When the term “women in rock” became an inescapable buzz phrase around 1993, the women to which that label applied—Polly Jean Harvey, Kim Deal, Tanya Donelly, and Juliana Hatfield, to name a few—often reacted to questions about it with irritation, bugged that lazy journalists were reducing their considerable musical achievements to gender matters. Their irritation was completely legitimate, yet the Rock scene was becoming more gender-balanced than it ever had been before, and to ignore that would have been to pass on a pretty noteworthy story. It was a frustrating inevitability for the talented musicians who had to field the same tired questions about their gender over and over and over again.
Liz Phair was one artist whose gender was actually relevant beyond the big “women in rock” scoop, because unlike a Deal or a Donelly, she often wrote about what it’s like to be a woman and that perspective was a key factor in the sensation Exile in Guyville stirred. Critics gawped at her use of profanity and her sexual explicitness. One might expect to hear these kinds of things spew from Mick Jagger’s puffy lips, but not from a woman. Gasp! So once again the discussion was reduced to a buzz phrase. Liz Phair was “Miss Potty Mouth” and way too much ink was wasted on her choice of words instead of the insight behind the cussing or the spine-tingling atmosphere of her lo-fi music. Another frustrating inevitability.
Gina Arnold’s new study of Exile in Guyville for the 33 1/3 series is frustrating too. Exile is arguably the best album of the nineties, and as stated above, for reasons that aren’t always entwined with Phair’s gender. The best 33 1/3 books flip albums over from every possible angle, getting into their historic importance and potential meanings, but also their creation, quality, and aftermath. Arnold is only concerned with Exile’s place in the sexist indie rock world—not inappropriate since that world is precisely the Guyville in Phair’s record’s title. I have no issue with Arnold’s analysis of the record as a reaction against that scene even if Exile often seems to be floating around her discussion instead of standing at center stage (the most satisfying part of the book is definitely her track-by-track look at Phair’s “conversation” with the Stones’ Exile on Main Street… an album Arnold loathes, incidentally). However, Exile in Guyville is an album with a truly unique story, the product of the kind of gritty home recordings one can’t make anymore (full of songs that didn’t make it to Exile and receive no mention in this book) then distributed through an underground tape network that can’t exist anymore, leading to her signing with Matador records and the creation of a quirky album the artist seemingly disavowed when she then went courting a strange concept of mainstream success. I’d suggest that Arnold could have gotten much deeper into that fascinating historical by honing down her thesis or reining in her more indulgent flights—the extended introduction in which she goes on about how she wrote this book in a Starbucks in Seoul for example— but she makes it very clear from the very first page of her book that she isn’t concerned with anything as prosaic as a straight history. Fair enough, but I can’t help but feel a little sad that this great album has now received its 33 1/3 book and it is this. No doubt Arnold wrote the book she wanted to write. Too bad someone else now can’t write the 33 1/3 book on Exile in Guyville I wanted to read.
Get 33 1/3: Exile in Guyville at Amazon.com here: