Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In Retrospect: Exile in Guyville

Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville received the 15-year anniversary reissue treatment earlier this week. Phair is even performing the album ATP-style by playing the entire thing for audiences, which is unheard of for the lo-fi legend with stage fright. Even Pitchfork knew enough to give the reissue a 9.6. The cultural value of this record is hard to deny.

This album (along with PJ Harvey's Rid of Me) was my introduction to feminist idea
ls, even if the message was delivered indirectly and required some analysis. Phair took on one of the most legendary bands of the rock 'n roll era and their mysogyny with her bedroom recordings turned indie classic. She did this by writing Exile... as a song-for-song answer to one of the band's classic albums. She asserted her sexuality and right to be treated equally by using a medium normally dominated by men. Her actions were incredibly more revolutionary than her muse ever could have been. Since I was expanding both my musical and political horizons as a college freshman, Exile... played a significant role in that transformation.

Exile... starts its attack on the patriarchy from the first song, "6'1"." Phair calls out a promiscuous man and stands up to his womanizing. She stands tall and proud as she dismisses her one-time lover as a slut, turning the tables on the typical male/female dynamic. Like I said, this was just the start of the album.

In "Help Me, Mary," Phair likens the trappings of gender to tha
t of a maid badgered by her brutish, male employers. She tries to temper her emotions by calling on her Blessed Virgin Mary for guidance. Phair even foreshadows this anger being the impetus for her own rise to fame: "I'm asking, will you, Mary, please/Temper my hatred with peace/Weave my disgust into fame/And watch how fast they run to the flame."

The sexual tables are turned by track three. Phair objectifies a
man for her own sexual pleasure, imagining the exotic things he can do for her. One could argue that the glory in "Glory" is not the most savory substance in which to be covered, but she wants it. She's allowed herself to want it. In this instance, it actually is the woman who states she wants sexual pleasure instead of the listener simply taking the man's word for it.

"Dance of the Seven Veils" imagines Phair as a prostitute in love with her John. Again, switching traditional gender roles in music, Phair uses rather violent imagery in pleading with her lover to "get out of the business." She even wants to make an honest man out him through marriage.

Skipping a track, we land on "Soap Star Joe" where Phair attacks the masculine ideal in the form of an American, soap star hero. The key line of "looking for something
attractive to save" identifies the man's true purpose. All the while, Phair admires his tight jeans, pickup truck, and aftershave, objectifying him just as men have done to women for centuries. The best part of the song is when Phair adds little jabs at Joe's masculinity by pointing out his annoying persistence, questionable intellect, and thinning hair.

The double-standards that women can never measure up to are called into question with "Explain It to Me." Once again, the standards are turned around. This time, the man has to measure up to ideals he cannot reach. Ironically, Phair has struggled with the attempts by the media to commodify her own sexuality. The best part about Exile... is that no matter what happens to her image due to unfortunate Rolling Stone or recent album covers, Exile in Guyville remains an important artifact of her cultural significance.The idea of feminine servitude from childhood to matrimony is touched upon in "Canary." The metaphor of a canary that can be trained to do tricks and sing for treats closely resembles how girls and women are encouraged to look pretty and say very little...that is, until those traditions go up in flames. Phair continues her onslaught on femininity by proving she doesn't need her male companion to be happy in "Mesmerizing." Actually, she wants him to want or even need her attention for his self-worth.

Traditional sexuality and gender roles get tossed upside-down with the following tracks. In "Fuck and Run," maybe the most notorious song off the album, the repeated one-night-stand gets the "I want more than this" treatment. Phair strikes back with "Girls! Girls! Girls!" by treating her lover as just another piece of meat. Then, in "Divorce Song," Phair rationalizes the end of a relationship that's long been over and attempts to calm an inconsolable mate. In all of these tracks, Phair is able to identify not as the victim, but as the one in control, the one who won't let indiscretions and failed affairs ruin her life.

Phair then expresses both love and lust for her partner with the tracks "Shatter" and "Flower," respectively. Instead of the man seeing his lover through a Madonna/Whore lens, Phair turns that lens around. She is just as capable of expressing care and lust as any male rocker.

The songs "Johnny Sunshine," "Gunshy," and "Strange Loop" deal with various aspects of a break-up, but the
coup de grâce of Exile... has got to be "Stratford-on-Guy." Absent are the sexual politics and gender wrangling. What's left is easily one of the best songs of the decade. This is where Liz Phair's bedroom opus subverts the dominant paradigm. She beats the boys at their own game by writing a killer song. So what if she doesn't address sexual and gender equality in her best song? No man is expected to address these issues in his music.

I have not mentioned the men by name who have contributed to or were the muse for Exile in Guyville for a reason: Liz Phair doesn't need her legacy to be based on the accolades of men or the inspirations they may or may not have provided. Exile... stands on its own as a great rock record. Liz Phair attacked patriarchy and sexism with her songs. She fought to take back ownership of her sexuality by wielding a heavy axe. Woody Guthrie's guitar may have killed fascists, but Liz Phair's guitar killed misogynists.


ks said...

This album was THE soundtrack to my jr year of college, even though that was a few years after its release. I almost wore out my dubbed-cassette tape copy on my commutes between Dodridge Ave and Bexley. "Mesmerized" was always one of my faves. Good post.

Mike said...

I'm a fan. Does the reissue have any hidden gems?

comoprozac said...

Ah, Dodridge and Bexley.

I actually don't have the reissue, yet. However, I have heard that it includes some of the original demos.