I must have heard about Liz Phair from Sassy Magazine, my go-to and, really, only source for anything remotely counter-culture in the early ‘90s. I think I recall seeing the now-iconic cover of Exile in Guyville – Phair in black and white, mouth open, mid-song or mid-shout, her eyes obscured by the shadow of her hood – in the “What Now” spread, Christina Kelly’s sounding board for trends spotted, recent infatuations (“Zine of the Month,” “Cute Band Alert”), and the occasional complaint. Maybe I saw the video for “Never Said” on 120 Minutes one night before buying the album, but I don’t think so – “Never Said” being one of the least interesting songs on the album and a weak choice for a single. I think I bought the album, at some point later and sound unheard, based on Kelly’s recommendation alone (likewise for Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque and It’s a Shame About Ray by the Lemonheads).
I know I came to the record a little late, after Kurt Cobain’s death. It was 1994 or ‘95; I would have been in ninth grade. I couldn’t drive yet. My best friend, Marisa, was a cheerleader and her most spun album was The Sign by Ace of Base. I had a huge crush on her older brother Nick, a skinny hippie with voluminous red dreads. It was an age when I wanted desperately to be weirder than I was. We couldn’t wait to grow up – Marisa, 10 months younger than me and 4 inches shorter, had trouble getting into R-rated movies – but suddenly, paradoxically, anything regressive was cool: sparkly stickers, candy necklaces, knee-high socks and plastic barrettes. I’d taken to shopping my dad’s closet, wearing his old drawstring celadon swim trunks with the lining ripped out as shorts, and, in the fall, his wool sweater vests over a gray Hane’s t-shirt with my too-big thrift-store Levi’s and a long ball chain as a necklace. This now strikes me as a rather inspired take on “grunge.” It was tame, though, compared to what the “freaks” wore – the cooler kids brave enough to dye their hair (my mom would never let me) jet-black or rainbow colors, get piercings in the nose or eyebrow, carry a lunchbox as a purse.
I remember sitting on the floor of my purple-walled room at the foot of my bed, right in front of my stereo, a big clunky black thing with a double tape deck, the better for making mix tapes, and foot-tall speakers. I’d read the liner notes while I listened to albums over and over and over again – especially in the scorching summer when I had nothing else or better to do. It was the perfect time to fall in obsessive love with an album, and I did – starting with “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song” – which are, like all the best pop songs, both super-catchy and super-poignant – and then on through the weirder tracks until they made perfect melodic sense to me.
“Fuck and Run,” for obvious reasons, couldn’t be a radio hit, but it’s the album’s rightful single, so easily sing-along-able I’d like to hear a version by a chorus of schoolchildren. Along with “Flower,” the song I often skipped for fear my mom might hear it, “Fuck and Run” defined Liz Phair’s “personal brand” – she was, for better or for worse, a slut. She liked sex! And she had a lot of it, had been having a lot of it since, if you could believe the unbelievable lyrics, she was 12. (She has since come forward to say this was not, at an autobiographical level, true.) It was assumed by me and everyone else that rock stars had a lot of sex. Watching the live concert videos that were popular in the late ‘80s, in which beautiful groupies threw themselves at Bon Jovi and Guns ‘n Roses, I believed – hoped – I would get to look like that at some point in my teenage years: cinematically seventeen. Alas, I never did – I pretty much skipped from 15 to 19, with no change in bra size. But even those men, for the most part, weren’t singing directly about their exploits in the bedroom, graphic details and all. (OK, Axl Rose, maybe – you know it’s an anagram of “oral sex,” right? – but I wasn’t listening that closely to their B-sides.) Though I wouldn’t have known to call it that at the time, Liz Phair was my first exposure to a sex-positive feminism.
But what you might miss, if you read the music journalism without listening to the music, is that Phair wasn’t some kind of youth sex advocate. “Fuck and Run” was primarily about regret: “Almost immediately, I felt sorry.” And leaving aside the – shockingly, to my ears – lewd lyrics of “Flower” (“I want to fuck you like a dog, I’ll take you home and make you like it”), sex in a Liz Phair song is a complicated and complicating thing. Take “Divorce Song,” an argument against “friends with benefits”: “It’s harder to be friends than lovers, and you shouldn’t try to mix the two, ‘cause if you do it and you’re still unhappy, then you know that the problem is you.” And the tragi-creepy “Canary,” connected in my mind with Nirvana’s “Polly,” is a kind of captivity narrative from a relationship that is at best unhealthy, at worst abusive; it speaks to the media-received ideal of a woman as sexual servant and performance act: “I learn my men”/“I come when called.”
A stoner girl in my tenth grade biology class told me she liked Liz Phair so much that she had two copies of each album; I thought that was absurd, but maybe she had the right idea – I’ve listened to Exile in Guyville so many times over the last 15 years that the disc won’t play in older CD players. To this day, it would make my short list of desert-island albums. It’s not just the music, the 18 varied tracks and the fact that Phair’s vocal range is close to my own – a kind of dude register, the voice of “Guyville” – that would make it so appealing, were I stranded alone on a faraway beach. It’s the richness of memory that overcomes me just thinking about it.
I didn’t have to listen to the album to write this, but I clearly remember editing my college roommate Kate’s women’s studies–style paper on “Canary” in our freshman dorm room, sitting in her chair, with her weird yellow terry-cloth shirt-jacket slung on the back – how the intensity of her reaction to that song had corrupted her syntax, and her paper was riddled with run-on sentences. I remember lending the CD to Marisa, and her liking the first two tracks but telling me Phair lost her on “Glory,” which starts in near vocal fry and then swings into falsetto in the chorus – “It’s like she’s not even trying!” she said. And I remember listening to it on road trips with my family, my Discman, which skipped easily, cradled on a pillow in my lap as I stared out the window at the landscape that was always desert, whether we drove east toward Houston where my brother went to college, or west through New Mexico and Arizona, some parts of me hot from the sun and others cold from the air conditioning, and the particular sadness I felt when the long jangly outro to “Strange Loop” was over, like finishing a novel that you didn’t want to end, feeling changed but returning to your same, quiet world.