Friday 18th August 2017
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How Exile in Guyville Changed Our Lives

It’s the 20th(!) anniversary of Liz Phair’s seminal album, and to mark the occasion, I thought it might be fun to ask a few very smart girls of a certain age to weigh in on what the record meant to them. The universal response: it meant quite a lot indeed. —KF

exile

From the start Liz Phair demanded you deal with her. You couldn’t help but stare at the cover of Exile in Guyville. At first glance I wasn’t sure, was it a man or woman? The head and eyes were shadowed by a hoodie. The brashness of the pose—arms thrown open, exposing a chest bare but for some chains, with just the barest suggestion of areola at the bottom, this energy, this was the sort of bravado rockers like Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger displayed. It was the mouth that gave her away. Open, unapologetically sexy—ecstatic. Her message, I fuck, and you will fucking deal with me.

The album’s stripped down sound gave it a lo-fi authenticity. Her voice, detached, and cool, allowed us to project our own feeling onto these songs. Unlike the clever, self-serious indie boy rockers at the time, who might as well have been neutered, Phair was flaunting her female sexual energy, and doing so with great intelligence and a piercing wit. She gave us permission to celebrate our sexual conquests and libido, and made us feel less alone when she sang that she’d been doing the “Fuck and run, even when I was twelve.” By countering the traditional and accepted male experiences with the equally relevant but culturally unacceptable female experiences, she gave voice to the complexity of that female experience. Emotionally, and sexually—from wanting to be a guy’s “blow job queen” to confiding to us that she wants a boyfriend and “all that stupid all shit like letters and sodas.” There are few perfect records. This is one of them. It’s the whole deal and the real deal.
—Ellissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me, and cofounder of the literary magazine Tin House

liz phair

Jeff Kravitz/Film Magic

I have probably played Exile more than any other album. It’s funny— I latched onto the bravery and strength and sarcasm in her lyrics to get me through difficult times and basically ignored the vulnerability and sadness in songs like “Canary.” I read later that Liz couldn’t listen to the album for years because all she could hear was how unhappy and insecure she was. Now when I listen to it, I can hear that too, in a way that I absolutely couldn’t when I was younger and needed her, for various reasons, to be stronger. 
—Jancee Dunn, contributor to such magazines as Vogue, GQ, and Rolling Stone, and author of  But Enough About Me: How a Small Town Girl Went From Shag Carpet To The Red Carpet

I don’t think about Liz Phair anymore. I remember I listened to Exile in Guyville many, many times. I really felt she clearly understood the concept of boy disease, and was a smart feminist woman talking about the plight of smart, feminist women who like to have sex with boys. I have a feeling I would not be too thrilled to have my daughter listen to this record at least until she is in college, just like I am trying to figure out how I can tell my son he is not allowed to listen to Eminem.  

I don’t know if there is anyone making the kind of music on Exile in Guyville now, because I don’t really keep up. I am betting that Liz Phair is flattered that people remember her for this iconic album, but at the same time, maybe it is kind of weird to be frozen in public consciousness as a 20-something hipster girl.
—Christina Kelly, writer and former editor of Sassy magazine

Maybe one day I’ll look back on my late twenties in New York with fondness, as a time of innocence and romance and sweet cocktails. But mostly I recall those endless, expensive nights out as something of a long protracted battle, requiring great efforts of cheer, and a hard-won endurance that allowed me to reject and be rejected over and over again. Before I went out, whenever I wanted more than anything to stay home, I put on Exile in Guyville. Most of my friends were marrying or on that path, and Liz Phair was the girlfriend who was in it with me, who got the grit of it; for me her songs were necessary anthems. They got me out the door, ready for battle; I felt confident wherever I ended up that night, there was someone out there who would not judge me, who could not just mock but make great music of a woman’s sometimes desperate chase for intimacy. If it was all bitter I couldn’t have taken it time after time; but no musician has ever convinced me more that sex and unsentimental romance were worth the fight.
—Susan Dominus, staff writer at the New York Times Sunday magazine

I aim to be scholarly about Exile in Guyville, to match each song on Liz Phair’s masterpiece with the Rolling Stones record it upended. But my ambitions make me sick: scholarship was my angle in 1993, in the Guyville I found myself in, among the stereo-dominators who chose the music there. They couldn’t have cared less about me—whether I tried to seem tough, or bracingly antifeminist, whether I pretended to care about labor or the Ramones or was slutty. I practice all my moves. I memorize their stupid rules. “I was yearning to be part of a scene. I was in a posing kind of mode, yearning to have things happen for me that weren’t happening.” That’s what Liz Phair said, when she made the ideologically tart and sly and hilarious and sublime Exile in Guyville.”She made this record and blew our hearts open and, finally, when we got it, our lives. Thank you, Liz Phair. Sodas and letters for all.
—Virginia Heffernan, national affairs correspondent for Yahoo! News and former New York Times columnist

I was as obsessed with Exile in Guyville as the next girl, and listened to it incessantly on my Walkman. But of course I secretly felt like I could never be as cool as Liz Phair. She was every indie rock guy’s fantasy—a real guy’s girl—and there was no way I would ever measure up. Then I went to Chicago to shoot her for the cover of Sassy with my photographer boyfriend and his assistants who were all beyond excited to meet her. I was sure she and the guys would all be hanging out in the corner making inside jokes and acting too cool while I was off steaming her jacket. Then she showed up. She was tiny and funny and wouldn’t stop talking to me about how all she wanted from her boyfriend was a diamond ring, and what the hell was he waiting for already. The guys’ faces dropped and I instantly loved her.
—Andrea Linett, creative director, cofounder of Lucky magazine and author of I Want to Be Her

Exile In Guyville heralded the end of male dominated indie rock. In 1993, Phair was the first woman to win the Village Voice Pazz and Jop album award since Joni Mitchell in 1974. It’s a big deal to win something that was created by men to celebrate the work of men. My girlfriends could be counted on to ditch their boyfriends and meet up for drinks and a Liz Phair show—which was the first step to leaving those boyfriends entirely, even if it meant spending another year alone. Sayonara, bad boyfriends of our twenties! We left them all to rock out with Liz Phair.
—Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial

Posted on June 27th, 2013 31 Comments

31 Responses

  1. Erin says:

    Amazing post. This album is in my top ten list of most influential to me in the 1990’s, no question. I enjoyed hearing her say things so directly, calling everyone out on their bullshit including herself. It’s shaped me to be the person I am today, unafraid of calling things as I see them while also admitting I’m no better than anyone else.

    I feel almost all of the same things your circle of very smart girls feel about the album, and hope that I can become as good as they are at expressing those feelings someday.

  2. marjorie says:

    LOVE THIS POST.

  3. lindanyc says:

    Really. Love. Thanks for posting.

  4. Exit In Guyville felt to me like the vinyl embodiment of everything I was going through as a young woman at the time. The possibilities, the potential, the desire to be outspoken and on stage, the frustration with the status quo, the compulsive desire for frankness, the tension between tomboy and feminine styles plus the ability to play a mean guitar.

    It also, Kim France, reminds me of you.

    A lovely tribute to a seminal time. Great post. Always enjoy what you have to say here.

  5. Noel Claro says:

    LOVE this post, Kim.

  6. Bex says:

    Great post! Exile was the soundtrack of my life for quite some time. One of the biggest disappointments in my life was that a friend and I had tickets to one of her early shows but she canceled because of illness. However, I did get to talk to her dad on the phone once. I was working for a pulmonary medicine journal, and we had asked him to review an article for us. He called me to say that he couldn’t because of a conflict of interest. It freaked me out when the voice on the other end said, “Hi, this is John Phair of Northwestern University….”

  7. mims says:

    My husband bought me this CD in 93 and we still listen to it! but now it is when it comes up in random shuffle in my ipod. I have it in my car too which is the only place I still listen to entire CDs the way the artist arranged them.
    I find it still stirs my blood and makes me want to do something white knuckle, even if it is only to drive too fast.

    She is the original nip-slipper in my book and so much more badass than Paris or Janet.

  8. LMM says:

    Thank you for this. I just about cried reading it, remembering how important this album was to me when it came out. I was between my junior and senior years in high school and it’s not exaggerating to say it’s what got me through.

  9. Lisa Bornstein says:

    My favorite post of yours so far.

    When this came out, I was 26 and had just moved from NY to Souh Bend, Ind. for a newspaper job. I found another woman there who loved this album and I felt less alone.

  10. anise says:

    It was my first CD. I was given this album with my high school graduation present – a cd player… Luscious Jackson, my second CD.

  11. yunah says:

    yes kim, this is such a great post. startling too, god!!!!!! 20 years…

  12. Liza Wyles says:

    RIght on. This album hit me just as I was finishing my junior year of college. And I haven’t stopped listening to it since. The only station that I really take care curating is my “Liz Phair” one on Pandora. I can’t wait when my daughter is old enough to get into GUYVILLE (on second thought…).

  13. Megan says:

    A year or so ago my husband convinced me to go to a party by casually announcing that the hosts friend from yoga class would be there with his girlfriend…Liz Phair. I had this weird nervous feeling throughout the party – what would I say to her? Would we become friends and then make plans for lunch? Would it be awkward introducing her to my other friends? (the mind wanders) Alas, the boyfriend came and she stayed at home. Devastating.

    • Liz Phair says:

      Megan, does it make you feel any better to know I never dated a guy who did yoga? Pretty sure Mr. ‘Boyfriend’ was lying. 😉

      • Emily says:

        Andrea Linett’s recollection and Megan’s tale of the lying “boyfriend” is proof that it’s not just women who love your music. Clearly you struck a chord with the guys too. 😉 “Exile in Guyville” was also the non-stop soundtrack to my life in 1993/1994 and beyond. I have both a cassette tape of it and, the cd. In fact, I’m listening to it right now. It still feels as potent and original to me despite the fact that I’m also 20 years older and quite familiar with the entire album. It’s clear from this thread that I’m not alone when I say that I’m still listening out for you and looking forward to whatever you do next. Keep making your voice heard and rock on, Liz!

  14. Kate says:

    Megan, my heard sank when I read your second to last sentence.

  15. Megan says:

    You have no idea.

  16. Shari says:

    I have to echo the love for this post. The album came out at a transitional time for me, too. I was so excited to have a female (if not feminine) counterpoint to the testosterone driven indie rock at the time. I was bummed when she later attempted a comeback as a pop idol. “Exile” will always be the Liz I remember.

    And now that I am 20 years older looking back, it helps me remember that my 20s had their moments of pissed off alienation. My 40s aren’t so bad after all. I’ve got the mo ooh ooh oohves like Phair!

    Bravo, Kim!

  17. Laura says:

    Great post. Best album of my life. And I buy every one after, and I’m never disappointed.

  18. kate says:

    Why do I feel disappointed after reading those comments? The comment (paraphrased) ‘I won’t let my daughter listen to this album until she is in college’ comes off badly. Maybe I am too cynical, but the commentators who were 20+ (and now are presumably 40+) and obviously (now) have ‘made it’ seem to have forgotten what it is like to be en route to success, to make a mistake, to struggle hard, and to have sex with (gasp!) many men and be perfectly fine with it. Which is WHY WE LOVE LIZ PHAIR. Geez!

  19. jhops says:

    Amazing post, for an amazing album.

  20. Simone M. Cotton says:

    There are a lot of bands and artists that define my teenage years: the Pixies, Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, PJ Harvey, but none more so than Liz Phair. Phair’s seminal debut album Exile in Guyville was the record I listened to the most and the one that best captures the desire, anger, ambition, bravado and hope I felt as a young woman. Unlike the glorious mess of Courtney Love or the older and impossibly cool Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry, Phair seemed accessible to me. The Chicago of Phair’s album was only three hours from my home in Kalamazoo; it was the big city where we visited museums and saw shows and Phair was like the older sisters of my best friends, whom I secretly worshipped. These girls were smart, knew everything about music and had wry, Dorothy Parker-type personas, a toughness I mimicked to cover my own insecurities. I felt an immediate and deeply personal connection with Exile, I felt like I knew who Phair was and knew the people she was describing in her clear-eyed, poignant lyrics.

  21. Erin says:

    this is why I love you, Kim France. Thank you.

  22. kay says:

    i still listen to it. it’s a part of me by now.

    and i listen to everything else liz. she’s the real deal.

  23. Liz says:

    I remember the first time I heard this album. I was driving a bunch of college girls in my old friend’s housemate’s car from Burlington, VT to Higate to see the Grateful Dead. It was 3am and we’d just left a hippie party full of girls making crafts to sell at the show, and I was the only one not totally stoned so I offered to drive us to the parking lot. My friend had it in the tape deck. I remember thinking it was the perfect soundtrack for the moment.

    I still love “Mesmerizing.” That’s such a great song.

  24. Leah S. says:

    Generally speaking, I have a terrible memory. But I DO remember the first time I heard this album. In my boyfriend’s apt in Albany NY circa 1994. He said, you’re going to love this. This is inconceivable to me now, but at first, I kept asking him, “is that a guy singing?” and over and over, he said, “No, it’s a girl!!”
    An absolutely seminal work. Completely opened the door on expression and a whole new way being a woman.
    Thank goodness for Liz and Exile in Guyville. Twenty years– yowza!

  25. Liz says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post more, as I’m reading Marie Calloway’s book and the crazy amount of criticism it’s been receiving from other women. I find this so interesting because to me, Marie Calloway is really similar to Liz Phair in terms of subject matter (sex and gender dynamics) and their detached yet vulnerable delivery style.

    And yet, Liz’s album seemed a bit sad to me, because it came out at a time when women had so much respect and recognition in music and culture, and then here came this woman singing about being a victim of depressing relationships and equating sexual power with actual power, and it just didn’t seem to fit in with the times. I know women found it empowering and relatable, but I didn’t really understand it.

    However, Marie Calloway is TOTALLY a product of the post-internet porn generation giving her personal account of what that’s like, putting herself in these situations so that she can test just how far a man will go to degrade a woman for his own pleasure when given the chance, with horrifying and fascinating results, and women HATE her for this and resent that she’s even writing about sex at all because they feel it makes it difficult for other alt lit female writers to be taken seriously…And yet I find HER voice to be extremely relevant to today, especially given third wave feminist views on sex-positivism and sex work.

    Anyway, it’s just so interesting how much things have changed.

    • Liz says:

      And if I were still an undergrad Women’s Studies minor, I’d write a paper on that.