Liz Phair’s been on the interview circuit round for today’s release of the 25th anniversary edition of her [insert your own adjective here about how groundbreaking it was] first album, Exile in Guyville.
I was late to Liz Phair. I’d seen few videos on MuchMusic’s The Wedge in my adolescence – “Stratford-On-Guy,” “Supernova,” “Polyester Bride.” I liked the songs but they never really grabbed me. I was more into Tori, PJ, Bjork, and most of all, Courtney.
I don’t know how or why – probably because I knew it was an important record, or maybe a friend played it for me – but I bought the CD at some point in my very early 20s. It was probably better that I’d waited; at this point, I’d experienced casual sex, dating with no sense of direction and actual heartbreak. It was the first record I related to as a twentysomething, no longer a teen, even though I wasn’t even a teenager when it was released.
I bought her next three albums, Whip-Smart, Whitechocolatespaceegg and liked, but didn’t love them. The first album Liz Phair released while I was an active fan was her 2003 self-titled one. It was a slickly-produced fun power-pop album with lyrics celebrating post-divorce relationships.
I liked the record! I was (am!) a fan of both indie and pop. I quietly enjoyed the Spice Girls and Madonna in high school along with more prestigious alt rock, and accepted Britney Spears as my lord and saviour shortly thereafter. To me, it was cool that one of my indie heroes was making new songs with big choruses. I could listen to Exile in Guyville if I was in one mood, and the self-titled for another! Sure, "HWC" was extremely corny, but it was harmless fun! The album wasn't perfect, but it was perfectly enjoyable.
A couple of months before Liz Phair came out, a guy sent me a mixed CD. Not a boyfriend, not a crush, but someone I felt I had a connection with. He was extremely pretentious, but I was just the right age for that. There were tens of long emails and two days together in May 2002. The CD had stuff on it like Calexico and Jonathan Richman and of course, “If You Wanna Be Happy” by Jimmy Soul. In the middle of this painstakingly precious tracklist was Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You.” I hadn’t really thought much of Avril, but somehow, it was different hearing the ballad in my headphones. Pretentious Guy seemed so deep to me (ha!) and he said that the song just “resonated” with him. It was my most listened-to song on the long-gone CD. He broke my heart when we reunited in May 2004. But it's still my favorite Avril song.
Avril’s songwriting team, The Matrix, helped co-write some of the songs on Liz Phair. Critics hated it.
Pitchfork gave the album an infamous 0.0 . Earlier this week, Slate’s Amos Barshad wrote a piece about trying to get in contact with Pitchfork’s bad reviewees. He didn’t have a lot of success with getting the artists to talk about how it felt, except for Thurston Moore. The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison eventually emailed his feelings about his album, Travistan’s 0.0 and included these words about Phair:
“I did not know Liz Phair got a 0.0. I see it was for her “pop” record… I think that record was not her most completely executed. But I do think it was her most visionary gesture. I always admired her for it. Now hipsters listen to Carly Rae Jepsen and no one thinks about it. But Liz Phair was pretty ahead of that curve. And she really got some nasty shit about it. Mostly, of course, from white male “critics.” What a bunch of fucking garbage.”
Morrison isn’t wrong. Besides that, Guyville was Phair's response to the male-dominated 90s Chicago music scene. Pop music is considered a “feminine” interest, therefore, not taken seriously. Lead singles, “Why Can’t I” and “Extraordinary,” are perfect romcom songs of the era, and the former was featured in 13 Going on 30, the latter in Raising Helen. Both flicks are perfectly charming, beloved romcoms of the time. You know what else male critics hate? Romcoms.
It wasn’t just male critics. Meghan O’Rourke’s New York Times review was infamously titled Exile in Avril-ville and reads as an immature indie-elitist takedown of the “pop monster,” erroneously putting Britney Spears in a schoolgirl outfit in the year 2003 (not to mention that Britney’s Matrix-penned song, “Shadow,” would not be released until five months after O’Rourke’s review).
Last month on Twitter, the author, Emily Gould tweeted this, regarding O’Rourke’s sexist and ageist perception of the record:
It stands out that O’Rourke moaned, “underneath this sunny soundscape lies the darkness of life's hard-won lessons. This is a superficial way of jolting us,” when this has been a fixture in every genre of music forever! I mean, The Smiths’ trademark was pairing Morrissey’s morose lyrics with Johnny Marr’s jangly guitar!
I can understand that some women felt a little hurt and betrayed by the self-titled album. But it seems pretty anti-feminist to begrudge a woman for wanting to take a different direction in her career, especially if you consider that woman to be one of your feminist heroes. I mean, you could just say something like, "It's not for me, but good for her!" and focus on music you do like more in vein with Guyville instead of telling a woman she should "act her age" (ugh).
As a woman near Phair’s age in 2003 and Beyoncé’s age in 2018, I’m experiencing my own new beginning, finding my voice as a writer. It feels extremely rewarding. Just as rewarding as Phair recording her self-titled album must have felt. Just as rewarding as Beyoncé headlining Coachella was. Okay, the Beyoncé thing is definitely hyperbole! But still... 38-year-old Tiffany Haddish and 36-year-old Amy Schumer had recent career breakouts in their mid-30s. And 36-year-old Britney Jean Spears? She’s got a world tour this summer and is living her best life, working out with her hot younger boyfriend! I have some great peers in my age group, let me tell ya!
Looking back at my early-20s self in 2003, I found value in both Exile in Guyville and Liz Phair, unlike many of my peers. I guess I was a “poptimist” before that was a thing. I don’t listen to a lot of Liz Phair these days, but I can hear her echoes in Angel Olsen and Lana del Rey, as well as in Demi Lovato and – especially – Halsey. Whether or not they are directly influenced by Phair, the empowering sexual frankness that defined her first album trickled from indie to pop stars, and there’s more hooks in indie records these days. Liz Phair wasn’t just ahead of the curve; turns out she is the curve.