Sex positivity is not always all it’s cracked up to be.
Sometimes being sexually and intellectually free as a woman, or at least trying to be, can hurt like a bitch. No one expressed that better in pop music than Liz Phair did on EXILE IN GUYVILLE. I was late to Phair, but discovered her in my own indie-rock college youth. Like Phair shortly before she made this record a decade earlier, I was in art school (Phair went to Oberlin, a school perhaps even more obnoxious than my alma matter) and I was kinda slutty and kinda confused and had no idea why being “free” didn’t make me feel any better about myself or my body. I also felt that horrible feeling of being left out of the K-Records-style boys club because I was a girl and therefore had no valid musical opinions.
But you don’t have to have had an indie-as-fuck youth like mine or dealt with being left out of the “Mission of Burma or Wire?” kind of bullshit conversation insecure college boys in Converse have (“I STOPPED TALKING AN HOUR AGO”–see Bikini Kill’s “I Hate Danger” ) to understand what Phair was talking about. This album made feeling lonely (“Whatever happened to a boyfriend?/The kind of guy who tries to win you over?”) and angry (“I love my live/And I hated you”) ok. It was a sympathetic voice to all young women finding themselves in post-sexual revolution culture. Remember that time? When you were one part femme fatale (“Because I take full advantage/ of every guy I meet”) and four parts vulnerable …and it was all a mess. Yeah, Phair, she just got that. And then made one of the most important indie rock albums of all time.
Says Phair herself on the album:
I’ll just get really honest with you right now,” she says. “I was pretty good in bed at that point from the point of view of what the guys wanted, but pretty bad in terms of my own enjoyment. And yes, that made me angry. But it was my own fault in some sense.” As she matured into real sexual confidence, she says, the anger faded — in real life and in her music.
Looking back at Exile in Guyville, Phair sees a young woman struggling to establish some kind of control over her own life. “I kind of hear how unhappy I was. It makes my heart go out to the person I was,” she says. “It’s so clear to me now how unsure I was and how vulnerable I really was.”
It’s an album that hasn’t aged a bit, despite the very 120 minutes/My So-Called Life aesthetic of the videos and the art. Go listen to Liz Phair’s KICKASS interview on NPR about the 15th anniversary re-release of the seminal album. I’m gonna quote a dear friend here who says it even better than me:
I was a freshman in high school when this came out. All of a sudden there was this album where this awesome girl was feeling the same things I was. She wanted to understand sex, but she also wanted to understand it for HER. She felt like she made some shitty mistakes, and that she would keep on making them. She was inexplicably sad about something that seemed to be missing in her life, and she was explicitly sad about what she saw about her future as a woman. It was so refreshing to hear someone else get angry about the things that I felt angry about, and, finally, to have my anger, as an emotion, be validated. Someone else thought that it was okay to be difficult, it was okay to ask tough questions, it was okay to make demands and to want and feel things, that, as a girl (or a “lady”), I wasn’t supposed to want and feel. Life altering stuff.
Life altering indeed!
(Buzzworthy! Can you believe MTV showed shit like this at one time?)