Name a definitive American alt-rock album from the 90s that had cross-over appeal, commercial success and audacious artistic integrity? Well, there are certainly a few albums that would pop into the casual music fan’s head when asked this question. A popular response would be Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a record that’s an accessible mixture of glam rock and light metal made for an instant hit.
Also, it wouldn’t be difficult to look at several Pearl Jam releases and feel they’re a perfect match for this moniker, and of course there’s the great grand-daddy of all popular 90s rock albums: Nirvana’s Nevermind. All good answers (albeit to a question that can’t really have an incorrect response), but there is an issue that floats overhead: They’re all from bands fronted by people who have penises.
Some may argue that the 90s was a time where female-fronted acts didn’t quite get their due in popular rock music. For instance, is it so easy to name a 90s equivalent of Blondie? Sure, the Riot Grrrl movement introduced listeners to a radical and catchy new form of feminist punk rock, but the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill never saw sales figures at the time that matched their critical acclaim. Other female-fronted bands like Garbage and No Doubt proved successful, but their albums haven’t exactly aged well. That said, there is one great album from the early 90s that certainly begs for a re-listen in this day and age, and it happens to be driven by one of the spunkiest female personalities in recent rock history. That album is Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville.
Released in 1993, the debut album of the Chicago-based singer-songwriter was in many ways both a product of its time, as well as something that was generations ahead. It was an album that was as bawdy, empowering, and catchy as you’d expect something a recent art-school graduate would release in the early 90s, but it also had a feel to it supported by classic and indie rock music. Phair claimed the album’s structure was modeled after the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, but it’s a bit too diverse for that. It features the lo-fi production that bands like Pavement and Guided By Voices made fringe favorable for the era, but with more mainstream-accepted styles such as hard rock, folk, and even a bit of power-pop. Of the album’s 18 songs, it’s reasonable that at least 10 could be considered radio-friendly.
While the production gives the album’s its wings (deftly handled by Brad Wood), Phair’s song-writing abilities were what earned her her fans. Much of the songs deal with the issues of relationships, such as on the brutally honest “Divorce Song”, where Phair apologetically tells a friend why she feels they shouldn’t be together. “That it’s harder to be friends than lovers?/And you shouldn’t try to mix the two/ Cause if you do it and you’re still unhappy/Then you know that the problem is you.” It’s lucid that Phair is speaking as a woman who is frequently the object of men’s affection, but she carries it more as a crux than anything.
Listen to the track “Glory” for instance, a slight and minimalist song which appears to be about an encounter with a sexual predator. “He’s got a real big tongue/It rolls way out/ Snaking around in the club/It slicks you down.” It’s an eerie and haunting song, in sharp but intriguing contrast to some of Exile in Guyville’s more elated moments.
The record also finds its mass appeal in how it remains un-preachy, as while Exile in Guyville exists as a woman’s album, it would be a stretch to call it “feminist.” The record was incredibly crass and vulgar for its time (yes, that is a nipple slip on the album cover), and while today it’s relatively tame, it’s still sure to set-off a particular mechanism in the male brain that is listening to this album merely because they find the singer attractive.
The album’s central shock-track, “Flower,” finds Phair graphically describing how she’ll perform all of a man’s sexual desires, accompanied by the record’s most drug-esque music. It’s hard to forget lines like “I want to be your blowjob queen,” and “I’ll f*** you and your minions too,” regardless of your sexuality, even if Phair is so frank and dead-pan in her voice that the seriousness of her words is highly subjective.
Then there’s “F*** and Run,” where the song’s character describes her un-satisfaction with her lengthy history of one-night stands, and even suggests that her yearning for a real love-life stems from a societal trend (“Whatever happened to a boyfriend?/ The kind of guy who makes love cause he’s in it”). It’s one of those rare sexy songs that works both at titillating those that lust, as well as emphasizing with her (perhaps) more empathetic fans that deal everyday with the unbearable burden of lonliness.
While the album never reached platinum status, it proved to be moderately successful with 491,000 copies sold, and it was one of the most acclaimed albums of 1993. Liz Phair’s subsequent albums failed to become critics darlings like her debut, and she would become increasingly poppy, but Exile in Guyville still remains an exemplary album amidst the storm of alt-rock albums that gestated in the early 90s. It’s a bit more deceptively influential than one may hope it to be, but it’s definitely shaped the sound of plenty of recent rock bands, namely Speedy Ortiz, whose lead singer, Sadie Dupuis, has consistently expressed her admiration for Liz Phair.
It’s one of those few records that is simultaneously witty, sexy, fun, sad, and observational all at once, and it still comes off as such a mature album even though it was written by a profane 20-something. Trust me on this, too, you’d also much rather your indie rock loving teenage daughter to look up to Liz Phair over Courtney Love!