Rock Albums that Changed the World: Exile in Guyville

In 1991, the meteoric success of punk band Nirvana mercilessly tore through the body of rock and roll like chemotherapy. Suddenly, the big-selling pop-metal hair bands of the late 80s were done. “New music” was termed Alternative Rock while well-loved luminary bands and artists of the 60s and 70s were suddenly relegated to nostalgia tours and Classic Rock stations (essentially, oldies radio for Baby Boomers). But it wasn’t just personnel changes and marketing strategy that shifted. Punk was a dagger to the heart of the rock ethos itself and a new one needed to be written for the post-modern age that was dawning, one in which we still find ourselves almost 30 years later.

Forged during the Civil Rights Era and codified at Woodstock, what I’m terming the “rock ethos” here is a set of beliefs, at the center of which is an earnestness, a lack of guile, and an idealism about the world, the belief that change is possible and that music itself can empower people to band together to heal the world through love and poetry. But the core element of this worldview, the rock ethos, is authenticity. Truth.

Maybe its a function of time. Or capitalism, which seeks to commercialize and commoditize whatever is available. Maybe it was the drugs or just bad advice, or a lack of creativity, or all of these aspects working together. But the original authenticity and pure excitement of rock eventually gave way to more powerful forces. Money. Power. Hubris. Cynicism.

All of which precipitated — no, necessitated the arrival of the late 70s punk movement and soon after, the glossy, overproduced hair bands of the late 80s demanded the early 90s rise of grunge and Nirvana’s neo-punk revolution to finally clean out the dead ideas, infuse a new energy, and establish a new philosophy around music, one less grounded in power hierarchies and falseness.

When Liz Phair arrived on the scene to help write a new rock ethos founded in irony, complexity, confessional authenticity, and a new brand of female empowerment, the world was a different place from what we see today. We may still be currently living in the world that Phair helped to create but these deeply ironic times we are currently experiencing was not the doorstep that Exile in Guyville landed on when it arrived in 1993. And immersed as we currently are in the fearless #MeToo revolution, it’s hard to appreciate the measure of audacity and bravery that the Guyville double album represented in 1993.

In the summer of 1991, Chicago visual artist Liz Phair put down a set of songs on 4-track cassette and let the results trickle out under the moniker Girly Sound (initially releasing only two mixdown tapes). Word of mouth and cassette duping got the Girly Sound tapes to various musicians and influencers, eventually reaching John Henderson head of a local indie label, who forged plans with Phair to re-record and release the material. The way she tells it, talks with Henderson quickly disintegrated though when he immediately took the reins and showed how her ideas “didn’t work” and his offers of solutions for songs that she felt didn’t need fixing left her feeling steamrolled. Resolved to go it alone, Phair did end up partnering with the producer Henderson had brought in, Brad Wood, but only because he helped flesh out Phair’s own personal vision instead of imposing one of his own. Resultantly, the spirit and impetus for the album is defiance and girl power and they simmer and boil over in every song.

A completely untrained guitarist and insular songwriter writing on an electric guitar without the aid of an amplifier, Phair’s Girly Sound tapes were guided by an internal logic, carrying a sometimes atonal charm in the accompaniments to her rock-solid melodies. Rather than try to “correct” the eccentricities in her music, Wood chose instead to feature them in various ways, often juxtaposing simple but forceful drums and bass and letting the enthusiasm and her personal statement carry the weight of the production. And it totally rocks.

At this point I think it’s important to say that I’m totally late to the party on this album. I remember hearing about its initial release but it has taken me until recently to really listen to Exile in Guyville and admittedly, the DIY aesthetic threw me at the beginning. However, after some dedication and determination to know what the fuss was about, I did fall under the sway of these songs and I fell hard. What drew me in and held me was Liz Phair’s melodies. Angular, often asymmetrical, and certainly complex in their rhythmic construction, getting to know these melodies has been first a curiosity, then an adventure and eventually a need that could only be fulfilled with more listenings. I could list my favorites but it’s actually every song on Guyville that has a bold, original, adventurous melody. Plus, what her musicality lacks in instrumental proficiency is more than made up for with stylistic eclecticism and musical ambition. Impressive for a music newbie, someone who described herself at the time as a visual artist, and for an album known for its lyrics, its musical muscle is really the thing that elevates it to one of the great artistic works of our time.

But Exile in Guyville is historic for its lyrics and that is for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Liz Phair is laying out a new feminism. It’s a little tricky to figure out at first. She seems to be playing the role of a coquettish vixen, singing about sex and the power she has over men, or talking about herself in terms of other feminine stereotypes and tropes, but that’s the only the part you can see. Because what Phair is actually doing is playing the part, but then drawing back the curtain and revealing the secrets behind this nymphette persona. It seems to me that the whole album is a clever act of demystification of the female allure. In its own way, Guyville is a punk album because its aim is to deconstruct; honesty is the weapon and the target in song after song is the female as sex object. What Guyville lacks in aggression is made up for with heaps of irony and scorn, which together is the true currency of punk.

Yes, it’s a very explicit album in places and yes, she talks about sex a lot but listen to see if she isn’t undercutting the sexual imagery and our expectations of the female gender role in both obvious and subtle ways. And again, it’s vital to understand Guyville in its 1993 context, when non-ironic female sexuality was still the zeitgeist — see Madonna’s Girlie Show world tour of that year as well as her best-forgotten erotic coffee table book entitled Sex.

In “Girls, Girls, Girls” Phair freely admits that “I take full advantage of every man I meet/I get away almost every day/with what the girls call… murder.” This is a new kind of confessional singer-songwriter. The song is not only about the power women wield over men, but her willingness to reveal the secret. And the confessing never stops on this album. In fact, this sort of writing is another way Exile in Guyville is groundbreaking and deeply influential. Here we have a lyric-centric album that does not rely strongly on figurative language and poetic imagery, that is grounded almost entirely in personal recollections and the revealing of inner thoughts. With very few metaphors, these songs read like pages out of her well-written diary. It’s a confessional style of songwriting that will come to dominate popular music of all types and it starts here.

That is not to say that Liz Phair invented anything. The DIY aesthetic had already been established by artists across multiple genres long before the Girly Sound tapes filtered through the Chicago scene. Confessional singer-songwriters had been spilling their guts since the late 60s. Ani DiFranco and PJ Harvey were already making their mark in 90s indie rock before Liz Phair’s emergence. The difference and the reason for its historical significance is that Exile in Guyville was both a commercial and critical success, going gold, ending up on every critic’s best of 1993 list, and landing Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone, the kind of success that other artists notice and want to emulate. Phair did not invent the form but for her part in setting trends in indie rock and pop music in general, she has earned a place in rock history.

The story of the Exile in Guyville album famously begins back with Liz Phair happening upon a copy of the Stones’ epic double, 1972’s sprawling Exile on Main Street, a historic album in itself, and choosing it as a model for her own debut, which she fashioned as a female response to the Stones’ original. An audacious act in itself, but ultimately an incidental factor, as most compositional devices are, especially since a good chunk of the Guyville songs were already written as part of the Girly Sound tapes.

But it did give rise to two beneficial effects; first, by laying out a track by track response, Guyville mirrors the essential ebb and flow of Main Street. So, just as side A of the Stones album kicks off with the fiery Rocks Off, then wends its way through contrasting iterations of the blues, landing back to solid rock territory with Tumbling Dice to end the side, so does Side A of the Liz Phair album follow the same basic journey of eclectic confessionals bookended by the solid rockers 6’1” and Never Said.

The other benefit seems to be that responding to the Stones’ rock and roll tales of derring-do with songs from a strong female point of view seems to have provided a working structure for Phair’s feminist statement.

The Rolling Stones’ Happy is a song about the singer’s lifelong lack of fulfillment culminating with the inability to find a woman to please him in any sustainable way.

Sharing the same spot in the running order, Phair’s song is similarly about a lifelong lack of fulfillment, first about waking up in the arms of what appears to be her fuck-buddy but wanting a real boyfriend, someone who “makes love ‘cause he’s in it.” Later the singer admits that it’s she that is the cause of her own solitude because not only does she continually end up in the bed of casual lovers, she runs from intimacy, partaking only of the sex. It’s a swapping of gender roles in the big reveal of the song and the contrast is pretty breathtaking, given the frankness of the storytelling. Like a lot of songs on Exile in Guyville, there is yearning, frustration, and very little resolution but an immediacy in the language and a generosity in the sharing of secrets and inner thoughts.

Many of the associations between the tracks of the two albums are tenuous at best and some are just tied by a general feeling. Phair’s response to the claustrophobic Ventilator Blues is Divorce Song, a song about being stuck with in a car for 12 hours at the tired end of a relationship. Here’s a case where the association to the Stones track is loose and pretty much incidental because the epic Divorce Song is a focal point to the album while Ventilator Blues is cool tune but essentially a mood piece.

So, in my estimation, though the associations with Exile on Main Street are loose, the Liz Phair album does get an added lift and a cohesion which helps to undergird the sprawling ambition of her audacious double-disc debut. Exile in Guyville is a work dripping with personality, wry humor, and other types of weaponry often deployed on the artist herself. And though it showcases Phair’s own personal brand of pop sensibilities, the album makes no concessions to the marketplace. It’s highly artistic, risk-taking and relentless in its mission to forge a new ethos for its post-Woodstock age, where gender roles are unpredictable, where irony creates resonance, where truth reigns supreme. Not only did the trend-setting album thrill critics and fans, it inspired a generation of women whose own songs ring with personal empowerment and emotional authenticity, and for that, Exile in Guyville has carved out its own important place in rock history.

Barbed wire photo by izhar khan from Pexels