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LitMonkey Special Review: “Exile in Guyville” by Gina Arnold

March 11, 2014

This is a review of an Advanced Readers Copy of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold, to be published by Bloomsbury on May 22, 2014.

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Ever since the first volume I read, Doolittle by Ben Sisario, I’ve been a huge fan of the 33-1/3 series. At their best, reading one of these short volumes about an album you love – ideally while listening to the album over and over again – gives you an enhanced appreciation for the record, taking it to heights you can’t reach by way of the music alone. The music is given new life through the lens of a super-fan. This is why I absolutely loved Nick Attfield’s You’re Living All Over MeMatthew Stearns’ Daydream Nation, and Sisario’s Doolittle. The ones that didn’t do that are a little less gratifying but have also been well worth reading. The Velvet Underground & Nico by Joe Harvard taught me a lot about the making of that record, who was truly responsible for it and the real impact of Andy Warhol. Let It Be took me on a journey through the boyhood of Colin Meloy (without telling us anything about Let It Be). In her volume on Liz Phair’s controversial 1993 debut album Exile in Guyville, Gina Arnold takes the series in a direction I haven’t seen before. She is a super-fan for sure, but her analysis of the album comes from a place of intellectual curiosity, rather than mere music appreciation. It is an academic piece about a record that didn’t sell very well but whose cultural impact was significant. In taking on that daunting task I think that Arnold did a fantastic job.

First, it’s important to say what Exile in Guyville (the book) isn’t about. Though Arnold defends Phair’s musicianship, she doesn’t make the argument that this is the greatest piece of music of the ‘90s or anything like that. Though she acknowledges the changing of the way that strong female musicians are currently received, she doesn’t go out of her way to lionize Phair as a trailblazer, someone in whose footsteps today’s female acts followed. Nor does she take us through the nuts and bolts of Guyville, deconstructing each song line by line, chord by chord, as many of the 33-1/3 books (pleasantly) do. Other than brief comparisons of each song on Guyville to its companion song on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., the songs themselves are mainly ignored. Arnold discusses the record in great detail without ever really getting into the music.

And this actually makes a lot of sense. As the oft-repeated quote goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Or, as Arnold says very early in the book, setting up the reader for what’s to come: “I recall a sage warning my [former] editor gave to me. ‘People like to do drugs, not read about doing drugs. … And the same thing goes for music.’” “So,” she shortly thereafter adds, “herein I take up my pen in a different spirit altogether. Rather than address the brilliance of a particular song or chord sequence, rather than argue for the genius of singer and songwriter Liz Phair, I want to address the milieu that her work came from – the titular Guyville, the people who lived there, their values, their hopes … and the culture of the twentieth century. I want to consider all the ways that the past was a different  country, and the way that, back in that strange nation, we record buyers and music lovers were shaped and changed by a particular moment in history, a moment that the double album Exile in Guyville responded to so eloquently.”

This is what Gina Arnold’s Exile in Guyville is all about. And really, how could it be any other way? Guyville is an anomaly of a record – a cultural landmark, a record that received tons of press the moment it came out (much of it very positive), a record that stood the test of time for over 20 years and counting … and still a record that hardly anyone actually ever purchased. A quick Google search shows that when Guyville reached its 20th anniversary last June, Spin, Rolling Stone and even the New Yorker did feature pieces on the album. Spin called it “one of the decade’s masterpieces.” Rolling Stone also used the term “masterpiece” and ranked it the 20th best album of the ‘90s. On Stereogum Phair’s first three albums were accorded “total legend status, something I’d hold up against any three-album run from anyone in history,” with Guyville “the best of the bunch, and maybe the greatest work of traditional American indie rock that anyone has ever made.” Yet to this day it still hasn’t sold half a million copies! Even with all of the criticism that Phair received (and remember, this was counterbalanced by a lot of praise – it was the number one album in the year-end critics poll in Spin and the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll) it’s almost impossible to conceive of an album with this much notoriety doing so poorly commercially. As Arnold notes, a contemporary artist who received almost the same types and levels of criticism – Lana Del Rey – sold 77,000 copies of her debut album in its first week (which includes a digital purchase by Liz Phair); this is 20,000 more than Guyville sold in its first year.

Thus, it’s obvious that the impact of Guyville wasn’t really a musical one; by that token, anyone (including Arnold herself) would agree that Exile on Main St., not to mention countless other albums, dwarf Guyville. No, the impact was a cultural one, one that did for women in indie rock what an album like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet did for race relations in New York City in the early 1990s. Neither Guyville nor Fear of a Black Planet is the defining last word in the conversation – instead each brought the conversation that was brewing underneath to a head. These were statement records. But to be a statement you can’t just say something controversial – you also have to be a damn good record. Arnold makes this point eloquently, then lets it stand on its own merit. You either believe her that Guyville is a great record worth discussing or you don’t. Fortunately I always have, listening closely ever since it came out in 1993. I was one of those original 50,000 purchasers. Phair’s message may have been more palatable to women, but as Matador label owner Gerald Cosloy said to Arnold, “Liz certainly had some very keen dude fans – and some rather vocal female detractors.” As one of the former, this book worked on many levels for me. (Matador was Phair’s first label and is the label that originally put out Guyville.)

The thing about writing an academic piece is that it’s a much tougher task than writing a piece of music criticism. It’s easy to say why you love Daydream Nation or Doolittle. I happen to think that the authors of those 33-1/3 book did a particularly good job of it, but at the end of the day these are mostly opinion pieces, where it’s hard to be too far off. Not so when taking the approach that Arnold did with her book. Writing at length about two themes – “third-wave feminism” and the changing nature of indie music over the past twenty years – requires laborious research, cogent arguments, and logical grounding from start to finish. Doing so in the context of one record makes the task even more difficult. I can say, having reviewed many scholarly articles in my time, that Arnold passes the test with flying colors. The book is well cited, filled (but not overwrought) with pertinent facts, and her points are structured in a way that just make sense. In a word, the book is smart.

Before I read Exile in Guyville I really liked this record. I had a sense for the importance of it – no indie fan who was around in the ‘90s couldn’t – but I couldn’t have put all of the pieces together the way Arnold did. I’m not sure that it achieved the goal that the best of these books do for me – that is, make me like the album more – but it does something more important than that. Arnold contends that “this record rivals its forebear Exile on Main St. in the beauty of its sonics and the perfect articulation of its artistic vision.” She then proves this convincingly in her book. Guyville (the book) had me thinking critically about Exile in Guyville as a piece of art.  As a thinking man’s music fan, with a special place in my heart for the alternative ‘90s, I couldn’t ask for more.

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