Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold

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Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold

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.”

Speaking of Jagger … don’t count Arnold a fan. Nor of Keef … and especially not of the record to which Guyville replies. In a chapter called “My Mixed Feelings,” Arnold goes into detail about her disdain for the Stones, even offering a funny anecdote about the grief she took while working with Entertainment Weekly for giving an “F” to their sterile 1991 live album, Flashpoint. Arnold feels sure the Stones deserved the grade, saying, “Much more sure than, in later years, I’ve been about all the B+s I’ve given to actual students in my college courses.”

As interesting as Arnold’s personal reflections are on how she turned from a teenage devotee of Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) into a critic with “a deep-seated contempt” for the Stones’s misogyny, it might have been apropos here to explore Phair’s own adoration of the band a bit more. Unmentioned, for example, is the boffo review of Keith Richards’s 2010 autobiography, Life, that Phair wrote for The New York Times, which raises the question Ms. Magazine posed way back in 1974: “Can a Feminist Love the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band?”

Phair would by all accounts agree with the author of that piece, Karen Durbin, that she can, and without guilt, though perhaps on different grounds. (Durbin argued musicianship redeemed the Stones, but Phair writes about Richards’s persona). Arnold seems to imply Stone-worship is not so possible without a lot of value juggling, although her inclusive brand of feminism would no doubt stop her from condemning another woman’s choices. At any rate, exploring the schism between the author’s tastes and her subject’s might have reminded us how little has changed about the complexities of consuming popular culture since letters pro and con poured into the offices of Ms. after Durbin originally published her essay.

Readers uninterested in how Arnold applies Fredric Jameson, Neil Postman or Teresa de Lauretis to her argument will likely enjoy her “Feelings” chapter most. Here the author plays a favorite game of Phair fans: They listen to the two Exiles side-by-side, as a call and response. Arnold gives us the type of close reading that, frankly, Phair deserves more often.

Liz Phair’s great strengths as a lyricist happen to be her eye for character and sense of narrative arc, whether in “Help Me, Mary” about the overlooked roommate who tires of her housemates underestimating her or in “Stratford-on-Guy” about the airline passenger who gains a liberating perspective on Chi-town at 30,000 feet. Every husband/boyfriend on earth ought to study “Divorce Song” to understand how to avoid the dumb things defensive men say during arguments on long car trips, and, of course, “Fuck and Run” simply devastates in the way it captures the romantic’s awareness of how same-as-it-ever-was heartbreak always is.

Arnold proves delightfully insightful on the emotional nuances that Guyville’s female protagonists express. Not surprisingly, she sometimes can’t wait to bail out of a paragraph on Main St.’s “Sweet Virginia” or “Loving Cup.” The highlight of the chapter comes in the conversation she mediates between “Sweet Black Angel” (about Angela Davis) and Phair’s “Canary” on the literal and metaphorical caging of women. Still, for all the dialogue Arnold strikes between records, the exercise doesn’t yield much hope for escaping gender determinism.

“Is it possible that men and women are not so dissimilar, that they are in fact in search of the same things after all?” she asks. “No, I think not.”

Arnold misses a few other opportunities. At one point, she draws an interesting comparison between Phair’s early “unpersuasive” live performances and Lana Del Rey’s notoriously awkward Saturday Night Live debut in 2012, noting how critics flayed and filleted both performers as Barbie-doll phonies for lacking stage presence. Oddly, Arnold doesn’t cite the editorial Phair published in The Wall Street Journal defending Del Rey. (As with her Richards review or her occasional journalism, the essay makes this fan wish the novel or short-story collection Phair has been rumored to be writing for a decade would get its ass into print.)

Arnold also doesn’t have much interest in Phair’s post-Guyville output, its own hot potato. No contemporary this side of Lauryn Hill eats more crap for supposedly not living up to her potential. I often wish Phair would tell interviewers to go ask Natalie Merchant or Ani DiFranco why they haven’t released anything epochal since the (Bill) Clinton era.

Some fans may never get over Phair’s 2003 stab at commercial pop, the eponymous Liz Phair, which inspired hysterical, Self Portrait-levels of “What is this shit?” disbelief. Just as that much-maligned 1970 Dylan LP deserves a fresh listen, reappraisals of Phair’s “career suicide” pop up online. Ideally, the attention will inspire somebody to give her catalogue a non-chronological gander so that overlooked short-stories-in-song like “Little Digger” and “Table for One,” a harrowing portrait of an alcoholic from 2005’s ignored Somebody’s Miracle, break free of conventional wisdom and get their due.

Phair’s last full album, 2010’s Funstyle, may be a tougher sell. Its satirical dialogues about record execs who hate her new music and her perceived fall into has-been status ought to be thought of as her Smiley Smile—proudly weird, goofy novelty songs, a bunt instead of a grand slam. About 99 percent of artists told by their management they’d be kicked to the curb if they released such wacky noodles would have buried them in the back yard so as not to damage the brand.

That’s Liz Phair for you, though. She does what she wants. She’s paid for her choices.

For Arnold, none of that holds interest (we get only a glancing mention of Funstyle) because the story begins and ends with the end of “alternative.” While neither angry nor nostalgic (at least until its closing pages), Arnold’s book has a “Goodbye to All That” vibe, with the author taking leave of the era, milieu, and mindset that all those indie-rock Guyvilles across America stood for way back when one’s greatest concern might be when Hüsker Dü would come to town.

As Arnold makes clear, one thing hasn’t changed—the pervasiveness of sexism and the entrenchment of the “male gaze,” a term that, no matter how jargon-y it sounds, reflects a very real cultural condition.

I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that the most interesting socio-musical question for alt-ers isn’t whether Nirvana’s legacy will degenerate into endless greatest-hits and box-set repackaging, or how wise Pearl Jam was to remain profitable by appropriating the Grateful Dead’s business model. It’s whether the women of indie rock—Phair, Kim Gordon, Juliana Hatfield, Kathleen Hanna, less celebrated names such as 7 Year Bitch’s Selene Vigil and Jack Off Jill’s Jessicka—have found it easier or harder to confront stereotypes of femininity as they’ve aged, married and divorced or remained single, drifted in and out of bands, become mothers, etc.

We know all this goes beyond being strictly a women’s issue. It’s part and parcel of how women perceive that we men of a similar age have negotiated our masculinity. Maybe we just need to shut up more often to listen and learn.

Until someone writes a book like that, I’ll enjoy Arnold’s contribution to 33-1/3—provocative in all the right places, persuasively argued and certainly among the most professional of the series. It reminds me how much my thinking about gender and sexuality has benefitted from reading women’s testimonials to the emotional power of Guyville. It also reminds me how, to this day, I would drink Liz Phair’s bathwater.

Finally, it reminds me that it’s time to renew my subscription to Milkin Institute Review.

Kirk Curnutt lives and writes in Montgomery, where he volunteers at the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum and helps organize the annual Alabama Book Festival. The author of several books on the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, he has also published two novels, Breathing Out the Ghost and Dixie Noir. A third, Raising Aphrodite, will be published in 2015.