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20 years on, Phair still worth a listen

‘Exile in Guyville’ released in 1993

It’s the 20th anniversary of Liz Phair’s cult classic album Exile in Guyville, which has been a coming-of-age touchstone for a certain kind of liberal arts student since its debut. The album’s cultural impact far outweighs its sales – considering how large it loomed in my own early 20s imagination, I was shocked to find out that Guyville has sold fewer than 500,000 copies. (To put that in early ’90s, predownload context, the Chicago Tribune compares it to the Smashing Pumpkins album Siamese Dream, which has sold 4.9 million.)

Unsurprisingly considering Phair’s impact on writerly feminists (“a certain kind of liberal arts student”), lots of Guyville tributes were published over the past few days. Most mentioned the unabashed, nearly profound way Phair deals with female sexuality. Since I’ve been writing for way too long, I remember when these same tributes popped up five years ago, for the 15th anniversary of Exile, also focusing on Phair’s frank, explicit sexual lyrics – this is what she’ll always be known for. So, I’d like to praise instead her less-beloved material: the smart and searing songs that deal with other aspects of the female experience – in particular divorce and motherhood.

The angry breakup song is a mainstay of modern music. But what sets Phair’s breakup songs apart is their humanity. On Guyville’s “The Divorce Song,” which music writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd describes as “freaking generous,” Phair’s narrator always owns up to her own part in the demise of the relationship and the shared pain that results. “Divorce Song” is about a failed road trip, with two people on the brink of a breakup descending into pettiness: “And it’s true that I stole your lighter / And it’s also true that I lost the map / But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to / I had to take your word on that.”

She deals with breaking up again – this time with children involved – on the song “Go on Ahead” from her third album whitechocolatespaceegg. Again, generosity and compassion shine through: “It’s a death in our love that has brought us here/ It’s a birth that has changed our lives/ It’s a place that I hope we’ll be leaving soon/ And I fear for the year in his eyes.”

Phair’s 2003 self-titled album was a critical failure (Slate contributor Meghan O’Rourke called it “an embarrassing form of career suicide” in The New York Times), but it includes a gem about single motherhood, “Little Digger.” As she often does, Phair tackles a subject that so many women experience but is fairly undercovered in modern rock – raising a child of divorce: “I’ve done the damage, the damage is done / I pray to God that I’m the damaged one / In all these grown-up complications that you don’t understand / I hope you can, someday.”

In Jessica Hopper’s fantastic oral history of Guyville in Spin, Phair talks about deciding to include the song “Flower” on the album, with its explicit, lusty lyrics. She says she woke up in a cold sweat one night fretting about the choice; she knew the song was going to be controversial. But she decided to include it, because “I knew what portrait I was painting – I thought it was part of a well-rounded portrait, fulfilling all of what a woman is.”

I’m so glad she included “Flower,” but I’m also glad she didn’t pigeonhole herself into being “that woman who sings about sex.” Whether you like Phair’s subsequent work, it is undeniable that she is committed to painting the portrait.

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