In the tradition of under-appreciated female guitarists, most of you have probably never heard of Liz Phair. She lacks the cult following and folky lyrics of Ani DiFranco or the politicized agenda of Michelle Shocked. In influence, talent and hipness she has few peers.
Phair’s 1993 release Exile in Guyville is formatted as a response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. She breaks down the testosterone-saturated rock world, announcing her presence as a larger-than-life injection of estrogen (and progesterone as well, perhaps). As she proclaims on the opening track “6’1″,” “And I kept standing six foot one/ instead of five foot two/ and I loved my life/ and I hated you,” she stands tall among giants. While she didn’t instigate the RiotGrrrl movement, and is certainly not its most fitting spokeswoman, her success brought focus to the girly side of alt-rock in the beginning of a decade dominated by grungy male groups.
Waify, blonde, and raised in the rich white suburbs of the Midwest, Phair is a far cry from the destitute artiste image many of her contemporaries embrace. She made her splash debut as the Rolling Stone cover girl under the title “The New Women in Rock,” subverting the more established alt-rocker women such as PJ Harvey or Bikini Kill. Unlike her male counterparts of the time, Phair reaches above the doldrums of existential crises (a la Pearl Jam) and takes a refreshingly frank look at life.
Her thin, wavering voice describes the young female experience with lyrics that are at times shockingly explicit. Calling herself a ‘blow job queen’ and claiming, “I take full advantage of every man I meet,” she growls out eighteen tracks of simple hooks and catchy choruses. She addresses the struggle to define her place in the male-centric rock universe, “as they egg me on and keep me mad/ they play me like a pitbull in a basement — temper my hatred with peace/ weave my disgust into fame/ and watch how fast they run to the flame.” In “Divorce Song,” she tackles the honest mistakes in relationships and the real pain that results. Phair is never apologetic; she flaunts her sexuality, how she uses it to manipulate men, and that she likes sex done right.
It’s not just the explicit imagery of Phair’s lyrics that lend them their raw, tangible quality. She is often dismissed as a middle class girly girl who slums it on the weekends with her four track, but she pulls off her faux-authentic image with the utmost of sardonic smiles. In this way, the influence of Exile in Guyville can be felt all the way down the history of female rockers in the 90s. More mellow than Courtney Love, less polished than Sarah McLachlan, ballsier than Sheryl Crow and several thousand times more genuine than Jewel, Phair is nevertheless an impetus behind and a complement beside the Lilith Fair chick-fest, refined yuppie alt-rock, and grunge-queen spasticness.
Phair continues to evolve. Her second album, Whipsmart, shows her foray into more synthesized sounds, while not abandoning the stripped down sonic quality of Exile. She details the experience of motherhood in “whitechocolatespaceegg,” never letting her audience forget why she’s still in charge.
Exile in Guyville is the kind of album you listen to from beginning to end. The shorter tracks at the beginning eventually give way to more meandering, atmospheric and emotional songs, culminating in “Strange Loop” where she exhales, “Baby, I’m tired of fighting–I only wanted more than I knew.” Every song is a bridge to the next. You will remember the first time you heard it, even as you play it decades later, finding it every bit as relevant and honest as the first spin.