One hundred entries in, the 33-1/3 series launched by David Barker at Continuum Publishing in 2003 and published since 2012 under the Bloomsbury imprimatur remains a fascinating and frustrating indulgence for rock nerds.
Having produced one certified classic in the field of cultural criticism (Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love—so good it was recently republished as a tome of its own, outside the series’ pocket-sized format), 33-1/3 has been home to a sometimes bewildering array of approaches and tones that can make it difficult to decide where admirably eclectic ends and wildly inconsistent begins. For every entry informed by original research and time well-spent at the library, there’s one that reads like a dewy valentine to a 10th grade obsession. For every gobbledygook seminar paper replete with obligatory references to Althusser and Žižek we find a memorable memoir with compelling reflections on fandom. I could spend all day rediscovering ABBA and Stevie Wonder on the backlist, but every time a new batch is announced I find myself, like a lot of know-it-alls, making a running list of the omissions: no Madonna, no Monkees … and while we’re in the Ms, no Montrose so far either, dammit.
Surprisingly, the series took 97 installments before getting to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, the critical darling of 1993. The double album would seem laboratory-designed for the scrupulous adoration/analysis/exhaustive rumination that comes with squeezing 20,000 words out of 50 minutes of music. Never mind what we have inevitably described as the “frank sexuality” of the lyrics, a quality that remains liberating for many female listeners but that risked stereotyping Phair as the Erica Jong of her generation. Forget, too, the audacity of redressing rock ‘n’ roll sexism by pitching a debut album as a song-by-song reply to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., the greatest album by the genre’s greatest purveyors of misogynistic cool. You can even set aside Guyville’s reputation in certain circles as, in the helpful words of The New Yorker, “arguably the quintessential example” of “what used to be called indie rock.”
One would have thought that a Guyville 33-1/3 volume would have shown up years ago for the simple reason that record and artist provide endless grist for discussion. The passions and defenses both stir – in admirers and detractors alike – don’t seem like they’ll settle down any time soon, either.
This book won’t mellow them. Fans of “what used to be called indie rock” will remember Gina Arnold as the author of two controversial ‘90s books on the genre, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana (1993) and Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense (1997). Since the Napster era, Arnold has eased her way out of rock journalism into academia, earning a Ph.D. from Stanford’s Modern Thought and Literature program in 2011 and trading eviscerating editorials on Courtney Love in The Independent for articles with titles such as “Nobody’s Army: Contradictory Cultural Rhetoric in Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.”
Although this 33-1/3 take on Phair won a rave from The New York Times and got a pump from Greil Marcus in The Believer, the reception in the blogosphere has been more muted, with a running theme of reviews being, “This isn’t the book on Exile in Guyville I was expecting.”
That’s unfortunate, because Arnold has broadened the focus on many of the issues that have always surrounded the album to ask larger questions about imagined communities, gender and the politics of identification.
I suspect some of the resistance to Arnold’s analysis has to do with the tools of her current trade: We find more references here to contributors to academic journals such as Popular Music and Society, Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly and the Milkin Institute Review (!) than to Brad Wood, Phair’s producer and main musical backing on Guyville.
I’ll be the first to admit that academic writing often has all the dynamism of Dick Cheney’s pacemaker. I do, however, find charges of “boring and pedantic,” even from a devout Phair fan who ultimately endorses this book, a little knee-jerk. Arnold’s thesis here might not be as accessible to general readers as her fine liner notes to the 2008 reissue of the Replacements’ Let It Be (which made that year’s Best Music Writing), but this isn’t a celebration, either. Arnold offers a feminist critique of the indie-rock culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and making the case requires constructing a credible argument, not piling on the encomia.
As is well-known by this point, “Guyville” was the fictional name for Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, a sobriquet coined by Urge Overkill in “Goodbye to Guyville” on their 1992 EP, Stull. Combining that name with an allusion to Exile on Main St., Phair came up with a potent metaphor for women’s marginalization in an alt-music scene dominated by self-absorbed white guys with guitars and record collections.
Obviously, Phair didn’t stand alone as a female artist addressing sex roles and double standards in this period, but unlike the great Bikini Kill, she wasn’t militant. At heart a romantic, her bailiwick offered relationships and the cultural contradictions between the intimacy and objectification our culture forces women to face. Even so, Arnold makes some pretty sweeping political claims for Phair’s importance, declaring at one point that she used “the master’s tools” to “dismantle the master’s house.” Further out on the ice, Arnold pronounces Phair “the indie rock equivalent of Frantz Fanon, exposing the state of a colonized people living under the subjugation of an outdated and tendentious ideology.”
Comparing Phair to one of the founding fathers of post-colonial studies may seem the height of hyperbole (never mind being overtly academic). We see Arnold, though, set a self-consciously provocative strategy meant to remind readers of what an enormous amount of pushback women faced when they claimed the mic and stopped being the girlfriend or the publicist or even the bass player. As many critical hosannas as Guyville earned in 1993 and as canonical as it became, we should not forget how much vitriol Phair inspired.
Lately in interviews, the artist herself has taken to reminding critics of the regressive rhetoric heaped upon her, much of it personal. (It included a great deal of rumor-mongering about her private life.) Arnold gives a fair sampling of the gibes, quoting letter writers to Chicago Reader who jeered Phair as “the Brooke Shields of Indie-Pop” and the initial Spin review that derided her as a “well-off Winnetka, Illinois, brat” writing “songs about men who fucked her over.”
Most importantly, Arnold cities indie übermensch Steve Albini’s dismissal of Phair as a “pandering slut.” To be fair to Albini, the original phrase was actually “pandering sluts,” and it referred not only to Phair but to Urge Overkill and the Smashing Pumpkins for “prostrat[ing] themselves before the altar of the media.” Anyway, you get the point: The backlash against Phair and Guyville resorted to language that today gets people to sign petitions against Rush Limbaugh.
The attacks didn’t just come from the haters with word choices, as Arnold puts it, “structured by a worldview that privileges a masculine perspective.” Even the praise for Guyville often exhibited an awkward fixation with the record’s “X-rated” lyrics, with commentators writing about Phair as a pornorific gene splice of Joni Mitchell and Annie Sprinkle. Yes, on one level an artist probably understands that if she pens lines such as “I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue” and “I want to be your blowjob queen” from “Flower,” she’s asking for a certain amount of hubba-hubba treatment from men.
Yet the very fact that my fingers could unconsciously type an odious phrase such as “asking for it” in a line about women’s sexual agency suggests how deeply ingrained barriers to “women [being] in control of their own pleasure” linger, even among presumably enlightened dude fans like moi. As Arnold notes, it’s hard to find a male response to Guyville that at some level didn’t turn “simultaneously belittling and dismissive” about the erotic content, often voiced “in exactly the way that male discourse is belittling and dismissive—that is to say, so unwittingly, so charmingly, so that men don’t even notice they’re doing it.”
Critics today may no longer classify Phair as “post grad porn,” but the belittlement continues whenever journalists ask her what her parents or her now teenaged son think of her more explicit work. Does anybody quiz Trent Reznor on how his family feels about “I want to fuck you like an animal” 20 years on? Does anybody grill Mick Jagger on his biracial daughter’s reaction to the infamous “black girls … I just don’t have that much jam” business in “Some Girls?”
Arnold’s dissection of this “worldview” leads to what may be the single most important point in her book: the amount of attention Phair’s bluer passages receives remains way out of proportion to the actual amount of them on Guyville. “Songs that used swear words for genitalia and told men just what positions she enjoyed having sex in were, not surprisingly, written about at length,” Arnold notes. “But those songs were really only a small part of a longer work, just as having sex is usually just a small part of a person’s life.”