If there’s one lyric that has, for better or worse, become the pull-quote capturing the ambition and smirky audacity of Liz Phair’s 1993 indie-rock classic “Exile in Guyville,” it is, “I want to be your blowjob queen.” That lyric, from the hedonistic hymnal “Flower,” was devised as a hit to the gonads. Twenty-five years later, Matador Records has reissued the seminal indie-rock album as “Girly-Sound to Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set,” including voluminous demos and whatnot. Yet for all the feminist adoration it gets and the inspiration it’s spawned, it’s tough to ignore that “Exile” continues to be stuck in the male gaze.
That’s because the album is fundamentally a reaction to, rather than a transcendence of, sexism. Phair packaged it as a clever conceit (albeit a loose one, she’s since admitted): a song-by-song retort to the Rolling Stone’s “Exile on Main St.,” widely considered one of their best albums. So it was fairly ballsy for a female musician to make her debut by flipping the bird at one of rock’s most legendary — and legendarily sexist — bands.
If you connect the dots, the wanton “Flower” can be a retort to the Stones’ gospel-blues “Let It Loose,” a ballad about a dangerously alluring woman. Phair’s one-liners, in turn, rivaled boys’ talk. The bawdiest lyrics such as, “Everything you ever thought of/ Is everything I’ll do to you/ I’ll f— you till your d–k is blue,” seemed to serve the context first, at the expense of introspection.
In interviews, Phair spoke of her frustration, her feelings of voicelessness and diminutiveness, amid the male-dominated scene in Chicago (cf. the album’s rousing opener “6’1”). Her album oscillates between often-insouciant, monotone vocals and skillfully bright, melodic guitars (“Never Said,” “Soap Star Joe”). Lyrically, she could be vulnerable (“Divorce Song”). But mostly she was louche (“Girls! Girls! Girls!”) or both (“F— and Run”).
The “Girly-Sound” part of the box set, the title of her early demos, are welcome departures; they feel more like authentic confessionals than declarations-by-design. The latter is what makes “Exile” feel dated in #MeToo times. The album’s provocative sexuality has become its most enduring legacy. Although this elicits reverence from the likes of taboo-breaker Lena Dunham, it’s still playing right into straight-male fantasies.
To be fair, the album was an excellent reminder that a woman could be potent on indie-rock turf. Riot grrrls, Phair’s feminist contemporaries, were also singing about empowerment, but from an activist’s perspective: legislation, sexual agency, outsider culture. (An aside: It’s important to add both these brands of ’90s feminist rock were resoundingly from the white perspective.) Their style was antagonistic, confrontational, and for the most part, un-pretty.
Phair, in contrast, toed the middle line. She fit the white, straight, Midwestern girl-next-door archetype — albeit one who went off plot. She’s the original Cool Girl, who bilks and baits men at once by playing on their field. Her chief source of power, even if subversive, hinges on that male gaze.
The “Exile” album cover features a photo of Phair as a defiant, topless banshee, cropped at the time for “modesty.” After Phair’s original, artier cover art was nixed, it was Urge Overkill frontman Nash Kato’s suggestion that she pose topless. (“Guyville,” incidentally, borrows from the Urge Overkill song “Goodbye to Guyville.”) He even snapped the picture, too. “He was like, ‘Oh, and remember to put lipstick on your nipples,” she recounted to Vulture 10 years ago. “He really wanted me to just be like sex.”
This isn’t to take away from Phair’s pointed assault on mores, or the terrific lo-fi gems in which she attacked them. But it’s challenging to even look at her album cover and not ponder what’s in the eye of the beholder.