DISCUSSING THE landmark 1993 album “Exile in Guyville” earlier this month, Rachel Martin, host of NPR’s “The Bryant Park Project” program, blurted out a list of emotions the album evokes for her: “A young woman’s really kind of raw ambition, her disappointment, it’s her lust, it’s her joy.” Liz Phair, its creator, responded in a tone that was kind but mildly corrective. “Don’t forget sadness,” she said. She added that when she listens to “Guyville” now, “My heart goes out to the person I was.”
This exchange lights up the distance between an artist’s motivation in creating a work and the way in which fans come to embrace it. “Guyville,” reissued this week on ATO Records, is a milestone in the development of third-wave feminism and one of the proudest moments of indie rock. Catapulting the Chicago-born, Oberlin-educated Phair to prominence at age 26, the record won most major critics polls; gave its label, Matador, its first gold record; and set a bar for confessional songwriting that few musicians have reached.
Then that bar hit Phair smack in the face. None of her subsequent albums has earned even half the praise rendered unto “Guyville,” and by the fourth, an eponymous attempt at commercial pop, Phair had become indie rock’s lost cause. Hard-to-top debuts are common, but the shunning Phair received, especially from female journalists, went beyond aesthetics -- her efforts to become a pop star were framed as a betrayal.
No wonder Phair avoided listening to “Guyville” for seven years. Finally revisiting it, Phair still seems doubtful -- she will perform it, track by track, in concerts in San Francisco, New York and her hometown of Chicago this week, but everything indicates that she’ll be happy to move on again after that’s done. But why did “Guyville” make the rest of her career so much harder? Most detractors say Phair compromised her own talent. But maybe it’s because “Guyville” represented a larger reality that her fans, especially women, couldn’t get past.
Phair directed a sly documentary that’s included in the reissue, chronicling the album’s making and its reception. For the first two-thirds, Phair talks only to men: her producer Brad Wood; Matador label owners Gerard Cosloy and Chris Lombardi; Nash Kato, the singer for Urge Overkill, who was the object of the crush that inspired Phair to write the “Guyville” songs; and a handful of others who give their version of the events that contributed to the album.
Then a whole bunch of women speak in a sequence that evokes the excitement so many felt when they heard the album. One woman talks about “Guyville” helping her survive (though not abandon) an abusive relationship. Another says it helped her deal when her boyfriend found fame in Hollywood and went off the rails.
The documentary mirrors what happened with “Guyville.” Phair made it among men -- every significant player involved, from her mentors to her band members, was male. Then it came out, and women claimed it. But the music they seized upon wasn’t a statement of sisterhood; it was a map to help navigate the land of boys.
Phair now says that “Guyville” is the work of a confused young woman who wanted to claim power but didn’t yet know how. In the reissue’s liner notes, journalist Alan Light locates “Guyville” within a transitional time, when a newly empowered generation of women was struggling toward a brighter future. “Guyville” is great, this take on things suggests, but it was just a beginning. Brighter days would come for Phair herself and for women in general.
On one level, this revisionist view of “Guyville” must be true. After all, Phair is putting it out there. She has grown up since “Guyville,” producing music that hasn’t always been great but never stopped being interesting. Every one of her albums has high points (“Little Digger” from the fourth one, or “Table for One” from the fifth). And her best work always has the outsider’s stance her fans loved her for in the first place.
But this is where that gap arises between an artist’s intention and the needs of her audience. “Guyville” does matter in a different way than albums usually do. By giving voice to the inner turmoil she felt trying to negotiate a scene where men welcomed her without taking her seriously, Phair tapped into a truth that goes far beyond her personal circumstances. That’s something artists rarely have the luck to do. Phair herself saw the connection: She repeatedly has said that she created the album as a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” an artifact of a different countercultural milieu that wasn’t as free-thinking about sexuality and gender as its denizens believed.
What Phair and the rest of the world didn’t expect was just how many women would hear “Guyville” and think, hey, I live in a man’s world too, and it’s a problem. In situations where equality is assumed but men still dominate, women occupy a strange space between the center and the margins. They can express opinions, but they’re not dictating the terms of the conversation.
There’s a concept that applies to this situation called “double-consciousness.” African American thinker W.E.B. DuBois came up with it to describe the plight of black people within a white-dominated society. When one group defines all the terms, DuBois argued, anyone outside the group will experience a split between his own inner life and “reality.”
Double-consciousness is what Phair expresses on “Guyville” -- the impossible position of a woman trying to be true to herself in a man’s world. These songs don’t vacillate between desire and contempt for the men they address; they tangle these feelings together until they can’t be undone. In a song like “Flower,” with its unprintable lyrics, Phair showed how girliness is obscene and profanity is sweet. “Mesmerizing” presents seduction as an act of violence and a longed-for goal. In “Glory,” Phair’s crush comes on like a lizard and a king.
Better yet, Phair and Wood figured out how to capture the sound of her brain cracking under the weight of so many discrepancies. Light does a nice job describing the musical side of “Guyville” in his liner notes, noting the tension between the “punk” rawness of the arrangements and the “pop” allure of the hooks and choruses.
Women responded viscerally when they heard these contradictions expressed. But Phair found a way to live with her own psychic disparities, which is what women do when they want to get on with life.
Meanwhile, that transition Light mentioned in his liner notes hasn’t been resolved. Women might have more “choices” now, but the signals thrown at them via popular culture are ever more confusing -- the ideal seems to be some combination of ingenue mom, Indy 500 racer and Girl Gone Wild. Every news cycle brings stories of progress toward equality and defeat; the campaign of Hillary Clinton, whom Phair vocally supported, seemed to embody both.
So let’s stop blaming Phair for moving on from “Guyville,” and instead consider why this album, in all its feisty misery, still seems so current. She’s making a new record that surely will be worth a listen in the fall. And with this reissue, she’s given her fans something to pass on to their young daughters. We can only hope that it will be outdated when they’re old enough to enjoy it.