Discover more from grace’s Substack
OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR WIFE #8: Growing Up Guyville
A 30th anniversary essay about the lessons I learned from Liz
A couple weeks ago I was– much like Liz Phair in “Stratford-On-Guy” –flying into Chicago at night. As the pilot announced our descent, I popped my headphones in for an obligatory listen. I was in 27A behind the wing– not quite the iconic 27D, but close enough – and had, by some stroke of luck, ended up with all three seats to myself. As the plane curved and tilted along with the hollowing drums, I watched tiny Chicago draw closer. I was keeping an eye out for spots of bright blue among the twisting highways and microchip buildings. For some reason it’s always my instinct to look for swimming pools during landing, maybe because I like how their color pops out so distinctly from a bird’s-eye-view of a toy city. At one point, I even saw what appeared to be a waterpark– a tangle of crazy straws out by the edge of a model highway. Behind it all, the setting sun glowed orange, its warmth challenging the sterile, fluorescent lighting of the plane’s interior.
I liked “Stradford-On-Guy”’s applicability in a literal sense, but more so, I wanted a song that was fittingly awe-striking and awestruck to match the free-fall of spending the summer in a largely unfamiliar city, like I was about to. I felt like someone had unscrewed the top of my skull and let my brain float up to the surface– soft, spongy, ready to absorb everything new. At 24, I was scared that it might never be that malleable again. In some ways, a summer in Chicago filling the gap between 9-month leases and grad school semesters felt like a last hurrah before my mind began to solidify into the second half of my twenties.
When Liz Phair got to the verse where she pretends she’s in a Galaxie 500 music video and imagines that Bridgitte Bardot is her flight attendant, I let myself cast my surroundings in a similarly cinematic light. That was something I’d always loved about Phair’s songwriting– how quick she was to indulge her daydreams, to paint a world that feels saturated and overexposed. As we hurtled toward the grid, which looked “lit from within” just as Liz had promised, everything felt as though it was opening itself up.
I thought about a line from the final vignette in Jessica Hopper’s memoir, Night Moves– which was buried somewhere in the overstuffed canvas tote bag beneath the seat in front of me: “The best part of coming home is flying over the inky lake at night and suddenly you can see exactly where Chicago begins and ends by the vast gridlay of the amber street lights.” It was surreal to be following the flight path of both Phair and Hopper, to see it illuminated in their mythological glow.
I gazed downward with “those eyes that you get when your circumstance is movie-sized,” and as the sky darkened, I felt the big screen turn on and the opening credits begin to fade into frame.
In order to really understand my years-long love of Exile in Guyville, you should know that it began the same way many of the non-human love stories of my formative years did– a salesperson with a misplaced sense of authority trying (against both of our best interests) to keep me from it.
This was a strangely common occurrence during my adolescence, due in part to the fact that I looked young for my age and was constantly trying to prove that I was wise beyond it. One of the first places I was allowed to walk to unattended was the comic book store two blocks from my house; stopping by with my brother at least once a week to peruse their collection of Archies. When the bearded, bespectacled cashier saw 10-year-old me innocently leafing through a compilation of Life In Hell cartoons, he materialized behind me and sternly said, “Excuse me, that’s not for kids.” My initial interest had been halfhearted, based mostly on my recognizing Matt Groening’s name on the cover and the same thick, rounded linework he used for The Simpsons, but the new existence of a barrier between me and the book made me singlemindedly intent on reading the whole damn thing.
I never mentioned this interaction to anyone, but my parents coincidentally ended up giving me that same Life In Hell (probably from the same store) for my birthday a few months later. At 11, I loved it despite understanding maybe half of it. As I returned to it periodically throughout my teens into my twenties, my growing comprehension of its musings on sex and Reaganomics and existential angst elevated it beyond just a funny cartoon about rabbits.
In middle school, my friends and I started frequenting Beacon’s Closet, where we’d spend our afternoons playing dress-up with the rejects of South Brooklyn’s most stylish. One day in 8th grade, I stumbled upon the perfect black velvet cocktail dress. I let it pour over me and emerged from the dusty, cramped fitting room completely transformed. I turned to the side with one hand on my hip, tilting my head back and popping my foot out like I’d seen celebrities do on the red carpet. I smiled serenely, making sure to keep my puckered lips closed (the glare of my braces would ruin the fantasy). I was almost done making my 360 rotation, admiring the fit-and-flare silhouette in the full-length mirror, when I was interrupted by a pinch-faced shop attendant with cat eye glasses and microbangs: “That’s a little mature for you isn’t it?”
Minutes later I was back in my jeans and Children’s Place cardigan, handing over a fistful of my hard-earned babysitting money in a white hot rage. As the cashier tucked my new dress into a brown paper bag, I tried to make venomous eye contact with the woman from before, as if to say, Who’s mature now, bitch? but she was too busy sorting through a pile of donations to notice me. Unfortunately, Bat Mitzvah season was pretty much over by that point, and I realized that 13-year-olds don’t get invited to many black-tie (or black dress) occasions, so I didn’t get much wear out of my new favorite piece– at least not outside of my room, where I’d spend hours spinning in the mirror, caressed in waves of velvet.
Given this trajectory, it makes perfect sense that when I was 16-going-on-25-and-looking-like-12 in a Williamsburg record store and the balding shopkeeper sheepishly said “I can’t sell you that without an adult’s permission,” tapping the parental advisory sticker strategically placed over Liz Phair’s right nipple, Exile in Guyville shot to the top of my hierarchy of needs, in that moment surpassing food, water, and oxygen.
Keep in mind that this was 2015– for better or worse, I’d pretty much had free-range internet access since the Bush administration and by this point, had encountered things far more scandalous than songs with “fuck” in the title. If I wanted to listen to a song like that, a record store clerk couldn’t do much to stop me. I’d been meaning to dive into Phair’s discography after having discovered “Never Said” on an 8tracks playlist, but this interaction now elevated her music to forbidden fruit. Listening to Guyville felt like sneaking into an R-rated movie, so in hindsight, this introduction was an auspicious one.
I left the shop empty-handed, but the first thing I did when I got home was pull up Liz Phair’s profile on Spotify, plug my iPod Touch into my blue Bose speaker, close my bedroom door, and hit play.
Hearing the opening riff of “6’1”for the first time blew my brain wide open, had me jumping on the bed and tossing my limbs around Elaine Benes-style before the vocals even kicked in. When they finally did, I was struck with the realization that my own desire was innately understood. In such simple terms, Phair had put into words what it was like to be shadowed by a vague, shapeless wanting that’s far bigger than yourself. On a more superficial level, I got a stupid little thrill from learning that Phair, despite feeling 6’1, was actually 5’2– my own height, and a longtime source of insecurity.
Here was someone whose hunger and liveliness far exceeded the confines of her diminutive circumstances, both physical and metaphorical; who could read a room like a book and then tear out all the pages; who examined everything around her through a comically-large Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass with the urge to simultaneously reject what she saw and take it all in.
It felt like fate, listening to her completely level some hotshot guy, and do so with unquestioned bravado and a smile on her face. By marrying together the one-two punch lines “I loved my life / and I hated you,” she made space in her heart for righteous anger without letting it cloud her lovestruck-vision. It was a broad, unspecific yet desperately urgent love that wasn’t going to wait around for someone who didn’t deserve it, and would instead let her see the world in technicolor, smitten with all that surrounded her.
On my (approximately) millionth listen to “6’1,” years after that fateful day, the song made me think of something Lorde tweeted in response to a fan who asked how to reclaim and reignite her love for Lorde’s music after bonding over it with an ex boyfriend who broke her heart: “Cherish the secret world you built without him and know he’ll never hear it just the way you do.” “6’1” starts in the seemingly petty place of calling out one unnamed man’s arrogance and ends as a celebration of the beautiful inner life that Phair is capable of building without him, a world that he’ll never have the privilege of knowing. Instead of letting his shallowness sour her spirit or close herself off, she uses it as a motivator to understand the world around her and love it all the more deeply, even if that means getting hurt over and over again.
It was Guyville that led me back to Phair’s original roadmap, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, an album I’d probably heard in my dad’s car a dozen or so times but had never actively sought out for myself. So much of what’s been written about the connection between these two records frames Guyville as this towering, anti-Main Street kiss-off. And sure, there are songs on Guyville (like “6’1”) that take direct aim at the longstanding boys’ club to which The Stones and their slew of imitators had exclusive access, but it’s impossible to listen to Guyville without hearing Phair’s passionate and studied reverence for Main Street running through it like a current. To her, Exile on Main Street was never just one thing– it was a field guide, a writing exercise, a self-imposed curriculum around which she learned to structure an album, but she’d also called it her “source of strength” and “an imaginary friend.” Main Street was the blueprint that she used to build a house that would eventually stand on its own. To paraphrase “Divorce Song,” Phair knew when to steal The Stones’ lighter, and she also knew when to lose their map.
Guyville was in conversation with Main Street, and though that conversation often took the form of a spirited debate or even an all-out roast, Phair wouldn’t have chosen to spend this much time with an album if she didn’t have such a profound adoration for it. During the moments where she challenges Main Street, her counterpoints come from a place of embracing her source material, turning it over and examining it from all angles, only being able to attack it so acutely because she’d grown to know and love it in such an all-encompassing way.
Maybe it was my own hypercritical disposition or the family dynamic in my Jewish New York household, where arguing was the dominant mode of conversation– serious or frivolous, affectionate or antagonistic –but Guyville resonated with the restless, bickering part of me that only knew how to express my infatuation by challenging it. I was intimately familiar with the feeling of being so in love with a work of art and, having quickly cycled through everything that I loved about it, channeling my affection into ruthless, unsparing critique. If I could examine all the faults in something (or someone) I loved and come out on the other side with my devotion intact, then and only then would I truly understand its importance. To love something fully, I believed, was to question that love at every turn.
I recently found myself rereading an interview that Chuck Klosterman did with Liz Phair for SPIN in 2003— ahead of the release of Phair’s poorly-received self-titled album —and getting angry, not just because so much of it reads as belittling and disrespectful to Phair, but because on Klosterman’s end, it feels beneath him. He’s no stranger to portraying himself in an unflattering light, and while that tendency usually bolsters his incisive narrative voice, in this particular interview it just comes across as lazy and cheap. Klosterman’s work as a music writer and cultural critic has been foundational to me, but my reverence for his writing is so tied up in the instinct I often get to start one-sided arguments with him. Sometimes I suspect that I wouldn’t have connected with his musings on music and modernity in Killing Yourself To Live or Sex, Drugs, & Cocoa Puffs (the latter of which I devoured in just two days) if they didn’t also make me feel like I was riding shotgun and quarreling with him as much as I was nodding in agreement.
Call me a glutton for punishment, a mental masochist, but sometimes I want my heroes to give me something to scoff or roll my eyes at (i.e. Klosterman’s rampant objectification and outright dismissiveness toward nearly every woman who struts across his pages). Based on how Liz Phair engaged with The Rolling Stones, I have to imagine that she felt similarly.
Anyway, in the SPIN interview, Klosterman introduces Phair by remarking that her wardrobe choices made him “nervous” (a 36-year-old woman daring to wear a miniskirt? And still looking good at her big, cronish age? Stop the presses!) before launching into a series of negging questions. Phair’s having none of it. He asks if she “exaggerates her interest in sex for artistic purposes;” she volleys back that she exaggerates many aspects of herself for the sake of her music (as is pretty standard for any impassioned performer) but that when she sings about sex, she tends to come by it honestly. Throughout the interview, he seems to make the unfortunately common faux pas of simply viewing Guyville as “the sex record” (you sing about blowjobs ONE TIME) when it’s so much more. It’s exasperating because Klosterman doesn’t seem like the type of guy who’d have to downplay his admiration for Phair’s musical prowess by claiming to have just bought a copy of Guyville ‘cause she’s got her tits out on the cover– but that’s exactly the type of guy he’s coming off as. This conversation between two obviously very smart people could have been so much more enlightening were Klosterman not trying so hard to dumb both of them down.
His subtext throughout the interview seems to be “Why can’t you just make Guyville again?” Phair admits that, while she’s part of the majority that considers Guyville to be her magnum opus, she can’t recreate lighting in a bottle, and she doesn’t necessarily want to. Whether Liz Phair is a good album or not, it’s a testament to Phair’s refusal to bend her creative vision to the will of Big Nostalgia: “I can’t make a 25-year-old’s record at the age of 36…I think you and I might have been at the same point when I was 25, but we have diverged. I think maybe it’s time for us to break up.”
Their conversation ends with Klosterman asking Phair if she’d rather wake up tomorrow and be half as smart as she currently is, or half as sexy— that’s right, this is hard-hitting journalism, and Chuckie’s not afraid to ask the tough questions. Phair, ever the realist, chooses to be a hot, happy dumbass. Sarcasm (or lack thereof) is hard to communicate through the written word, and imagining this answer filtered through Phair’s deadpan demeanor, it’s hard to tell how much seriousness she’s affording this very unserious question. During one of my countless Guyville listens, I journaled in words far less eloquent than I wanted to, “the thing that Liz Phair gets about being a woman is that you have to constantly be in on the joke, otherwise you’re fucked.”
Guyville’s sliding scale of facetiousness to sincerity coupled with the throughline of tandem adoration and defiance feels so central to its thesis– and part of what’s made Phair such a polarizing figure. Is it really that hard for us to wrap our heads around the notion that something (or someone) could be both a source of inspiration and contempt? Who among us hasn't craved acceptance from somebody while also resenting them (and resenting ourselves for wanting their approval)?
When I listen to a song like “Help Me Mary,” I understand just how a woman could desire affirmation from men who tease her, make her home their stomping ground, and let their dirty dishes pile up in her kitchen sink. “Weave my disgust into fame / and watch how fast they run to the flame,” she begs to the Virgin Mother (or perhaps Magdalene), in what is both a humble prayer and a Mona Lisa-smirking statement of her ambition. Phair’s “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” tactic on “Help Me Mary” could be dismissed as regressive pickme-ism, or it could be read as a sneaky victory: they play her “like a pitbull in a basement,” she’ll play them right back.
It’s amazing how easily nuance can be misconstrued as inconsistency. The so-called contradictions of Guyville are what make it such an honest artistic statement. It’s easier to say, “Fuck it, I don’t need your approval. I don’t wanna be a part of your Boys’ Club” than to put those words into action. The reality of learning how not to need external validation (male or otherwise) is much more arduous. It makes perfect sense that Liz Phair wants to appear “Mesmerizing” to the man who is— metaphorically or literally —tossing eggs at her. She copes by tightrope-walking the faint line between “laughing at” and “laughing with” the subjects of her affection and derision, whether those subjects are deadbeat dudes whose dirtbagginess both charms and disgusts her, or Mick Jagger himself. Reverence without deference seems to be the conceit of the conversation between Main Street (or what it represents) and Guyville. To position Guyville as Main Street’s stark antithesis is to ignore the reflection of at least a part of herself that Phair saw in that record. When Mick Jagger sings, “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me,” it rings with the same insatiability that Phair carries over into songs like “Mesmerizing,” “Help Me Mary,” and “6’1”
I don’t know if I would’ve latched onto Guyville as much as I did if the boredom I’d experienced during my adolescent years hadn’t felt so totalizing. It surrounded and smothered me like a cocoon. One of my mom’s favorite lines was “only boring people get bored,” which I fought back against at every turn, instead choosing to believe that the world just wasn’t stimulating enough for a mind as active and ravenous as mine. This wildly immature and solipsistic conviction wasn’t a comfort to me, but a terrifying prospect. I wasn’t so naive to believe adults who said these were the best years of my life, but they were at least supposed to be some of the most interesting, right? I was growing up in the so-called greatest city in the world, at an age where every feeling I felt was supposedly more powerful than it would ever be. If I was still unsatisfied, that meant that nothing would ever be enough for me, and I was doomed to a life of ceaseless wanting.
Ironically enough, wanting was probably the most interesting thing I did. Most of the time wanting is more exciting than getting; you can’t be disappointed by something you don’t have. When you get the thing you want, the wanting ends, or it presents something else to want. Exile in Guyville is all about wanting– not just in a sexual sense, though that’s certainly no small part of it, but it’s an overall expression of uncontainable desire, a continuous quest to take the world in your hand and squeeze everything out of it. Sometimes, this means getting what you want and realizing that even that isn’t enough; desire creates more desire.
I always had a crush on somebody. Nursing an obsessive infatuation with one boy kept my mind occupied. Between those, I’d harbor several smaller, lower-stakes crushes on a few different boys to stay busy. Many of my crushes were born out of boredom– if I felt like my options were lacking too much for my feelings to develop organically, I’d manufacture new fantasies and project them onto the most promising guy in my proverbial line of sight. I batted at my crushes in my mind like they were toy mice and I was a restless kitten left alone for too long. Even when it was all in my head (and it usually was) crushing felt active in a way that few other things did. It was easier to get out of bed in the morning and go through the motions of a school day if I knew that a boy I liked was going to be sitting in front of me in class. Crushes imbued my mundane everyday life with intention and verve, turning my routines into a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. What I wore, what I wrote about in my diary, what words I would speak when I raised my hand in class, what I ate (or didn’t eat), what fantasy reels I’d play in my head when I was listening to music on the train or pretending to take notes in Algebra or trying to fall asleep at night— all these inconsequential decisions became turbo-charged when their fuse was lit by romantic motivations. A crush was a hobby, something to look forward to, a laser-pointed red dot on a wall that my adolescent kitten brain could chase after.
Most of my crushes went un-actualized, and on the rare occasion that something did come of them, I usually ended up underwhelmed. Lusting after boys from afar was at least a temporary way to ward off my never-ending boredom, but no one told me that most of them wouldn’t become competent kissers or conversationalists until their 20s, and even then it’s a gamble. I grew to resent the friends and well-meaning grown-ups who’d try to reassure me that boys were probably just “intimidated” by me because I was “too smart” or “mature for my age.” “Intimidating” felt like about as much of a compliment as the backhanded one from a classmate who once told me, “I think it’s so cool that you’re one of those girls who just doesn’t care about how she looks!” (I was very much not one of those girls who “just doesn’t care about how she looks,” and am increasingly convinced that the world we live in would never allow such a girl to exist). On the opposite end of the spectrum, when I told a camp friend that I’d never had a boyfriend at the ripe old age of fourteen (fourteen!), she gave me a quizzical look and said, “but you’re like, pretty?” My self-effacing response of “yeah, I guess it’s my personality that sucks,” did little to clear things up for her.
The romantic and/or sexual and/or borderline-sexual experiences I had during my teen years were few and far between. This was in part due to the fact that I spent almost half of high school on SSRIs, which basically turned me into a zombie with no desire to do anything other than sleep. When I finally weaned off my antidepressants, I was shocked to find that I not only had a sex drive buried under 300 milligrams of Zoloft, but that said drive would come crashing into my life like the Kool-Aid Man through a brick wall. And it terrified me.
Now, this fear would be easier to rationalize if I’d had the kind of repressed, puritanical upbringing that makes people think they’re irreparably evil for being humans who— like most other humans —sometimes want to fuck, but that wasn’t the case for me. I was blessed with parents who were pretty open-minded in that regard and a public school sex education that was relatively comprehensive, especially compared to the nightmarish policies being enacted now. I spent my afternoons reading Rookie articles like they were Bible verses and scrolling through the sex-positive pop-feminism of 2010s Tumblr (which of course, had its myriad cons as well as its pros). The overwhelming message, though, was that wanting and having sex were normal aspects of the human experience and should be treated as such. As early as middle school, I called myself a feminist and prided myself on my progressive values, yet I failed to internalize the lack of shame that I was so quick to preach. Instead, I sat in the dark, googling “am I a sex addict?” in an incognito browser window, years before I was ever even sexually active, convinced that my very normal (if hormone-addled) brain was undeniable proof that I was a horrible person.
My mom was a writer who penned inflammatory articles calling out the misogyny and homophobia that ran rampant in the Catholic church. She was also a poet who, when I was in 7th grade, published a poem about breastfeeding me and read it aloud at her book release party. The first time I encountered the word “cum” was in that same book of poetry (when my smartass tried to point it out to her as a typo, she swiftly corrected me). She would regularly take my siblings and I to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to look at (among other exhibits) Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. 10-year-old me didn’t know that the 39 plates— each one representing a notable woman from history —were supposed to look like vaginas. I panicked, assuming that this must be some kind of Rorschach Test to sniff out the pervs. All the normal people in the room probably just saw plates; I, on the other hand, was an irredeemable sexual deviant.
My shame only continued as I got older, growing alongside and constantly at odds with my curiosity about sex. I felt guilty about wanting, but even more than that, I felt guilty about wanting to be wanted. Deep in my teenage Riot Grrrl phase, I tried to position myself as the kind of woman who needed a man like a fish needed a bicycle, whose body wasn't on display for men’s consumption, but deep down I longed to be gazed at, lusted after, chased. As much as I resented the locker room talk that boys engaged in, I craved the validation that came with being the subject of it.
By the time I finished middle school, I’d gotten used to the consistent presence of catcallers. On principle, I would ignore them— or, if I was feeling bold and wearing shoes I could run in, flip them off —but when I went too long without hearing wolf-whistles or lewd comments, I would wonder if I was getting uglier. I kept a stockpile of twofold instances of objectification and affirmation in my mind as evidence of my own desirability. It wasn’t always as overt as catcalling, sometimes it was more subtle– grown men who turned their heads when I walked through my neighborhood in crop tops and cutoff shorts, their eyes following me as I strode past. To admit that a part of me liked it felt like admitting defeat, relinquishing my right to ever not like it. On the few occasions that strangers groped me on buses and trains or tried to follow me home at night, I convinced myself that it was karmic retribution for all the times I’d secretly taken pride in their leering, lust-ridden gaze. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?
I didn’t just feel guilty about wanting sexual attention, I felt guilty about wanting romantic attention too. When I listened to “Fuck and Run” for the first time, the most jarring part wasn’t the frankness with which Liz Phair sang about wanting sex, but the equally frank way she sang about wanting love. Her words were so simple— obvious, even —yet they felt forbidden. If I uttered or even thought the words “I want a boyfriend,” it was enough to convince me that I was single-handedly setting women’s liberation back more years than I’d been alive, though to be fair, it didn’t take much to make me think of myself this way. Feeling secretly flattered by street harassment, talking shit about another girl behind her back, crying over a boy or a number on a scale— these were all grounds for me to guilt-trip myself into believing that I was a hypocritical disgrace to women everywhere, my misogyny rivaling that of a neo-conservative Supreme Court Justice. It was the early 2010s; self-determination and self-optimization were the axes on which mainstream feminism turned. The personal was political, but God, at what cost?
In the online circles I ran in, people of across the gender spectrum extolled the liberating virtues of casual sex, arguing that women should be able to enjoy noncommittal encounters in the same way that men had done for centuries. I generally agreed with this, but there was very little space to discuss how casual sex (or any sex, really) still had the potential to leave anyone of any gender feeling like something was missing. In its attempt to break down the Madonna-Whore complex, empowerment-based choice feminism seemed to merely recreate it in different terms. You were either a liberated woman who could breezily come and go and fuck and suck without any hangups, or you were a prudish slut-shamer, hellbent on being the cop in your own head— and bed —as well as everyone else’s.
“Fuck and Run” doesn’t make any value judgements about casual sex; it tells one woman’s story about an experience that left her feeling insecure and kind of pathetic. I’d argue that much of “Fuck and Run” and Guyville as a whole isn’t about sex, but all that surrounds it. So much of our sexual consciousness (for lack of a better term) has nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with how we think about sex, how we talk about sex, how we don’t talk about sex.
I wasn’t fucking and running— or fucking at all, for that matter —when I was seventeen, and certainly not when I was twelve, yet I understood what Liz Phair meant long before I heard her sing about it. I knew what it felt like to be watched, to be desired, to be rejected, to be used, to be (metaphorically) fucked. I knew what it felt like to want letters and sodas from the kind of guy who makes love ‘cause he’s in it, and I knew what it felt like to resent myself for wanting those things.
With the few boys who momentarily returned my affections during my teen years, our noncommittal hookups were almost always punctuated with a kiss on the forehead barely softening the blow of a line like, “Let’s just keep this between us, okay?” Even if it wasn’t a boy whose name I felt inclined to scream from the rooftops, it still left me with the dull, rusty ache– wondering why I was the kind of girl who was fine for an hour or two of fumbling around in the dark, but only so long as we could spend the rest of our lives pretending that it never happened.
It’s strange to think about how mind-blowing it was to hear a woman sing about longing for domestic bliss with the right man. The subject material isn’t exactly novel; it’s probably the most predictable and least-subversive thing for a woman to want, it’s what we’re taught our entire lives that we’re supposed to want. I’d guess that this particular desire wouldn’t be as shocking if it weren’t surrounded by the other seemingly contradictory desires that Phair sings about– desires that actually aren’t all that contradictory. When Guyville first came out, even some of its most glowing reviews accused Phair of being inconsistent. How could she sing about wanting love letters on one song and wanting to be a blowjob queen just a few songs later?
Yes, let’s talk about “Flower,” shall we? The title alone is brilliant. When we’re first learning about sex— presumably from well-intentioned but uncomfortable adults —it’s padded with non-threatening nature metaphors, and flowers are up there with literal birds and bees when it comes to the most commonly-used euphemisms. Even in more explicit, forward-thinking, woman-centric writings on sexual desire and pleasure, this kind of visual shorthand is used to give female sexuality a certain sophistication and allure— “Flower” lets it be base and dirty and stupid. Ironically enough, the only body part that Phair compares to a flower is her crush’s face, and other than that one line, the song is virtually devoid of metaphor. She doesn’t dress up her lust in a way that makes it transcendent or beautiful, doesn’t wax poetic about how she wants this guy to “awaken” anything in her, she says “I want to fuck you like a dog.” Instead of fantasizing about kissing his lips, she notes that they’re “a perfect ‘suck-me’ size.”
I’d never heard a female songwriter discuss sex in such frank and utilitarian terms. We can argue all day long about whether women turning the slobbering, objectifying gaze back on men is a subversion of patriarchal norms or just another way of perpetuating them under the guise of false sexual agency. We can also admit that there’s nothing revolutionary about the horniness of straight, cisgender white women, or about our disappointment with the men in our lives (I’d argue that Liz Phair made one of the greatest works of heteropessimist art decades before Asa Seresin coined the term). Guyville chronicles the sisyphean cycle of getting screwed over by men while still wanting to be loved/fucked/respected/cared for by them. For a record that devotes so much of its lyrical content to desiring men, the objects of Phair’s desire are, more often than not, objects of disappointment in equal measure. They lie to her, steal from her, trash her apartment, make her the butt of their jokes, and– in the worst case scenario –hijack her car, murder her pets, and leave her living in a box.
Like the sociopathic “Johnny Sunshine,” the all-surface-no-substance “Soap Star Joe,” and various other Guyville residents, the object of Phair’s lust on “Flower” doesn’t seem like much of a catch. She says little about his personality, and when she does, the portrait she paints is far from complimentary: “you act like you’re fourteen years old / everything you say is so obnoxious, funny, true, and mean.” She wonders for a moment whether he might have hidden emotional depth before quickly deciding that even if he does, it’s not of any real interest to her.
There’s a strange roundabout elegance in its explicitness, particularly in the angelic backing vocals repeating the lines “every time I see your face / I get all wet between my legs / every time you pass me by / I heave a sigh of pain.” Phair’s girlish background lilt is juxtaposed with both the dirtiness of the lyrics it delivers and her even-dirtier monotone contralto layered over it. She takes these expressions of sexual desire to their most on-the-nose extremes, all while refusing to poeticize them.
It’s crucial to Guyville’s sequencing that the vulgar and hyper-literal “Flower” comes immediately after “Shatter,” the record’s only real love song. “Shatter” sees Phair letting her guard down for a man she truly cares about, before following it up with a track that tosses out emotional vulnerability in favor of shameless, unadulterated lust— which arguably, could be read as a form of emotional vulnerability in and of itself. It’s similar to the juxtaposition of “Fuck and Run”’s plea for meaningful sex with the deadpanned maneater’s boast of the following “Girls! Girls! Girls!”: “I take full advantage of every man I meet.” That line always made me imagine Phair as some sort of butcher who uses all parts of the animal to justify its slaughter. It makes her fucking and running feel almost sacred, every notch in her bedpost a sacrificial lamb.
This tension became more palpable to me as I brought Guyville with me to college and my teens gave way to my early twenties. My reluctant, largely unacknowledged (by myself or anyone else) desire for genuine emotional intimacy was dogged by the pressure to remain aloof and nonchalant. Keeping my guard up was exhausting, but it couldn’t be worse than what might happen if I dared to let my blasé cool girl persona falter. A real relationship seemed to be more trouble than it was worth and looking back, it’s still hard to separate to the part of myself that wanted “letters and sodas” from the part of myself that wanted to “get away with what the girls call murder.”
At 19 I fell for someone who I believed was way out of my league— smarter, better looking, more interesting, more well-liked, by my account too good for me in every sense of the word. When that led to my first real adult heartbreak, I shut down and did a total 180; I set my sights on a guy who was cold, arrogant, and just generally unpleasant to be around. All of his interactions with me— even his compliments —felt laced with condescension. I still recall one instance where he told me (as a come-on?) that I was the only person in our philosophy class who he felt could “match him intellectually,” something that he would later grow to resent me for, even going so far as to admit that being attracted to an intelligent woman made him feel threatened.
After months of incessant, occasionally flirtatious bickering, I drunkenly crawled into his tobacco-stained sheets one night and ended up staying there for three months. We fought almost the whole time but no matter how terrible he could make me feel about myself, all it took was somebody coming up to me at a party to tell me that I could do so much better, and my once-depleted confidence would skyrocket.
I wish I could say that my addiction to men who supplied me with the hollow, superficial assurance that I wasn’t the problem died with that relationship, but it remained an unfortunate constant for the first few years of my twenties. My subconscious reasoning was that if I exclusively dated guys that I didn’t have to care about, I wouldn’t have to learn how to care about myself.
It feels so hackneyed to say “everything changed when I fell in love,” but goddammit, everything changed when I fell in love.
A few months before turning 24, I broke down crying in the passenger seat next to the only serious boyfriend I’ve ever had. The droning, 2-minute instrumental intro of “Shatter” reverberated in the back of my brain, as did Liz Phair’s epiphany on the first verse:
I know that I don’t always realize
How sleazy it is, messing with these guys
But something about just being with you
Slapped me right in the face, nearly broke me in two
It’s a mark I’ve taken hard
And I know I will carry with me for a long, long time
It’s funny to think that for years, “Shatter” was never one of my favorites on Guyville, perhaps because I lacked firsthand experience of the emotional slap in the face that she sings about on it– and in turn, never fully experienced the emotional slap in the face that is this song. It’s the most jarring moment on the album— she strips away all the layers of detachment and sarcasm in a moment of unflinching clarity.
It’s a shock to the system to see a version of yourself who’s capable of being loved when you’ve spent years convinced that that’s a form you could never take. For so long, I’d kept the idea of love at a distance, afraid that being vulnerable with someone would open up a Pandora’s Box of all my inner horrors and let them consume us both. It was a catch-22: in order for somebody to fall in love with me, they would have to get to know me, but letting somebody get to know me would prove to them just how unloveable I really was.
When I finally let someone pass through that threshold of knowing me and, to my surprise, there was no subsequent threshold of unlovability, it was a relief, but the kind of relief I’d imagine a person’s lungs and muscles feel after breaking through the finish line of a marathon, relief that feels like surrender. I didn’t just let my guard down— I collapsed under its weight, only registering the strain after I was no longer propping it up.
For every old fear that love alleviated, it created two new ones. My “Shatter”-like re-examination of my past relationships made me worry that, instead of making me a more generous and forgiving person, love had turned me vindictive and bitter. It dug up latent anger towards those who had made me feel worthless and disposable in ways that I hadn’t recognized until I’d realized what I was missing. I was also angry at myself for wasting so much time by having such low standards for how I should be treated. There was this ugly, bitter part of me that responded to my boyfriend’s genuine expressions of affections with internalized fury, as though I was screaming at myself, “You mean I could’ve been loved and understood and respected this whole fucking time? Why were you keeping this from me?”
The idea that there was some dealbreaker buried inside me— a slow-rotting corpse whose bones my unsuspecting boyfriend could hit with a shovel if he continued digging —still loomed in my mind, as did the notion that being loved could lull me into dependency and leave me stranded and empty if things fell apart (there’s a reason why “Johnny Sunshine” comes just two songs after “Shatter” in Guyville’s tracklist).
Finally receiving the love that I’d felt stupid for wanting didn’t kill the fear that there was something fundamentally monstrous in me that would repel even the most ardent of men, but sometimes it made that fear a bit easier to live with, or at least distracted me with other, more meaningful fears. I sobbed into his arms because finally receiving real love meant having to admit that love was what I wanted, and if I’d learned anything from Exile in Guyville, finally getting what I wanted didn’t lower the stakes— it gave me something I couldn’t imagine losing.
The closer, “A Strange Loop” is a breakup song, but more broadly, it’s about the cycle of wanting, getting what you want, and wanting something new as a direct result of having the initial want fulfilled. It’s fitting that the final words spoken on the record are “I only wanted you / I only wanted more than I knew.” I was well-acquainted with the desire for something that I didn’t have, but that couldn’t prepare me for the desire to hold onto something that was already mine.
I’m sure that if you went around asking Liz Phair fans what their Guyville is, you’d get hundreds of different answers. I’ve been to plenty of Guyvilles, I’ve been to places that were probably someone else’s Guyville, unbeknownst to me. I don’t mean to use Guyville as a fully negative term– I’ve had Guyvilles that I loved, Guyvilles that were home to me. From the way Liz Phair talks about the titular Guyville— Wicker Park in the early 90s —it’s clear that it was as fascinating to her as it was frustrating.
In a 2019 interview with Jessica Hopper, Phair said that in her memories of Chicago, the city “seems dark, it seems cold, it seems exciting and lawless.” I’ve been spending a lot of time walking around Wicker Park, listening to Exile in Guyville and re-reading my favorite passages from Night Moves. The Wicker Park that both of them wrote about feels paved over by decades of gentrification, but I still try my best to let Phair and Hopper act as my tour guides/cool older sisters as I explore their old haunts. On a weeknight after work, I sit alone at Rainbo Club with an Old Style tallboy, my well-worn copy of Night Moves, and the gently used copy of Liz Phair’s memoir, Horror Stories, that I found at Myopic the day before. Next time I’ll bring some friends and we’ll take photos in the same photobooth that produced Guyville’s iconic cover art. I try to ignore the instinct to make fun of myself for being so corny and touristy, and instead revel in the opportunity to materialize my connection to these women whose stories mean so much to me.
After I finish my beer, I’ll hop on the Blue Line and head back to the apartment I’m subletting with my best friend, where we’ll plan out our little adventures for the next time we both have a day off. I’ll talk on the phone with the man I love, regaling him with dispatches from all my favorite spots that I’ll take him to when he visits. The next day, I’ll continue rambling through the city— always exploring, always wanting, always on the lookout for something new.