What Girls Want: Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville turns fifteen years old this year, but remains as relevant as ever

Jul 9, 2008 at 4:00 am

Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville is a personal document as poignant in 2008 as it was when it debuted in 1993. The record gave voice to the complicated tugs-of-war that women can get into with the dudes who prefer giving booty calls rather than bouquets. I've yet to hear such a raw declaration of sexual humor and humiliation on a single record — and especially not from Phair, who's spun into a musical identity crisis in recent years. By rereleasing Guyville and taking it on the road, she's allowing her fans to revel in that time when she crystallized the experience of taking bad boys to bed.

Phair was a constant presence in the male-heavy music scene of Chicago in the early '90s, distributing her Girlysound cassettes to whoever would give them a listen. I don't know if she actually had a boyfriend at that time, but I did glean from the new Guyville DVD that she had a massive crush on Nash Kato, singer for rock trio Urge Overkill. Kato haunted her romantic fantasies to the point where she sat down and wrote a record loosely about him. That album was Exile in Guyville. And although it was billed as a song-for-song response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., the disc is less memorable for that clever concept than for the lyrical way Phair wrestles with her libido.

Listening to Guyville now, Phair's vulnerability and tenacity are still readily apparent. These are simple, infectious songs — just the singer's slight monotone and her plaintive or bouncy guitar melodies. There isn't even much of a rhythm section to speak of. But you wouldn't want grand instrumentation weighing on Guyville's intimate confessionals. Big anthems and perfect pitch would crush the conversational lyrics, which map the struggles of this sexual romantic.

Phair plays it straight with her wording. She isn't trying to be Superwoman; she just sometimes wants to get the guy in the end, and she's honest that her methods are far from chaste. "I know that I don't always realize/How sleazy it is messing with these guys," she sings on "Shatter," her voice dropping into a low, disheartened tone. Phair's voice acutely carries the album's mixture of sorrow and defiance, especially when she breaks into a quiver.

You can feel Phair ricocheting between excitement and guilt throughout Guyville. She starts out standing tall – literally, on the song titled "6' 1"," her petite frame is heightened by her confidence. But by the end of closing track "Strange Loop," she's small again. "I can't be trusted," she sings. "I only wanted more than I knew."

But what did she really want? As in real life, that's complicated. For the length of "Flower," it's to be a blowjob queen. On my favorite track, "Fuck and Run," it's to coat a sloppy one-night stand with innocent boyfriend stuff, like "letters and sodas." She never gets a free ride, though. "Johnny Sunshine" steals her favorite car. The guy on "Divorce Song" takes her dignity ("When you said I wasn't worth talking to/I had to take your word on that"). Eventually she becomes a "pit bull in a basement" begging to have her frustration tempered in "Help Me Mary."

In the end, though, Phair grew to a size way beyond six feet tall. Her secret was in revealing these common weaknesses in a way her peers didn't. The talented female heavyweights at the time were dark and artsy (PJ Harvey) or brash and oversized (Courtney Love). Liz Phair was the gal on the barstool next to you. So many fans identified with her music that after Matador Records released Guyville in '93, the label claims it was the first independent record to hit No. 1.

Then, ten years and two uneven Matador releases later, Liz Phair introduced us to Liz Phair, a barely recognizable version of the singer who had signed to Capitol Records. Multiple producers — including the Matrix, the team responsible for writing Avril Lavigne into the charts — sandblasted all of the appealing idiosyncrasies from her songwriting. Where the imperfections in Phair's previous recordings accentuated the uncertain mood of her records, on Liz Phair you really had to dig to figure out where she stood. The songs sounded gigantic, boosted by ridiculously peppy power chords and innocuous lines like "Baby, baby, baby, if it's all right/Want you to rock me all night." Even when she was describing a failing relationship, her vulnerability came bundled in soaring choruses and trite expressions of emotion.

Of course Phair was going to stay ambitious, grow up and not want to rehash the same old fuck-and-runs of her twenties. By 2003, she was a mother. But she was unrecognizable in this state of inflated rock. The line that comes back to me most from Liz Phair is this one: "I can never relax/I've got to keep it exciting/Make it attractive/Keep it alive/Keep you coming back." It's from "Good Love Never Dies," a song ostensibly about relationships, but one that could also describe the attitude she's projected in her music over the past few years.

In some ways, I feel for Phair. Unknown artists who rocket to such great heights with their debuts have a difficult time living up to their own standards. She could produce ten more CDs that suit her personality these days, and the Guyville geeks like myself would just mutter that the new stuff isn't as profound as the record she released when she was 26. But at least with a recent round of Guyville tours — where she played the entire album to adoring crowds — the Phair snobs have their day by the stage, celebrating these damn catchy anthems of dating and berating the lovable losers.