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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Liz Phair Didn’t Need Guyville As Much As Guyville Needed Her

On making peace with the past and learning to live with the weight of expectations—and also on a really excellent debut album and its just-as-good follow-ups

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 85 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run.” Below is an excerpt of this episode’s transcript.

Liz Phair was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and bounced around a bit as a kid but was mostly raised by her adoptive parents in Winnetka, Illinois. At 6 years old, as she’ll later explain in her memoir, “I really need magic to be real, and I live in a state of quasi denial where flowers have faces and inanimate objects can communicate. Everything I know I glean through signs and symbols. I think thunderstorms can see me.” At 12 years old she went to summer camp with Julia Roberts; this will eventually come up in one of Liz Phair’s songs. When Liz makes the cover of Rolling Stone in 1994, she will describe her old friend Julia Roberts as “tall and bossy and fun. I always had tall, bossy friends.” Sadly, Liz goes on to report, “We stopped speaking because she was always calling me collect, and it pissed me off. I’m like, ‘What are you fucking calling me collect for? Your parents are rich enough.’”

All right! I’m not explaining what “calling collect” means. If you’re too young to be familiar with that term, keep it to yourself. Liz studied art at the super-liberal Oberlin College—the least-Ohioan physical location in Ohio; it’s like a portal to Narnia—and graduated in 1990. She spent a little time in New York City, spent a little time in San Francisco, but she winds up back living with her parents in Illinois, a little aimless, a little exasperated. She falls in with some affable Chicago rocker bros—for example, the great power-pop band Material Issue. Here’s a Material Issue song called “What Girls Want.” They’re just speculatin’!

That’s an obnoxious way for me to bring up Material Issue. Sheesh. Those guys kick ass. That song actually kicks ass. I love that band. Calling them bros is pushing it. Super obnoxious of me. Matter of fact, as penance, let’s play another Material Issue song that kicks ass.

I do apologize. Urge Overkill, too. Liz starts hanging out with the dudes in Urge Overkill—those guys kick ass as well, and will be medium famous in a year or so: “Sister Havana” and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” and whatnot. But here’s a less famous Urge Overkill song from ’92 called “Goodbye to Guyville.”

Fantasizing about waitresses … fantasizing about rescuing waitresses from all the affable bros fantasizing about them … this is the very essence of the abstract, pervasive, super-macho, suffocating, condescending, and maybe inescapable sociocultural phenomenon known as Guyville, and it’s the stuff power-pop dreams are made of, and I love it, and I can fuck around talking about that stuff all day. But Liz Phair is writing songs as well, and recording them, on a four-track, in her bedroom, late at night, very quietly, so as not to disturb anyone sharing a bedroom wall with her. And the Herculean, the Aphroditian effort she makes not to disturb anyone—her natural impulse, the whole time she was growing up, not to disturb anyone—the exasperated strain of this effort not to disturb anyone animates the songs she’s writing, to put it mildly. Liz Phair is destined to disturb some people. Word gets around. A few tapes of these songs get around. Liz gets signed to the fabled Matador Records. Liz starts working on her debut album, to be called Exile in Guyville, which will come out in 1993 and endure—very much to her benefit, of course, but as her career progresses also very much to her detriment—as one of the most shocking, most cataclysmic, most influential, most violently beloved, most hard-to-live-up-to debut albums in pop music history.

Exile in Guyville is the stone created by God that’s so heavy, God himself cannot lift it. Usually I say the burrito microwaved by God that’s so hot, God himself cannot eat it, but I have used that stupid line way too many times. God himself can’t eat it. Or God herself. You don’t know. Shout-out Dishwalla. Exile in Guyville is the impossible ideal, the proverbial rock-critical albatross. It’s a record so good that many proud residents of Guyville have spent the rest of Liz Phair’s career lambasting her for never, in their collective opinion, making another record worthy of it. Exile in Guyville is the Illmatic of indie rock, if you will, and if you won’t then too bad.

Here is Liz Phair in 2010, talking to Caryn Ganz in Rolling Stone and explaining her mindset while making Exile in Guyville: “I was so disrespected. Being a woman in music back then, at least the level I was, was like being their bitch. Sit there, look pretty, bring us drinks and we’ll talk about what music is good and bad. And it was almost understood that women’s taste in music was inferior. … I was so angry about being taken advantage of sexually, being overlooked intellectually. A lot of Exile in Guyville was about an ‘I’ll show them.’ That was a major emotion in my life, pent up for a long time. Even when I was young, at dinner tables with the extended family, listening to the men argue and the women sort of sit there—that’s just the way it was back then.”

Liz Phair, in the early ’90s, maybe she still thinks thunderstorms can see her, but she still can’t get those thunderstorms to listen to her. Also, she has decided to format her debut album as a track-by-track response to the 1972 Rolling Stones mega-classic Exile on Main Street, one of the most deified and bro’d-out rock ’n’ roll records ever born. So her song “Fuck and Run,” for example, slots in at track 10 and directly mirrors track 10 on Exile on Main Street, a song called “Happy,” in which Mick Jagger voices his desire for a girl who will sit there, look pretty, bring him drinks, and listen to him talk about what music is good and bad.

I’m projecting a little bit, perhaps; I am putting words in Keith Richards’s mouth here in the 85th episode of this podcast where I talk to you about what music is good and bad. But projecting’s the whole point, right? Concocting your own personal version of Keith Richards or Mick Jagger to talk to or yell at is the whole point. In 2013, when journalist and author and filmmaker Jessica Hopper did an oral history on Exile in Guyville for Spin magazine, Liz talked about the Stones record. She says, “I listened to it over and over again and it became like my source of strength—my involvement with Exile was like an imaginary friend; whatever Mick was saying, it was a conversation with him, or I was arguing with him and it was kind of an amalgam of the men in my life. That was why I called it Guyville—friends, romantic interests, these teacher types—telling me what I needed to know, what was cool or what wasn’t cool.”

Liz, talking to Rolling Stone, says, “I remember telling my boyfriend I wanted to write a record but I didn’t know how. I was a visual arts major and I concocted the idea that I needed a template—learn from the greats.” So she starts zeroing in on the Rolling Stones, on Exile on Main Street, and she’s asking her boyfriend if that’s a good pick, if that’s a big, important record, and he’s like, Yeah, sure, but it’s a double album, it’s 18 tracks. Liz says, “I can remember him sort of joking, ‘You should totally do that,’ but being sarcastic, as if I couldn’t possibly. And I remember in that moment being like, really.”

Put it another way: Liz Phair’s boyfriend’s being a dick, and he goes, “You can totally do that, no problem, why don’t you do Exile on Main Street.” And Liz Phair goes, “Why don’t you put your thumb up your butt?”

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.