In a candid interview on MTV in 1993, Liz Phair was asked about the perceptions of the sexually explicit songs on her debut record Exile in Guyville.
Was she worried that people might think she was a ‘slut’?
“Yes,” Liz answered.
Was she comfortable with that?
“No,” she said. “That pisses me off!”
Reflecting further on the 15th anniversary of the album’s release on NPR, Phair elaborated on the impact of songs like ‘Fuck and Run’ and ‘Flower’.
“I feel like I had been listening to records for 10 years where guys talked explicitly about sex,” she said.
“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.”
With lyrics like ‘Every time I see your face, I get all wet between my legs…’ (in ‘Flower) sung in her commanding low talk/sing voice, she states her intentions unambiguously.
“I wanted to take that back and say, ‘I can do it too,’” she said.
Aside from celebrating the fullness of her womanhood on Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair was also staking her claim to respect as an artist.
In a Pitchfork interview in 2008, she explained the other major theme of the record.
“It’s kind of like a fuck you to the guy scene at the time, ‘cos I felt like I’d been the girlfriend of the guys in bands or I’d been at the parties and my opinion wasn’t respected. If I didn’t have the sort of deep seated knowledge like they had, like where bands came from and how they reformed, what music was derivative of what sound from the sixties then you had no opinion.
“I knew my music from radio and MTV and they didn’t respect that.”
The raw emotion had helped crystallise her vision for this full bodied 18 track album.
“I was like a diamond of pressurised anger at that point, by the time I made …Guyville I was pissed!” she told NPR.
“It was remarkable as a pop album, but also as an unrepentantly feminine shot fired by a newcomer to a scene known for its terse, aggressive, virtuosic albums by bands like Jesus Lizard and Shellac, dudes who had been around since indie-rock’s inception and had helped foster its unwritten rules,” Jessica Hopper wrote in SPIN.
Conceived as a song-for-song answer to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, the songs and stories on Phair’s debut cover a broad emotional range – from her frustration and joy to intense sadness and doubt – all delivered with wit, honesty and an air of cool nonchalance.
These were qualities that made Phair’s songs a great influence for Clouds’ Tricia Young and Jodi Phillis. Our former Double J Artists in Residence rank her highly.
“She is one of the greatest, most brutally honest songwriters that I can think of,” Phyllis said. “Exile in Guyville is one of my favourite albums of all time.
“The lyrics in this album are so brutally honest about female sexuality and the struggle for recognition in the arts for women, and she just says it all in such a poetic and frank kinda way.”
Aside from taking on the alternative music intelligentsia and their rigid perceptions of women, Phair puts on record her considerable storytelling finesse.
There’s bitter relationship woes sung with such weary relatability and insight for a young woman in her mid-20s.
‘And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead, but if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am,” she sang in ‘Divorce Song’.
With the benefit of age and experience, listening to the album these days, Liz Phair hears a very different person hiding behind the confident swagger of songs like ‘6’1”’ and its lyrics ‘And I loved my life, and I hated you’ or Never Said’s ‘All I know if I’m clean as a whistle baby, I didn’t utter a sound.’
“It makes my heart go out to the person that I was,” Phair told NPR. “And, as much as I’m taking a tough stance, it’s so clear to me now in retrospect how unsure I was and how vulnerable I really was.
“And as tough as I come across trying to be on the record, that’s really the beauty of …Guyville, it’s really such a portrait of a vulnerable young woman trying to establish some kind of power for herself.”
Although deeply personal in nature, exposing herself in a very public struggle to achieve this fulfilment was also motivated by a much broader vision that included the wellbeing of many others.
When MTV asked if she thought of herself as feminist or post-feminist, Phair replied, “All of the above. Basically, all I care about is that women have a better life in the near future, and that includes everything, legal, social, emotional, sexual. It’s all part of it.”