Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold

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Midway through Gina Arnold’s incisive volume on Liz Phair’s seminal LP Exile in Guyville, the author quotes Oscar Wilde: “all criticism is a form of autobiography.” Throughout the book, Arnold, formerly a professional music critic, stays very much in the picture as she leads us on a tour of mythic Guyville, circa 1993. Like the peripatetic narrator of W.G. Sebald’s novel/memoir/travelogue The Rings of Saturn, Arnold draws on a variety of texts to illuminate the way: the Marxist theory of Louis Althusser, the Terry Zwigoff movie Ghost World, Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Nietzsche’s theories on history, and income charts of the world’s top-grossing musical artists, among other things. She drops only a few details about Phair’s background and recording process, and spends relatively little time dealing with the specifics of Guyville’s songs. Deliberately so. As Arnold tells us early on:

You can write about music all you want, but the chances are you will be unable to transmit what is beautiful and true about it—and most especially, what is beautiful about it to you. The best one can do is to write all your way around it, describing sensations and opinions that are at bottom just the feelings it invokes in a single individual soul, feelings that may depend on something as fragile and as momentary as the weather you were experiencing when you heard the music first, or the smell that wafted by you on the wind.

Looking around rather than at Phair’s opus yields a clear-eyed view of a polarizing masterwork, an album so thoroughly subversive to the ethos of its cultural moment that now, years later, one can easily have no idea exactly what it was subverting. I certainly didn’t know, and I encountered Exile in Guyville only a year after its release, in 1994, as a high school senior on a bus trip for prospective students to Phair’s alma-mater, Oberlin College. Another prospy gave me her Walkman loaded with a cassette of Guyville and I spent most of the eight-hour drive watching Pennsylvania’s wooded hills give way to Ohio’s flat farmland, immersed in Phair’s keenly penned tales of relationships gone awry and the unfed desire to feel some sort of satisfaction in life and love.

By the time I made the journey again, as an incoming Oberlin freshman, I carried both Guyville and its excellent follow-up, Whip-Smart, with me. I related to and admired Phair’s eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued, neurotic characters, perhaps because they spoke from a place outside of the in-crowd, a vantage point familiar to a kid from the suburbs of Philadelphia, unexposed to urban hipness or cable television, whose concept of “alternative” culture came via commercial alt rock stations. This was a pre-technological age: I didn’t have a cellphone, or much of an Internet, or digital music files, which meant no Pandora, Spotify, or peer-to-peer sharing services like Napster. I hadn’t heard of labels like Sub Pop or Thrill Jockey. It would be years before I listened to The Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street. A friend told me Guyville was a neighborhood in Chicago and, up until reading Arnold’s book, I thought it true.

The truth is far more interesting and complex. Arnold defines Guyville as a paracosm— a detailed imaginary world with its own geography, history, and language—that describes the indie rock scene in the early 90’s, a crowd made up of mostly young, college-educated hipster guys who’d pack into clubs to see little-known punk-influenced acts. (Phair’s specific Guyville was in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, but there were Guyvilles all over.) Knowledge of who played in what band and what artists influenced whom traveled via word of mouth, and in alternative weekly newspapers, and by fanzine. In Guyville, your vinyl collection defined you.

Arnold admits that this community could be friendly to those who sought refuge from the mainstream, but the utopia it provided had a dystopian underbelly. Like any marginal, artistic community (including, I think, today’s literary one), indie rock never fully freed itself from corporate culture. The guys of Guyville obsessively ranked bands, made lists, and dropped names, perpetuating a sense that there was a “best” or “right” way to make indie music, and, of course, a wrong way. Fights about who was in and who was out could be unpleasant, vitriolic, personal. And while Arnold writes that it’s an overstatement to say that all of Guyville’s gatekeepers—the label owners, record collectors, radio DJs, fanzine writers, and music critics who determined the status of cool—were male, it certainly felt that way sometimes.

“If there is one way that the indie rock era failed its promise of communal, anti-capitalist utopia,” Arnold writes, “it was in its attitude toward women fans.” Women were accepted “as fans or girlfriends of the boys in the bands.” They worked at labels as publicists, literally amplifying the men’s voices. And though some took the stage, they projected a certain kind of feminine sexuality, an unconventional, no-frills and little makeup look typified by the three queen Kims of the indie scene: Kim Deal (of Pixies), Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth), and Kim Warnick (of The Fastbacks).

Gina Arnold

Gina Arnold

In a way, Liz Phair epitomized the do-it-yourself, independent spirit of this scene. Not long after graduating from Oberlin, she recorded a trio of cassettes in her childhood bedroom, rough demos released under the name Girly-sound. The strength and singular vision of these recordings (and subsequent re-recordings with producer Brad Wood) nabbed her a contract with Matador and Atlantic Records. It’s what Phair did from that platform that garnered controversy. She utilized the indie rock idiom to tell a distinctly female story, one that did not conform to indie rock’s unspoken rules—a story that, in fact, called attention to the inequality and misogyny underlying those rules. Her characters gave voice to those smart, ambitious, and talented young women of indie rock frustrated because they did not have as much respect, sexual license, accolades, and audience as their male counterparts.

Perhaps more unsettling to Guyville was that she did not hide her ambition. By its title alone, Phair’s debut enters into several dialogues at once, most obviously with the classic Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street, which Exile in Guyville responds to track by track. Arnold writes that while many have considered it an affront that this low-fi rookie should compare herself to a fundamental rock-and-roll institution like The Rolling Stones, she prefers “to think of it as a pointed comment on the inequalities inherent in the music business,” a system (again, much like today’s literary culture) built on highly profitable superstars and struggling, impoverished wannabes. Arnold places the two albums against one another to illustrate the brilliance of Guyville’s conversation with Main Street, how Phair reclaims the license and humanity of the marginalized female characters in Jagger’s hedonistic male fantasies. In Arnold’s analysis, Main Street reveals itself as bloated and overrated, driven more by the pounding promotional machine, reputation, and energy of The Rolling Stones than by the value of its music or the quality of its lyrics. She concedes that this is a near-heretical belief among music enthusiasts:

The Rolling Stones are the epitome of corporate rock, but they are seldom criticized in any way, not only in the Guyville of yesteryear, but even today. Instead, it often seems like their brand of rock music—musically unchallenging, borrowed from better sources, and exuding an unapologetic sense of the world as white, male, and privileged—represents the quintessential appeal of rock itself.

More slyly, the album’s title speaks to the indie rock scene itself. Phair took the term Guyville from an Urge Overkill song, “Goodbye to Guyville” on their EP Stull, thereby flashing her credibility at the door. By using the term “exile,” she puts herself in stark opposition to that scene; her stay isn’t a holiday. Listen, Phair seems to say, if you want to namedrop, I can namedrop. She knows her shit.

She also knows she’s hot shit, as evidenced by the grainy photo booth shot on Guyville’s cover of her in a suggestive, open-mouth pose, eyes obscured, with what appears to be the top bit of her areola exposed. In the fashion of third wave feminism she inhabited her sexuality without shame; she wore make-up when she wanted to. She presented herself as an audacious provocateur, unabashedly confronting the male gaze (or ear, as Arnold puts it) and demanding its attention by whatever means necessary.

Imagine that ear’s surprise, then, to find beneath this bold exterior a set of smart, introspective, and generally low-key songs. Yes, Phair’s guitar mimics Keith Richards’ big, jangly chords on some tracks, but overall the feel of Phair’s work is the opposite of the Stone’s. She goes deep while they stay on the surface, she levels pointed comments while they deal in platitudes, she pulls you in close for the reveal while they’re all swagger and bluster. She’s a hell of lot smarter, and just as damn cocky.

Not surprisingly, mainstream outlets focused on Phair’s frank expressions of sexuality. Arnold points out that the fourth song on both Main Street and Guyville feature the word “cunt,” but whereas almost every review of Guyville mentions the word in Phair’s mouth, you won’t find any press on Jagger’s usage. In the indie rock world, the level of attention Phair drew in the press—she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone—along with accolades from cherished venues like The Village Voice, where Phair became the second woman to top their Pazz & Jop Award (the first being Joni Mitchell all the way back in 1974), made her the target of intense criticism. Musicians and fanzine writers trashed her artistry and claimed that Phair slept her way to success. In a public rant to the Chicago Reader, the record producer Steve Albini, famous for his work with Pixies, PJ Harvey, and Nirvana, as well as in his own band Big Black, criticized Phair for being “unrooted in substance” and “a fucking chore to listen to.” Arnold tells us that his sentiments were widely echoed. That Guyville brought Phair “more notoriety than record sales,” and was left to wallow in obscurity “says more about Guyville and the world of indie rock than it does about Liz Phair as an artist.”

Arnold’s book puts Phair in her proper place as the patron saint of fuck you. Because, in the end, Phair had the last laugh. Guyville is no more. It has been laid waste, in part, by the corporate interests that poached and commodified indie rock’s talent (Phair included), and finally blasted into oblivion by technology. These days, there are few musical purists who only listen to one style. But there are more critics, as anyone with a Facebook profile or Twitter feed can pontificate about their favorite artists. The critic, like those denizens of Guyville, no longer needs to impress us with her encyclopedic knowledge of a musical act, or lay forth great truths and judgments for us to accept without question. Rather, she can engage in a more lyrical form of storytelling, picking apart at the edges of a work of art, and letting biography and theory bubble forth as need be, in order to reveal a particular, individual relationship. In this way, Arnold’s book not only documents a lost world. By presenting an engaging and enlightening example of criticism in the post-critical age, it also points a way forward.

Brian Gresko is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, and the editor of When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk about the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood. You can find him online hosting The Antibody, a virtual reading series started during quarantine, and at briangresko.com. More from this author →