I think in many cases an accusation of "betrayal" says more about the listener than it does the artist. It's only natural for fans of an artist to gravitate towards one of their works, but I've never understood the mindset that results in disdain for the rest of that artist's other works just because it doesn't quite measure up to the favorite.

Liz Phair, released in 2002, may be the all-time best example of the phenomenon (others include Born in the USA, and Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight). The absolute venom with which the album was greeted upon its release was shocking (with some exceptions; Robert Christgau, for example, thought it was great); the general attitude seemed to be that Phair had somehow committed a crime by working with the same producers as Avril Lavigne. Well, I have a confession to make, because Liz Phair is my favorite album of hers. I simply can't fathom why people would not like that album, and it breaks my heart a little that it didn't make her a huge star. Without question, it is the most underappreciated album of the decade. So be it. But to bring this post back to where it began, I also can't say anything but wonderful things about the debut. While I really do believe that much of Phair's later work can stand proudly next to the debut, there's no question that she never again captured the moment as she did on Exile in Guyville.

Happy Birthday!


Sheila O'Malley said...

Bless you! I loved Liz Phair as well (the album, I mean) - "Extraordinary", "Rock Me", "My Bionic Eyes" - these are great songs. Not to mention H.W.C. which is hysterical - the sort of sweet melody and those lyrics!!

Wonderful thoughts, Jeff - thanks for them! I am eager to see whatever she does next. As far as I'm concerned, she is always pushing herself, always doing something interesting.

That whole "selling out" sneer from fans is something that some artists internalize to such a degree that they can't enjoy success - Kurt Cobain being the obvious example. And it's a shame, it really is.

Jeff said...

I think The Who had it right - calling an album "The Who Sell Out" and then basically making fun of the entire concept on the cover.