I’m surprised the Pitchfork review of the Exile in Guyville reissue wasn’t more offensive; I’m glad they gave it a high rating (a 9.6; I still think it should be a 10, but I guess their biggest problem was the reissue didn’t offer more extras, so fine). But, as always, I have an issue with the way Pitchfork publishes its “reviews.”
My big issue is the first three paragraphs:
You break all kinds of unwritten rules when you’re a guy who admires a girl. The white suburban kids who idolize gangster rappers are old news, and the rich kids have always loved to rub elbows with the poor. But when a man tries to identify with a woman, he doesn’t just hit the normal problems of “white male gaze” and “exploitation of the other” and “being a jackass”: There’s also the third rail of male sexuality, where identifying too closely with a woman might make you seem, perish the thought, sensitive. So instead, the guys who dig a girl like Liz Phair have to play up the attraction, the lust, the submission to a rock’n’roll goddess— even when, for many of them, the lust ain’t the main draw.
The other tactic is to take credit for what she’s done. And guys can take plenty of credit for Phair’s early career. Rock critics like Bill Wyman brought Phair to Chicago’s attention when they ranted and raved about Guyville weeks before the thing came out. The Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Main Street, the loose template for Guyville’s 18 tracks— and one of the blues-rock genomes that saved this from being just another singer-songwriter set. And a couple other guys, co-producer Brad Wood and engineer Casey Rice, helped nail the minimalist production of Guyville and its follow-up, the underrated Whip-Smart.
It was the guys like her Johnny or her Joe— the titular guys in the indie boy’s club centered in and around Chicago’s Wicker Park— who preened for her, dicked her over, and taught her how to push back, inspiring her and making it necessary for her to write these songs in the first place. And it was guys who took the piss when she started headlining at venues that were too big for an amateur. Playing a New Year’s Eve show at the Metro as your sixth or seventh gig is a lot to bite off. And if I recall correctly, she bit. But stagecraft and starpower weren’t the point: Those of us who were taken in by Phair loved her because she was— sorry to use the word— real.
I’ve bitched before about Pitchfork’s reviews; I generally just look at the rating instead of reading the actual article because, as in the case of Exile, it isn’t so much about the music as it is about the author writing the review. So here we have this guy who, ironically, is one of the targets of Liz Phair’s album. And he spends the first third of the review talking about how hard it is for him to like the album because he’s a guy?
I think that’s silly, and I could write a whole other essay on the subject of this stupid societal construct of masculinity and blah, blah, blah. I think the point I’m trying to make is that the album is good because it is good, not because it makes you know how it feels to be a girl. Hell, I relate to this album and I don’t think it’s solely about dating guys.
Sure, the “woman thing” has certainly been an issue in how Liz Phair has been received as an artist (I truly believe that is why she is such an outsider in the music industry, because no one knew how to manage her music), but I don’t think all of her music has to come down to that black and white issue. Most of the time, Liz Phair writes and sings in character, not as herself, and in several instances those characters have been men
Naturally as a guy, I can’t speak for what women saw in the record back then, or how young women will take it now. But of all the albums written from a woman’s perspective, this is one of the most accessible to men. It’s intriguing to watch her deal with us— not as a mere revolutionary, but as someone who knows that sex will always be tough, so she always has to be tougher. She’s been tested in ways we never will be, and we understand just enough to admire her for it. Men don’t get what it’s like to be a woman. But spinning this record, you swear that you could.
“Men don’t get what it’s like to be a woman.” You know what? If you put forth a little effort (which doesn’t mean just listen to an 18-song album), you could probably figure it out sometime.