Happy twentieth birthday, Exile in Guyville. Liz Phair released her indie-rock masterpiece on June 22, 1993, long before the concept of “overshare” existed. She invented the role of being America’s art-damaged shit-talking boy-crazy Oberlin sweetheart, back when Lena Dunham was in kindergarten. People had spent years waiting for someone like Liz Phair – an ordinary rock fan, dishing the dirt about her ordinary rock-fan life. Eighteen brilliant songs, nearly an hour, with the not-so-famous ones (“Gunshy,” “Stratford-On-Guy,” “Mesmerizing”) holding up as well as the famous ones (“Fuck And Run,” “Divorce Song”).
This Chicago gal was strictly a self-invented rock star: She didn’t have a band, she didn’t have any local or cult buzz, she couldn’t hack live shows. All she had was the songs, taking down rubbish dudes in her sarcastic mumble. There’s “Girls! Girls! Girls!” where she warns, “I take full advantage of every man I meet.” There’s “Johnny Sunshine” and “Soap Star Joe,” which are as great as all songs about Johnnys and Joes always are. It ends with “Strange Loop,” where she decides to do one of those album-closing guitar-solo epics, and what do you know – it turns out guitar solos aren’t that hard.
As anyone could hear in her voice right away, Liz didn’t come from New York or L.A. That’s a key reason why people went so crazy for her in 1993 – there hadn’t been such a corn-fed Midwestern-girl voice in modern rock since the days of Katrina Leskanich (from the Waves) or Patty O’Donohue (from the Waitresses). The whole album sounded perfectly conceived and paced, thanks largely to producer Brad Wood and engineer Casey Rice, who knew how to make her wispy tunes jump and snap. Phair never found another producer who gave a crap about making the music fit her songs, instead of trying to paste her thin voice over big dramatic rock arrangements – you know, *real* rock.
Exile in Guyville was part of a summer that also had PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me and the Breeders’ Last Splash, Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”/”New Radio” 45 and Bratmobile’s Pottymouth, plus Tiger Trap and Excuse 17 and the Spinanes and Juliana Hatfield and Team Dresch and Lois and the Red Aunts and Helium and L7 and Heavens To Betsy and tons of others. It was an exciting time for feminist rock & roll, as women around the nation formed bands to make a riot of their own. Exile became a part of that excitement, which is one reason why (like all the rest of these artists) it still makes converts today.
Phair has made loads of records since Exile, and they all have their loyal admirers. Whitechocolatespacegg, from 1998, seems to speak to “people having a rough time coping with parenthood.” The 2003 Liz Phair is prized by “people going through traumatic divorces.” And the 1994 Whip-Smart is fiercely beloved by “people who are me,” though I will never figure out what the rest of the world fails to hear in it. “Crater Lake” remains my favorite Phair tune of all, especially when she sings, “Look at me, I’m frightening my friends.” (If you haven’t heard it lately, start with “Crater Lake” and “May Queen,” then “Shane,” just concentrating on the guitar, then “X-Ray Man” and the title song. Then “Crater Lake” again. That will take you 19 minutes and absolutely will not ruin your day.)
Yet Exile in Guyville is the famous one, as it deserves to be. It’s the album only Liz Phair could have made, though many talented people have spent entire careers failing to copy it. The dudes on this album could fill a “Where are they now?” documentary. Johnny Sunshine? Probably not as hot as he used to be. The “Fuck and Run” guy? Not doing much of either. Thanks to Liz Phair, however, they live forever as poster boys of Nineties male pattern lameness. That condition has never come close to going extinct. But fortunately, neither have any of these songs.