It’s true that I stole your lighter.
It’s also true that I lost the map.
But when you said I wasn’t worth talking to
I had to take your word on that.
-A confession from “Divorce Song”
You’ll have to forgive the nerdy tone of this essay, but response and intertextuality were two of my academic interests in graduate school and so I get excited when I can apply that to my love of pop culture.
Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville is her response album to the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street. While she has said that it meant to be a song-by-song response, she has never really clarified if that meant that each song on her album lines up directly with each song on the Stones’ album, and the connections aren’t always obvious. Sometimes, they are. For the Rolling Stones’ song “Casino Boogie,” which seems to be about a strung out hustler, Liz writes a song called “Dance of the Seven Veils” whose first verse says “Johnny, my love, get out of the business / The odds are getting fatter by the minute” seemingly from the perspective of a strung out hustler’s girlfriend (who is also a stripper). Both songs also contain the word “cunt” (significant due to the nature of the word and who is using it), though interestingly, in the Stones song it’s used as a noun to refer to the female body part and it’s in Phair’s song that she uses it as a derogatory adjective to describe herself (“I’m a real cunt in Spring”). Most of the other songs don’t line up as well. But the point of Phair’s record seems to be to take the testosterone of Main Street, the brash swagger of Mick and the boys, and turn it into something essentially female (female, but “unfeminine” in terms of the traditional female musician). But within this transformation is an amazing amount of information about how Phair viewed both rock and roll and the state of her own life as one of the few women in the Wicker Park music scene of Chicago.
So how does Exile in Guyville, which is arguably the Ur-text of popular feminist response records, fit into the idea explored in this blog previously that the narrative of rock as written by female rockers in the 90s is about the guilt of being unable to fully attain an Ahab/Huck-esque spirit of adventure; or of having that and having it make the women of this time period feel guilty in for being an outsider.
Exile in Guyville is a challenging record. It is intentionally shocking and vulgar, and Phair is intentionally oblique. What she seems to want to do is to complicate the Rolling Stones Rock Ideal. She specifically chose a record that is considered by many to be one of the best rock albums ever written, and transformed it into a low-fi, anti-melodic, controversial piece of art that is, beyond anything else, angry (and in turn created a piece that regularly appears on “best of lists,” most recently getting a lauded re-issue for its 15th anniversary). In a recent interview with the Village Voice, Phair said:
I feel like I participated in what the truth [is] for young women in their sexuality with that record. Is that going to hold true later? I don’t know. But I participated in the grand bubble of: ‘What is the truth for young women and their sexuality?’ I think that’s why women responded to it, because they said: ‘Yeah, that is true for me, but I would never say it.’
Guyville is dark. The lyrics of Main Street are likewise dark, but that’s not really what you notice about the album. You notice the virtuosity of the music, the country-rock piano, the incredible drums. You notice the whole of the songs, the dirty honkytonk atmosphere they portray. They are sexy. Phair’s record is stripped down, and is often just her and a guitar. In losing the piano, and in putting a female voice in front of some of the same dirty honkytonk sentiments, Phair exposes the sleaze of the Stones and portrays the difference in the way men and women are allowed to sing about sex.
And that’s where the guilt comes in.
I’d like to explore one of Phair’s “sex” songs – “Flower.” The song is, without a doubt, pornographic. It lines up with one of the weaker Stones songs – “Let it Loose.” The response here seems to be a sort of “Okay, I WILL let it loose” from Phair, who sing-songs “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.”
Yikes. Are you afraid? I’m afraid. And that’s the point.
This is the first aspect of the way sex functions on this album – as confrontation. There is absolutely nothing sexy about this song. At all. The last line is “I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue.” Not only is her lyric intense, her performance of it is scarily aggressive, with Phair dropping her voice into a lower register. The foreboding and distorted guitar that punctuates the lyrics adds to this feeling of aggression.
So we get sex as an attack from one Phair’s female characters. We get it as a method of shocking the listener. We’re not shocked because this is coming from a female character, however, we are shocked at the aggression behind it. The point is purely and completely the aggression. I, personally (and I state this as a personal opinion), read this song to be about how healthy, human sexuality and aggression are subsumed and repressed; Phair is not only making a personal point about how frustrating that can be, she is making a point that on an album like Main Street the aggression and sexuality are entwined because those feelings are so much more normalized in the male realm of music. The new, female narrative of rock in the 90s had no framework for normal aggression or sexuality in women.
The natural song, then, to talk about next is “Fuck and Run” in which sex features (obviously) but is incredibly different from “Flower.” Sex here makes the main character feel incredible guilt and frustration.
Whatever happened to a boyfriend?
The kind of guy who tries to win you over.
Whatever happened to boyfriend?
The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it.
And I want a boyfriend.
I want a boyfriend.
I want all that stupid old shit
like letters and sodas
letters and sodas.
“Fuck and Run” is quite possibly the most heartbreaking song on the album. There is the element of shock here as well simply by the use of the word. But instead of naked aggression, the listener gets the idea that the character of this song is having sex to please her partner, not herself, and that this kind of empty love has made her despondent enough to proclaim “I can feel it in my bones / I’m gonna spend my whole life alone.” Every single person, male or female, has felt that way at one point or another, but the image is even more acutely powerful when you remember that at the time she is thinking this, the narrator is waking up next to a lover.
This same idea of sex as a way Phair is being controlled is explored, too, in “Canary,” which appears later on the album, in which Phair sings “I come when you circle the cherry / I sing like a good canary.” In “Fuck and Run” the character is chasing approval she thinks she will get from sex and in “Canary” she is doing the same thing. So here, instead of using sex (the idea, not necessarily the act) in an attention-grabbing, confrontational way, we get the flip side of that; having sex for a certain kind of attention and the guilt that leads to within the framework of a society that doesn’t value healthy female sexuality.
It has to be said again that not every female rocker was singing about the guilt of being an outsider, and in fact, many of the songs on this album in particular are not about that. I have not done a scientific study, but I would hazard to guess, though, that far more songs written by women are about existential guilt (not the guilt of a cheating lover; not the guilt of a bad child, but guilt for being who they are). The best example of this I can think of on this album is “Never Said,” which is a response to the biggest-selling single off Main Street, “Tumbling Dice.” The Stones? They get thinly-veiled misogyny and a rockin’ beat over lyrics about being a gambler” (which is, in itself, a thinly-veiled metaphor for being what we might today call a “player”). Phair? She writes a song in which she repeats “I never said nothin'” over and over again, pleading with someone to believe that she is “clean as a whistle, baby.” There’s no bragging in her song, just the repetition of “I ain’t done anything wrong.” On the one hand, the lady doth protest too much, but on the other hand, the fact that Phair’s response to “Tumbling Dice” was to write a song from the perspective of an interrogated lover says much about how she feels about “Tumbling Dice” in general.
The final song I want to examine is “Strange Loop.” I talked in part one about Paula Cole’s lyric “Where do I put this fire?” and how that sort of sums up a lot of what I feel the new female rock narrative of the 90s was about. “Strange Loop” begins with another image of fire (“The fire you like so much in me / is the mark of someone adamantly free / but you can’t stop yourself from wanting worse / Because nothing feeds a hunger like a thirst”).
“I always wanted you,” she continues, “I only wanted more than I knew.” An apt way to end an album about the frustration of being exiled in guyville. Yes, she is saying. I want love and sex and satisfaction (to borrow one of Mick’s favorite words), but I want something else. I want more.
I believe that at its core, Guyville is a response to one aspect of Main Street – the sexuality of that album and indeed of rock and roll in general. Phair’s 1993 album creates a narrative about how female sexuality is undervalued, repressed, denied. And of the guilt associated with that.
If rock & roll has essentially been about sex since Elvis’ first hip shake (and let’s not kid ourselves, it has), the American women rockers of the 90s were not only struggling to break into the realm of commercial success when the value of a female rocker was generally accepted to be nil (by which I mean her ability to move tickets and units; there were exceptions to this rule like Debbie Harry and Patti Smith), they were struggling to create in a medium that was essentially about something society at large was not necessarily willing to hear about from the mouths of women. What is so great about Guyville is that Liz Phair just simply does not accept that there are certain things she cannot sing about. She does not accept that she can’t be a little Mick Jagger, a little Patti Smith and a little Johnny Rotten all rolled into one. In fact, the idea of being censored in her own world frustrates her so much, we get songs like “Flower” in which her sexuality explodes into aggression. The world needs radicals to push the center into new ways of thinking, and certainly, Liz Phair did just that with this album. She forced her sexuality onto the listener, but her songs are still punctuated with the existential guilt that was the hallmark of the narrative created by women in the 90s.
Part 3 soon! Tori, Tori, Tori, and her strange little world.