'Exile In Guyville' Decodes Feminism's Generational Divide

Liz Phair's 1993 debut album was a soundtrack for Gen X feminism. It's still got so much to teach us.
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I had a five-disc CD player in 1993, but the carousel rarely moved from a single position, which was where my copy of ”Exile in Guyville lived. I listened to the first record by then-25-year-old Liz Phair on repeat. So did most people I knew, male and female.

Twenty-five years later, it’s still in my heavy rotation, and this week’s veritable mixtape of anniversary-pegged interviews, each one more reverent than the next, are testament to its lasting influence. But talking about this record is no mere nostalgic exhuming of the ’90s. Its formative power emblematizes the differences between many millennial feminists and Gen X ones like myself.

Despite its beginnings in a series of “Girly-Sound” cassettes Phair recorded in her shared Chicago apartment, ”Exile” was a big deal when it hit record stores. In “Help Me Mary,” Phair prayed, “weave my disgust into fame.” She got what she asked for. It landed her on the cover of Rolling Stone and claimed the top spot on many year-end lists.

Phair’s sympathetic, unsentimental songs, interested in desire and anger without roundly politicizing them, held up a mirror to many of her listeners, at once aspirational and damning. Musically, her sound was neither anthem nor ballad; lyrically, it occupied a messy place, a place that embraced and owned complications, that hit a note between strength and vulnerability. It was real to many of us in a way we’d never heard before and rarely have since. Many women still see the world, and ourselves, through the sound of those 18 songs.

“Many women still see the world, and ourselves, through the sound of those 18 songs.”

But ”Exile” is no girl power record, no artifact of solidarity. In fact, Phair defined herself against ordinary female regulations, delicious and knowing to those of us who got away with our own transgressions. In “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” she sings, “I get away almost every day with what the girls call murder.”

The album arrived at a moment when a range of women were making music outside pop spaces, from the small, filthy stages of dank clubs to the lawn seats at the Lilith Fair. Back then, Sarah McLachlan was akin to Naomi Wolf, a panel discussion, something your parents could admire, something you’d hear on “All Things Considered.” She was purple suede sandals. Bikini Kill was more like Andrea Dworkin; a demonstration, loudly furious at systemic injustice, opposed to the very notion of pleasing men; scuffed steel-toe boots.

But Liz Phair was our sonic Mary Gaitskill. She was a private reckoning, alive in narratives and characters that made messes and kept secrets, women who were neither victims nor villains. She was thrift shop heels and clogs. Phair’s was music that could admit it wanted to be someone’s “blow-job queen,” but without the simplified swagger of the sex-powered hip-hop to come.

Singing about sex made Phair famous. She’d “take you home and make you like it.” Her explicit song “Flower,” which starts “wet between her legs” and ends up sending listeners to their Vaseline stash, titillated guys and liberated girls. “I thought it was part of a well-rounded portrait, fulfilling all of what a woman is,” she told Spin some years back.

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Indeed, Phair’s vision of the three-dimensionality of sex, her realist’s vision of its role in a contemporary female life, is part of what pulls me back to ”Exile.” It’s there in the buyers’-remorse lamentation of casual sex, “Fuck and Run,” in which she holds herself accountable “with or without my best intentions.” It’s there in “Canary,” when she sings in quiet grief, “I come when called, I come that’s all.” Sex is sometimes what you want it to be but sometimes it isn’t. Grief and isolation coexists with physical satisfaction. It exists beyond sex too, as she lets us know in my favorite track, “Divorce Song,” when she reminds us that “it’s harder to be friends than lovers.” Intimacy is tricky as hell. Such is life.

The songs on “Exile” approach sex and gender with nuance and ambiguity, never entitlement or reductiveness, even when they rage. It’s a mentality many of us Gen X feminists, like myself, have maintained. All imperfect vocals and lo-fi guitars and drums (what we used to called indie rock), this is music that has never known a manicure. It smells of cigarettes and beer. It makes out with an ex-boyfriend on a second-hand couch. It raises its eyebrows ironically if you try to catch its glance from across the party. It’s the sound of dive bars, not juice bars. It’s never done yoga. It’s never heard the terms “trigger” or “self-care.”

In her imperfect characters, her imperfect voice and her imperfect guitar, Phair came to represent our own imperfections. Her desires, ambitions and frustrations both reflected and influenced us. She narrated sex that didn’t expect to be free of regret, where the onus was on everyone who consented their way into bed. Her songs awakened and articulated our deep resentment of a world of dudes, and also helped us accept our own complicity in that trickiness of intimacy. For many Gen Xers, such dynamics have since been oversimplified. I don’t mean in instances of clear-cut abuse, but when we participate, we are capable of performing our own brutal seduction, like Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils,” a title Phair anointed on a song fantasizing about a man’s murder.

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To strip ourselves entirely of accountability is to strip ourselves of agency. To feel entitled to pleasure and power without hurdles is to be less than radically honest about the realities of humanity. Plus, you might even find you thrill to some of that tension. “You tossed the egg up and I found my hands in place, boy” she sings in “Mesmerizing,” damning her instant impulse to snap into line, just like women have been trained to do. But her rejoinder lays bare the pleasure of such behaviors: “You know me well, I’m even happier — I like it.” The beating heart underscoring this record, like a steady bass track, is how the politics of the personal can incite clear rage at times, and knotty desire at others. These complications may look you straight in the face, but there’s nothing easily straightforward about them.

Phair says she’s “ferociously protective of women” these days. I think most women who still hold on to “Exile’s” jewel case, in storage somewhere or dusty on a shelf, feel the same way. But some of us see our current mass awakening to familiar stories of how gender is lived, through a different generational scrim, through smoke and smudged mascara. Most of us have lived through a lot in these 25 years. We know “it’s cold out there, and rough,” as Phair sings in the album’s opening track. But in part because she picked up a guitar and gave us herself, our girly-sound became what remains: self-knowing and alive to the tangles of what we’ve wanted in a world of men, and how we’ve made it our own.

Lauren Sandler is a journalist and the author of Righteous, One and Only and a forthcoming book about a year in the life of a young homeless mother.