When it was released in 1993, the album Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair was almost immediately hailed as a classic. Raucous and frank, Exile in Guyville landed at the top of the Village Voice's influential Pazz & Jop poll and made Phair the darling of the indie set.
Now Phair is reissuing that breakthrough record, complete with a documentary, to mark its 15th anniversary. Phair describes "Guyville," the place, as a universe populated by young men wearing black leather jackets and wallets clipped to their belt buckles.
"They felt to me like a mafia of music lovers, who were supposedly representing 'alternative,' but at the same time I found them to be sort of oppressive," she says. "You couldn't like certain bands if they were too pop. And if you didn't know which band had split up to re-form the band that you were discussing, then you didn't have an opinion. You couldn't even throw out an opinion, because you just didn't have the background."
Guyville broke a metaphorical sound barrier with the bald sexuality of its lyrics. The album included lyrics — and at least one title — that couldn't be read on NPR. Phair says she drew inspiration from the Rolling Stones' record Exile on Main Street, seeing in it the character of a man she knew on the Chicago scene. "It was a perfect portrait of this guy's life," she says. She imposed the Rolling Stones on her crush, wrote herself into the story line and ended up with Exile in Guyville. "It was my answer to this guy, vis-a-vis the Stones."
Sex, Yes. But More Than Sex
Phair's Guyville may be remembered most for its racy language, in which a woman makes an aggressive — perhaps even transgressive — move toward a man. But Phair says she treasures the record for songs like "Canary," where sadness takes center stage. "I come when called," she sings. "I come. That's all."
For a generation of women, Phair's masterpiece expressed the secrets of their lives. "As a female, I don't think you're supposed to say the kind of things I wanted to say," she remembers. "Or at least I had gotten myself in a position where I didn't feel comfortable saying to people's faces a lot of the stuff I said on that record."
Phair says she was tired of the sanctioned female approach to songs about sex. "I feel like I had been listening to records for 10 years where guys talked explicitly about sex," she says. "Women were sort of shunted to the area of emotion. But I've always been really pissed off, frankly, [about] that whole myth that women aren't interested in sex. If you had 30,000 years of really bad consequences for being interested in sex, you might hide it, too."
For the young Phair, sex was a tool, a means to another end. She had yet to understand her own body, to come to terms with her own needs. "I'll just get really honest with you right now," she says. "I was pretty good in bed at that point from the point of view of what the guys wanted, but pretty bad in terms of my own enjoyment. And yes, that made me angry. But it was my own fault in some sense." As she matured into real sexual confidence, she says, the anger faded — in real life and in her music.
Looking back at Exile in Guyville, Phair sees a young woman struggling to establish some kind of control over her own life. "I kind of hear how unhappy I was. It makes my heart go out to the person I was," she says. "It's so clear to me now how unsure I was and how vulnerable I really was."