Check Out America
Culture wars in Guyville
In 1993, Urge Overkill was poised to take over the world. The band’s hometown of Chicago had been described in a Billboard cover story as ‘The Next Seattle’, Nirvana’s enthusiastic patronage had got the group a deal with Geffen, and the wave of seventies revivalism that Urge had been riding since 1990 now seemed about to break. The band released two perfect singles in a row, ‘Sister Havana’, a made-for-the-stadium rock anthem with a ridiculously catchy chorus, and ‘Positive Bleeding’, another tasty stick of seventies bubblegum with ‘woo-oo-oo’ backing vocals and fun, upbeat lyrics. Onassis struck an old-fashioned rock rebel pose in the verses, ‘Guess I’d better go it alone, ’cause baby I’m a Rolling Stone’, and boasted about his newfound freedom in the chorus: ‘Well, I live my life, remote-controllin’ my destiny.’
In a season of creeps and losers, after two years of dirt and grunge, many music critics were starting to wonder what had happened to all the fun in rock and roll, and Urge Overkill seemed ready to bring it back, just in time for the summer vacation. The band’s new music spoke of long, hot nights and good tunes on the car stereo; while the title of its Geffen debut, Saturation, hinted at a new sense of fun and ambition for the nineties — an impression confirmed by the album cover, which showed a giant ‘UO’ logo floating over the Chicago skyline like a funky UFO. This blatant populism had prompted their old friend Steve Albini to accuse them of being ‘pandering sluts’. But the band had set its sights on something bigger and better than small- time indie politics, it wanted to be Cheap Trick, not Big Black.
Saturation was released in the same month as Exile in Guyville, the recording debut of twenty-six-year-old songwriter Liz Phair. Her ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼music was drawn from the same classic-rock archetypes as Urge’s, but rendered in a far less bombastic style — most of the songs on Exile in Guyville were performed by Phair alone, with extra instruments added by her producer, Brad Wood, and engineer Casey Rice. Phair, like Urge Overkill, was from Chicago, the stories she told on her album’s sixteen songs were drawn from the same places and people as the ones on Saturation, and many of them were in fact about Blackie Onassis, whom Phair had dated for a year or so. But Phair’s point of view was quite different from Urge’s. ‘Positive Bleeding’ presented a picture of the rock singer as powerful and carefree, going it alone, like a Rolling Stone; Phair’s ‘Fuck and Run’ described the same scenario from the other side. ‘I can feel it in my bones, I’m gonna spend another year alone,’ she sang. ‘Fuck and run, fuck and run, ever since I was seventeen.’ Onassis had spoken about living like a swinger in the early seventies, but Phair demolished this fantasy with a portrait of the swinger as he really would have been in 1993. ‘Check out the thinning hair,’ she sang. ‘Check out the aftershave / Check out America / You’re looking at it babe.’ Phair’s lyrics were blunt, and deliberately non-poetic, because she wanted very much to be understood. ‘It’s just unequivocal, you know?’ she later said. ‘I’m just saying what the hell I’m saying.’
The title of Phair’s album referred to Chicago’s indie music scene, nicknamed ‘Guyville’ because it was run by guys: guys in bands who, according to Phair, were not at all comfortable with the idea of a young woman playing rock and roll, and were openly dismissive of the notion that women could be artists, let alone geniuses. To Phair, this was absurd. Feminism had been as much a part of her upbringing as rock and roll, and the critical theory she’d learned during her degree at Oberlin College merely backed up what she already believed: that feminism was, as she put it, ‘the “of course” clause. Of course women can do anything men can do’. But Phair’s conviction counted for very little in Guyville, with its complex and surprisingly rigid hierarchies of cool, and its casual, institutionalised sexism. Like Kathleen Hanna and Polly Jean Harvey, Phair was confronted with the curious gap between liberal academic life — where the feminist critique of culture was virtually taken for granted by the mid eighties — and rock and roll, which, for all its talk of freedom and liberation, still tended to define ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼those things in exclusively male terms. Freedom in rock, particularly in the heavy, blues-derived seventies variety then in vogue, often meant freedom to do as you liked with women, or freedom from women’s demands.
The guys of Guyville believed that women could not be geniuses, and this belief was backed up by the music they listened to and the heroes they worshipped. Guyville was a culture based on collecting and preserving the past, run by ‘a little establishment’ of men who wore their record collections, according to Phair, ‘like a badge of honour ... Like, “this is what I’m into, I know a lot about it”.’ Phair saw that these records had become indie rock’s canon, and that the canon was being used to reinforce a myth that kept women out of rock and roll. Of course women can’t rock, the guys of Guyville would say — look at the list! Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones — do you see any girls on there? Phair had the idea of upsetting this hierarchy by destroying the fusty aura that had accumulated around the Great Works. She would commit an act of musical vandalism to prove to herself and her peers that these things were not icons to be worshipped, but found objects, which could be creatively manipulated to tell new stories in new ways. ‘I was going to appropriate “guy rock”,’ she said, ‘to turn it on its head a little bit.’ She chose, as her template, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St (roughly equivalent to Milton’s Paradise Lost in the indie-rock canon), and set about rewriting it from the point of view of Liz Phair. The result was a collection of brutally honest, and achingly sad songs by a woman in her twenties who had been thinking about men and listening to rock and roll all her life, and had suddenly decided to stop thinking and start speaking, to stop listening and start doing. ‘I was like, really, you guys are into music?’ she said. ‘Okay, watch — I can make music.’
When Matador Records released Exile in Guyville in June 1993, Phair expected it to sell just over a thousand copies, and thought it would be nice if it was heard by ‘people within a mile radius of my apartment’. By December, it had sold 20,000, and had been voted Album of the Year by Spin and Village Voice. Her feelings about this were an odd mixture of delight and disgust — she was thrilled that her music was being heard, but the idea that she had done something ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼out of the ordinary by being a woman and recording an album’s worth of honest rock and roll songs about life at the end of the twentieth century was, to her, ‘grotesque’. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ she thought to herself. ‘If this is the greatest thing to have happened to a female, where is everybody?’
Exile in Guyville was, by Phair’s own account, a very ‘private’ album, in which she’d given voice to thoughts and feelings she’d never shared with anyone. As the album began to take off, and the size of her audiences grew, she was surprised at the extent to which those feelings were shared. Over and over again, fans approached her and said of her songs, ‘Yeah, that is true for me, but I would never say it.’ At a women-in-rock summit meeting including PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and ex-Sugarcubes singer Björk and hosted by Q magazine early in 1994, Amos suggested that the three singers’ work had in common a tendency to reflect and amplify the secret fears and desires of those who heard it. ‘I sense that our intentions are about exposing things within our being, which become mirrors for other people,’ said Amos. ‘That’s what the poet’s job is. I’m only a mirror.’ But by this point, Liz Phair had all but made up her mind that if the poet’s job was to be a sort of psychic reflector for her audience by exposing her emotions, it was no longer a job she wanted. Phair was unusual among female singers of the early nineties, in that she seemed to have very little trouble with the exploitation of her image (she was more amused than angered by photographers’ attempts to turn her into an indie-rock pin-up), but was deeply troubled by the selling-off of her emotional life. ‘It’s truly frightening,’ wrote Nils Bernstein in his review of Exile, ‘that she can bare her wounds for all to see.’ But if Phair’s music was frightening for Bernstein or his readers, it was only in the most vicarious way. Phair, on the other hand, was really scared. The confessional quality of the songs on Exile made them hard for her to perform on stage, even when she got over her nerves and the show went well, she found herself somewhat disturbed by the effect she had on her audiences.
The terms of the new authenticity dictated that music must be honest, confessional and full of emotional hurt. But Phair quickly realised that the price that had to be paid for success on these terms was, for her, far too high. With Exile in Guyville, Phair had approached ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼the edge of a billion-dollar misery industry that had sprung up in the wake of grunge, and decided, for the sake of her own sanity, to back away from it. And yet satisfying this industry was what was required of a rock star in 1993, if such a thing could be said to exist. The American rock star, in the 1990s, could not be an unreconstructed rock pig, an aristocratic superbeing, or an ironic purveyor of good times. The new rock star would have to come from a place of emotional hurt, to be able to express fear and desire and longing, to confess their sins, to admit that they sucked. But they would have to be prepared to do this in a truly spectacular fashion, to bypass the small-minded politics of indie and whatever scruples they might have about sharing their feelings with the masses, to stage Nuremberg rallies of hurt and compose symphonies of suckage.
In the end, neither Saturation nor Exile in Guyville were the sound of summer in America in 1993. That honour fell to another band from Chicago, fronted by a singer who was capable of doing all these things and more, an artist whose reserves of emotional hurt and talent for expressing it seemed almost limitless, whose naked ambition allowed him to take his therapy-rock out of the ghettos of Guyville and into the stadium, an artist who, as Michael Azerrad put it in Spin, was ‘unashamed of being that most embarrassing of things. A rock star.’