Liz Phair and Her Exile in the City of Dudes

In Music 3 August, 2023

Sergio Ariza

Sergio Ariza


It’s hard to explain the impact of Exile In Guyville on the world of alternative music. First of all, it was an indie rock album made by a girl, there weren’t many on the scene and those that were, people like PJ Harvey, Katheleen Hannah or Kim Gordon looked like warriors who could rip your head off, while Liz Phair looked like the girl next door you fell in love with in stupid romantic comedies. Of course no one expected Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts to say things like Every time I see your face/I think of things unpure, unchaste/I want to fuck you like a dog/I’ll take you home and make you like it […] I want to be your blowjob queen.

But the record was also programmed as a song-by-song response to a record as un-indie as the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, with Phair sequencing the record in his own image (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t), and it’s about, as well as fucking and running, the Chicago indie scene that included bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill, who were the ones Liz took the name ‘Guyville’ from, although I guess these days it would be called Chauvinist City.

The point is that, on the one hand, Phair wanted to be part of that scene and, on the other, he realized how much macho bullshit there was in there. His album is the perfect distillation of both, an indie album on all four sides with lyrics about all the nonsense that surrounded the movement, perhaps best exemplified in “Stratford-On-Guy”, in which, from an aeroplane, he realises how small and ridiculous Guyville, and the whole scene, looks from the sky.

The funny thing is that this album was her definitive breakthrough, making her a renowned name, but she never managed to top it, she still had a few great songs up her sleeve, like “Supernova” or “Polyester Bride”, but there will never be another album to live up to Exile On Guyville.

But let’s go back to the beginning, the origin of this record comes from several cassettes that Phair recorded with several of the songs that would later appear here, the first of them in 1991. He did this under the alias Girly-Sound and initially passed them on to a couple of friends, but copies of them began to circulate and word spread around town until the owner of a small independent, Feel Good All Over, put him in touch with producer Brad Wood and they began recording. But Girly-Sound’s tapes would find their way further afield to the offices of Matador Records who decided to offer him a contract.

When Liz Phair decided to record the album, she wasn’t sure how to make one, so she decided to copy the composition of Exile On Main Street and end up with a double album of 18 songs. Sometimes the connection between songs doesn’t make much sense, other times it makes perfect sense. Don’t forget that in the place on the Stones album in which “Tumbling Dice”, their best known song, appears, the singer puts “Never Said”, the clearest single from their album, and the two were the introductory singles for both albums.

But the parallels with the Stones’ masterpiece go even further, with some Guyville songs being direct responses to Jagger and Richards’ songs. For example, the 10th song on the ’72 album is “Happy”, another of his seminal songs, in which Keith sings I need a love to keep me happy and talks about how he’s a loose cannon but needs love, well Guyville’s 10th song is “Fuck And Run”, another of his essentials. In the chorus, Liz Phair replies to the Stone I want a boyfriend/I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas. And she ends the song with another of those moments that shocked everyone: I can feel it in my bones/I’m gonna spend my whole life alone/It’s fuck and run, fuck and run/Even when I was seventeen/Fuck and run, fuck and run/Even when I was twelve.

Then there was that musical oddity called “Flower” in which Phair let all her sexuality out without holding back and that was a response to her corresponding song, “Let It Loose”, in which Jagger invited just that, to let go, although I suppose even his own Satanic Majesty would blush to hear that girl say such things.

And, as I pointed out at the beginning, Liz Phair exploited her insecurities and let them out in totally direct lyrics, she may have looked like the personification of “Flower” on the cover, the topless man-eater, but she was far removed from that, it was just one more of her many contradictions. PJ Harvey released a song that same year in which she turned herself into a 15-metre-long Queen, Phair was content, in her more daring moments, to rise a metre 85 centimetres, as in the song that opened the album.

Exile In Guyville was pure indie rock, mixing fi, great melodies and a radical honesty in the lyrics, exemplified not in the more explicitly sexual phrases, but in that devastating sentence of another of the fundamental songs, “Divorce Song”, in which he said That it’s harder to be friends than lovers/And you shouldn’t try to mix the two/’Cause if you do it and you’re still unhappy/Then you know that the problem is you.

Ahora que parece que hay un nuevo resurgimiento de ese sonido, Exile in Guyville y Liz Phair se han convertido en el faro para toda una nueva generación de artistas como Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Lucy Dacus, Frankie Cosmos, Julien Baker, Jay Som o Snail Mail que siguen bebiendo de la fuente inagotable de este disco.

Now that there seems to be a new resurgence of that sound, Exile in Guyville and Liz Phair have become the beacon for a whole new generation of artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Lucy Dacus, Frankie Cosmos, Julien Baker, Jay Som or Snail Mail who continue to drink from the inexhaustible source of this record.

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PJ HarveyKatheleen HannahKim GordonLiz PhairPhoebe BridgersSoccer MommyLucy DacusFrankie CosmosJulien BakerBrad WoodJay SomExile In Guyville

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