It was a quarter century ago next month that Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville, her startling and scandalizing album that detonated like a perspective-shifting grenade landing behind enemy lines in the male-dominated alternative-rock world.
And now, Phair’s debut is getting the commemorative treatment with a new top-notch reissue called Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set (Matador ****).
The smartly assembled set arrives at a time when the singer’s legacy is in evidence among female artists invigorating the scene by writing songs with the personal candor that was a Phair trademark. That’s particularly evident in the much-lauded Philadelphia indie rock scene, which is full up with female-fronted bands that have absorbed the influence of her emotionally frank and musically unvarnished debut.
Exile in Guyville is a landmark of the early 1990s, a heady time for acts forged with an underground ethos who boldly made their way into the mainstream.
Nirvana led the grunge explosion out of Seattle. Trent Reznor took Rust Belt industrial rock nihilism to the top of the charts with Nine Inch Nails. And the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Doggy Dogg led a streetwise hip-hop takeover from both coasts.
Meanwhile, a gender insurgency was gathering strength. A plethora of aggressive guitar bands like Hole, L7, and the fabulously named Babes in Toyland were staking their claim to the spotlight. Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill kicked off the Riot Grrrl movement with a call for Revolution Girl Style Now!
1993 brought the release of Debut, the first solo album by Icelandic iconoclast Björk. New York hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa came out with Very Necessary, the biggest-selling rap album by a female act ever at that time. And a month before Guyville, Rid of Me was let loose by perhaps the most consistently compelling and enduring act to emerge in the era, British songwriter and guitarist PJ Harvey.
Even before the 24/7 digital media hot-take era, it was a trend story that couldn’t be ignored. In 1994, Rolling Stone did a Women in Rock special issue. Forerunners, including Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, and Madonna, were lumped in with L7 and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, along with nonrockers like funk bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and piano-playing diarist Tori Amos. (Polly Jean wasn’t worthy, apparently.)
On the front of that issue was Phair, the movement’s most marketable figure. “A Rock & Roll Star Is Born,” the cover proclaimed about the songwriter who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and emerged from the testosterone-heavy Windy City alterna-scene that also produced Smashing Pumpkins. She called that scene Guyville.
It sure seemed that way, and for good reasons.
Exile in Guyville was an attention-grabber, starting with its topless tease of a cover photo taken by Nash Kato of Urge Overkill, the Chicago band who also had a very good 1993 with Saturation, their sleek album recorded in Philadelphia with Butcher Brothers Joe and Phil Nicolo.
Phair got plenty of notice for her candor. She was the cool-girl Oberlin grad who dropped f-bombs as she pleased and employed a blunt delivery and conversational singing voice in songs that packed an emotional wallop while sexualizing an otherwise frigid and hard-up indie rock scene.
You won’t get far trying to match them up song for song, but Phair’s Guyville is meant to loosely correspond to the Rolling Stones’ phallocentric masterpiece Exile on Main Street.
The 18-song opus kicks off by immediately showing the singer seeing through the sad-boy ploys of a would-be suitor on “6‘1””: “I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are shyly brave / And sell yourself as a man to save.” By the chorus, the short-in-stature Phair is flexing her creative powers as she bucks up her self-esteem with a magic realist trick: “And I kept standing 6 feet 1, instead of 5 foot 2 / And I loved my life, and I hated you.”
The song in which Phair exercised her prerogative to give voice to her fantasies most unabashedly is “Flower,” which is explicit with its abiding concept of “every time I see your face I think of things unpure unchaste.”
Throughout, Guyville is empowered and adept and selling a fantasy back to the denizens of the dude-centric world whose scene she’s infiltrating and undermining. It’s a powerful feminist rock document, for sure.
But what makes it really have staying power after all these years is both the sturdy popwise songcraft that Phair and producer Brad Wood brought to its low-fi presentation and the heartrending sadness at the core of many of its best tunes, like “Stratford-on-Guy,” which finds her disconnected, gazing down on Chicago from an airplane.
Among the most powerful of those is “F— and Run,” which, despite its title, gets you with its almost naive sweetness: “Whatever happened to a boyfriend?” Phair asks. “The kind of guy who tries to win you over?”
And then, like a craftswoman of the highest order, Phair, who was 26 when Guyville was released, kills you with the bridge: “I can feel it in my bones, I’m going to spend my whole life alone.” She repeats the title twice, and adds devastating details: “Even when I was 17. Even when I was 12.”
Guyville is a great record well worth revisiting, and what’s nice about the new set is that it’s packaged not with ephemera, but with material that matters. Before the album was released, Phair recorded three cassette tapes of songs in the bedroom of her parents’ house under the rubric Girly-Sound.
Those 38 tunes are collected on two discs, and they’re instructive as works in progress and stripped-down creations that stand on their own. Some are different versions of songs that showed up on Guyville; others, like “Whip Smart” and “Polyester Bride,” were recorded for later Phair albums in the up-and-down career that followed.
Phair has frequently been harshly judged in comparison to her opening tour de force, like an indie Orson Welles who never made another Citizen Kane. A case in point would be her 2003 self-titled album in which she worked with Avril Lavigne’s collaborators. The brazen pop move was not good at all, but not worthy of a 0.0. review from Pitchfork, either.
Guyville, of course, didn’t make the music-industry misogyny it depicted magically disappear. The media-constructed “Women in Rock” was a too-loose umbrella phrase used to gather female artists of disparate talents. Attention moved on in short order. Few, if any, female stars of the era gained long-term traction on rock radio. There were some efforts, like Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair, the female-focused alternative to sausage fests like Lollapalooza, that lasted only three years. Phair toured with Lilith in 1998.
A quarter century later, though, it’s clear that Phair is a trailblazing pioneer. Her impact has been absorbed into an indie culture at a time when rock has been marginalized outside the mainstream, but the vitality that remains is largely due to female artists who have wrested the means of production away from their male counterparts and injected the music with an outsider’s perspective.
Guyville, of course, still exists. The music industry is still run by men. But the list of rebel women making indie rock of consequence is long and varied — from Downtown Boys’ political firebrand Victoria Ruiz to gifted wordsmiths like Aussie songwriter Courtney Barnett, who plays Union Transfer on Wednesday, to observational songwriters such as Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison and Snail Mail’s 18-year-old wunderkind, Lindsey Jordan, whose Lush debut is due in June on the same label that released Guyville and who admitted to Phair in a recent Pitchfork conversation that she once had a cover band called Lizard Phair.
Philadelphia is particularly fortunate in being home to a disproportionate number of formidable and varied bands fronted by women who have followed in Phair’s path whether intentionally or not, from Christina Halladay in Sheer Mag to Frances Quinlan of Hop Along to Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz to Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee to Marisa Dabice of Mannequin Pussy. The good news is that 25 years after Guyville, these women aren’t in exile, but in power.