“I don’t like being approached by people who look at me too intensely, who needed something from me that I didn’t have. I don’t represent anything.” — Liz Phair

It’s difficult because to so many – including myself – she does represent something. Maybe you’d have to be Gen X to get it. I think of David Lynch’s comment on Elvis, something like “He wasn’t there and then suddenly he was there.” Liz Phair’s “arrival” was like that. And the second she arrived – with a double album, no less – and no touring history, no bar band phase, nothing – it was like you couldn’t imagine how you had lived without her. Who WAS this woman, growling and murmuring in a flat-affect monotone about her life, her men – with such specificity that you feel like you were IN those rooms, meeting those people? Who WAS she?

It’s her birthday today.

Liz Phair emerged at a time when the traditional music industry had exploded. All bets were off. New voices emerged, blazing not just out of the Pacific Northwest, but everywhere. There was always an indie scene, a punk scene, an underground scene, but in the early-mid 90s indie went mainstream. It was amazing to experience it, we didn’t know how good we had it. People like PJ Harvey and Ani DiFranco were very big in my crowd, but then this new crowd burst on the scene and blazed out into stadium tours in a matter of months and it had to have been very surreal. Liz Phair is a Midwesterner but she was also a Chicagoan. So there’s a difference there in context, a subtlety.

Exile in Guyville seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once.


The album – a track by track “retort” to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street) – sounded like it was recorded in her basement apartment at 3 a.m. And indeed much of it was. So authentic it was almost frightening. The album still freaks me out – and I’ve been listening to it constantly ever since it was first released. The album is never far from me. I could not fucking BELIEVE it when I first listened to it, front to back. Song after song after song … I had never before had the experience of hearing my own life, exactly what I was going through at that very moment – and in Chicago, no less! – reflected in a contemporary musician. That first listen was almost embarrassing. She was saying shit I was going through, but afraid to say in such a blunt way. It’s an album where the track listing is woven into my consciousness. Back when albums were listened to in their entirety. Back when track listing had meaning, when an album told a story. So I listen to “Help Me Mary” and I know what comes next.

More after the jump.


The music is under-produced. The lyrics blaze out from a void, as does her growly-confident voice. Some of the songs seem like they’re even too low for her voice. And she wrote the songs! Making pretty sounds was so not the point that it called into question all other music. The album is that important, that revolutionary. She was my peer. I was in Chicago when Exile in Guyville came out. She was a smarter bitchier sexier version of all the female singers clogging the airwaves now, as good as many of them are. Her frankness is what sticks out. She’s a little bit scary, she sees everything, she perceives everything. She is vulnerable, but not soft. Listen to the lyrics of “Stratford on Guy”:

I was flying into Chicago at night
Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
The sun was setting to the left of the plane
And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow

In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out like credits on a screen
The earth looked like it was lit from within
Like a poorly assembled electrical ball

As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid
The plan of a city was all that you saw
And all of these people sitting totally still
As the ground raced beneath them, thirty-thousand feet down

It took an hour, maybe a day
But once I really listened the noise just fell away

And I was pretending that I was in a Galaxie 500 video
The stewardess came back and checked on my drink
In the last strings of sunlight, a Brigitte Bardot

As I had on my headphones
Along with those eyes that you get
When your circumstance is movie-size

It took an hour, maybe a day
But once I really listened the noise just fell away

It’s so SPECIFIC. And yet … I have experienced this. I know this, somehow. She was local and specific and that’s the only way to become truly universal. (I am stealing Henri Cartier Bresson’s observations about Marilyn Monroe: she was undeniably 100% American, she could never have been from anywhere else, and because of this she appealed to everyone. The idea of erasing differences being the only way to appeal to everyone is just … stupid and ahistorical.)

Songs like “Fuck and Run”, “6’1”, “Johnny Sunshine” … these songs described my life at that time. It was almost embarrassing, my own journal entries suddenly showing up on an album.

Like “Mesmerizing”, one of my favorite tracks:

You said things I wouldn’t say
Straight to my face, boy
You tossed the egg up
And I found my hands in place, boy
After backing up as far as you could get
Don’t you know nobody parts two rivers met?
Don’t you know I’m very happy?
You know me well
I’m even happier
I like it
I like it

With all of the time in the world to spend it
Wild and unwise, I wanna be mesmerizing too
Mesmerizing too
Mesmerizing to you

This is so damn honest. I want to thank her for being honest, because it opened the door to seeing what I was doing as well, and being honest about it. I wanna be mesmerizing. I am wild and unwise. Do I mesmerize you? Yes? Good!

Liz Phair came from nowhere, stepping onto the stage with a double album … completely obscure – and within a year, within a couple of months she was on the cover of Rolling Stone. She stood alone. There were other “girl rockers” happening then – very important too – Bikini Kill, L7, Courtney Love, Sleater-Kinney, Tracy Bonham, Babes in Toyland – For a brief period in time, female anger was on the Top 40! 20 years later, the so-called “Girly-Sound Tapes” were released, rough drafts and riffs and experiments Phair did as she was making Exile in Guyville: the songs that eventually were hammered into shape for the album. Again, it sounds like she’s alone in a room at 2 in the morning, which, she was at times. I was fascinated to hear the extra verse of “Fuck and Run”, where the GUY speaks about his desire for a girlfriend, a regular girlfriend, not all this hooking up business. The eventual song is only from the girl’s point of view. I love that the other version exists, because it shows Liz Phair’s interest in both sides, and her understanding of men, her appreciation of them. Nobody was getting USED during hookups, but both parties could walk away feeling unsatisfied, empty, walk of shame, and etc.

I really love this article in Esquire by Tyler Coates about Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville and the Girly-Sound Tapes.

Phair’s follow-up albums – Whip-Smart (1994) and Whitechocolatespaceegg (1998) are also filled with gems. Imagine your first album being Exile in Guyville. Imagine the pressure. She also had no idea Exile in Guyville would be what it would be. There was no PR push behind her, or an industry behind her … She has said that when she was writing those “Exile” songs, she was totally in her subconscious/unconscious. She had no sense of what anyone else was doing, and how she might fit in. She was not trying to fit in. She wasn’t trying out these songs on live audiences. She was in her own unconscious space of creation and expression. Because of that, these songs feel very private. When you are private, you don’t censor yourself. I mean, “Fuck and Run”. She has said her whole career is about trying to get back to that time when her Unconscious was in the driver’s seat.

I love Phair’s comment in the an old interview in Elle (I had the URL but it’s a 404 now. We are losing so much, culturally, in this digital world):

So I came to Oberlin having a Lady Di haircut, wearing acid-wash jeans with flowers on them—like, “€œHi! I’m Liz! And I wear really strong blue eyeliner!” And I got my ass kicked by all these New Yorkers. The zeitgeist on that campus changed my perspective completely on gender and bravery.

Certain fans of Liz Phair cried “sell out” with what happened next, her self-titled album (I love that it was her FOURTH album that was self-titled, not her first, second, or third), and the album after that, Somebody’s Miracle. Both had bigger and more “produced” sounds, plus they were made up of catchy pop songs, a far cry from “Johnny Sunshine” or “Chopsticks”. Pop songs! The horror!! She also got trashed for her sexy pose on the album cover. Misogyny is alive and well. I guess critics somehow thought her “I want to be your blowjob queen” on Exile was “ironic”, instead of an honest comment. She was trashed for “trying to be sexy” and “aping a teenager” by men and women critics alike, including Meghan O’Rourke in the New York Times. Women are the most brutal to other women, particularly when it comes to sexuality. (I’ve said it before: when I was carousing around as a wild floozy in Chicago – at the time Exile came out – I was often slut-shamed, but never by men. Other women were the ones who tried to cut me down. One called me a “slut” to my face.) The entire “discourse” around the self-titled album was disgusting, and basically proved Liz Phair’s original points in Exile in Guyville: the culture has a PROBLEM with sexual women (particularly if they’re mothers, which by that point she was), AND they have a problem with women ENJOYING sex with men. The self-titled album has “HWC” on it, which puts the sexually explicit lyrics of today to shame. Could Liz Phair actually MEAN this? A woman ENJOYING sex like this? The boys-club of music critics were put off by all of this. Robert Christgau, thankfully, called them all out on it, and dug into what she was doing with that album in a deep way, something sorely lacking in the rest of the commentary. I also love “Extraordinary” off that album, “Rock Me”, and “Bionic Eyes” (I quoted “Bionic Eyes” in my column at Film Comment about Ripley and Hicks in Aliens.

Phair took big risks with those two albums, and they were conscious risks. Like I said, the risks she took with Exile were mostly unconscious. She was making music only for herself. She hadn’t even played live before. Wild. “Somebody’s Miracle” didn’t get good reviews either, but I love some of those tracks: “Stars and Planets”, and “Giving It All to You”.

Then followed some bumps in the road. She broke ties with her management and the record company, none of whom understood what she was doing. It was probably the best thing for her. Funstyle is a crazy record. It’s the soundtrack to a Bollywood version of Liz Phair’s fights with her record company. lol One doesn’t blame a record company for not getting what she’s doing – “where’s the hit single?” – but it’s frustrating, because this was the woman who changed everything with her first album. Maybe … trust her? Or at least just let her do her thing? FunStyle was 2010. Then came a long period of no albums, although she was very busy doing scoring for television – so interesting – as well as the highly-publicized 15th anniversary of Exile in Guyville, with re-releases, re-masters, a tour, etc. The release of the Girly-Sound Tapes was also huge. Listening to that lonely angry funny sexy girl, she has no idea what’s about to happen. She’s just getting stuff out of her head and into the room.

and oh my God imagine my surprise when I first listened to the Girly-Sound Tapes, I learned she wrote a song about Elvis!!

Only found on the Girly-Sound Tapes sessions!

Recently, she came out with a memoir, Horror Stories (there will be a second volume coming soon). I devoured Horror Stories, thrilled by the humor and stark honesty (the opening chapter is about coming across a passed-out drunk girl in a bathroom and not doing anything to help. She still feels ashamed about this.) She’s also funny and observant.

And then last year, light from the caves – a new album, Soberish. So exciting!

My brother wrote a wonderful piece about Exile in Guyville, as well as seeing Liz Phair live. He had this beautiful and funny interaction with her.

Liz Phair, a Gen-X avatar. A poet of our generation. A truthteller.

Like everyone, I am drawn to my own generation, particularly as I get older. How are we doing? How are you coping? Where are you at with life changes? How do you deal with your own past? What’s happening with all of us? I am still absorbing Soberish, but there’s one song – about meeting up with an old love in the Drake Hotel – which, again, could be lifted almost wholesale from my journals. There’s nostalgia there, but it’s so bittersweet it’s not pure. There’s no golden glow. It’s sweet to re-visit an old time, but it’s sad too: it won’t come again. She’s very truthful, yet in a different register. We change as we grow older, as we gain more miles. Our perspective changes. My relationship with Liz Phair and her music is one of the eternals in my life, and I am very grateful for her art.

“People hang their hopes on you fitting into their CD collection in way that they have made a space for, but I’m playing a longer game than that.”
— Liz Phair

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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11 Responses to “I don’t like being approached by people who look at me too intensely, who needed something from me that I didn’t have. I don’t represent anything.” — Liz Phair

  1. Larry Aydlette says:

    Beautifully written. I’ve never been a Phair fan, but this kind of writing might make me one.

    • sheila says:

      Hey Larry! Thanks for reading! Yeah – she was just one of those people where I felt no distance between her and me. Not like I’m Rupert Pupkin but … I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever felt that before with a singer-songwriter – not this strongly anyway.

  2. Brad Hall says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of music memoirs lately and I just finished reading Horror Stories. It was, as you would expect, brutally honest and reflective. Though musically I’m not a fan, her writing is first-rate. I think she could write novels if she wanted to.

    Are you familiar with the 33 1/3 book series? Short books where the authors write in-depth about their relationship with one particular album. I think there’s been around 160 written so far. They’re quite good. A few years ago one came out on Exile in Guyville. I haven’t read that one yet but might have to pick it up after reading Horror Stories.

    Enjoyed Brendan’s story on meeting his “crush”.

    • sheila says:

      Brad – yes! the 33 1/3 books! My brother gave me the one on Jeff Buckley’s Grace for Christmas one year. I really love it. I haven’t read the Exile in Guyville one, though. Interestingly – a really good friend of my cousin Mike’s – Bill Janovitz – of the band Buffalo Tom – wrote one of those books – and he wrote on Exile on Main Street! (It’s a fantastic book – I own that one too.)

  3. There’s an interesting essay to be written about women musicians and their positive relationship to their sexuality I think. Certainly this is something that is deeply rooted in the blues tradition. Reading your piece I thought first about Madonna, and then cast my mind back to Joni Mitchell, who started out more wistful but later on wrote things like “Coyote”. Absolutely Phair took it in a powerful and interesting direction, and there are a lot of artists that follow that are walking the path she opened up.

    • sheila says:

      I think Phair goes way WAY further out than tons of the explicit stuff going on today. I mean, WAP goes as far! albeit in a different tone and mood. does anyone even remember HWC? A song so explicit the title had to be an acronym. Nobody even discusses it. It’s wild. It’s like nobody wanted to deal with it – and with what she was saying in that song – although, sorry, blame Liz Phair – lots of women know what she’s talking about, feel the same way, and yet would hesitate to say it out loud because of the shit we’d get. For enjoying sex. The world is fucked up. All of the Lolitas writhing around onstage in the wake of Liz Phair were play-acting adult sexuality – Liz P was the real adult deal. Madonna was also more of a play-acting figure, although she was an adult, not a teenager – playing around with costumes and looks – different personae. I like Madonna – but compared to Liz Phair … or even some of the old raunchy blues singers as you mention … I don’t know. Madonna was very controlled by comparison.

      It is an interesting continuum and it’s always dangerous ground.

  4. SeanG says:

    still have the “Exile on Guyville” cassette I bought at a truckstop in Utah on my way to Maine in 1995.

    Thank you Sheila, and now I’m totally obsessed with Liz again.

    “so don’t look at me sideways, don’t even look me straight-on”

    • sheila says:

      // I bought at a truckstop in Utah on my way to Maine in 1995. //

      Ha! I love that you remember the details! I bought mine at the Tower Records on Diversey and wore that thing OUT.

      “so don’t look at me sideways, don’t even look me straight-on”

      I love it!

      “they wonder just how wild I would be …”

  5. SeanGiere says:

    This is crazy Sheila, but I am seeing Liz Phair tonight here in Boston, 30th anniversary of Exile, it’s just too much!

    “they play me like a pit bull in a basement…”

    • sheila says:

      Ahhhh!!! That tour is so CROWDED with dates – I just couldn’t make any of them – it’s going to be amazing! Report back if you feel like it, Sean! Would love to hear!

  6. Sean Giere says:

    Hey Sheila, reporting back, it was an epic show for sure. Liz was on fire that night. There
    was a great vibe in the venue and she was feeding off the magic energy. She didn’t talk much between songs but at one point she said,”This place is fuckin’ lit!” Liz likes to curse like I do. VIVA GENERATION X!!

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