Exile in Guyville is a burnout classic. Everyone knows this. Liz Phair fucks, cries, and couch surfs her way through a hilarious, disgusting world of Chicago indie-rock machismo. She’s 25 and writes a eulogy for her own love life on “Fuck and Run.” “I can feel it in my bones/ I’m gonna spend another year alone/ it’s fuck and run, fuck and run/ even when I was 17/ fuck and run, fuck and run/ even when I was 12.” This is the sort of music you write when you’re in between friends, cities, places, and lives. And naturally it resonated with people of a similar age, dealing with similar anxieties, and locked in similar dispiriting scenes.
You might know the rest of the story. In 1998 Phair released Whitechocolatespaceegg, which ditched the juvenile tales from repugnant indie-rock social ladders and instead focused on childbirth and her ongoing divorce. In 2003 she “sold out” with her Capitol-issued self-titled record, which, hilariously, was dragged for aping Avril Lavigne’s carbonated punk. Critics didn’t dig the soft-focus production, or the wide-eyed emotional availability of megahit “Why Can’t I” - both symptoms of an artist who was now more than a decade removed from the debauched wisecracks that made her famous. It didn’t matter that the record held very Phair-ish songs like “Rock Me” (about the convenient pleasures of fucking a younger guy,) and “H.W.C.” (literally a tribute to cum), it was clear that the fucked-up girl who wrote Exile in Guyville was long gone. Apparently that was unforgivable enough for Pitchfork to offer a scathing, impressively damning 0.0.
“Phair declares, ‘I'm starting to think that young guys rule!’ without a trace of self-doubt or reflection. It's hard to imagine that the Liz Phair of ten years ago wouldn't have had something profound and devastating to say about older women who shack up with clueless college kids, but on “Rock Me” - as on the rest of Liz Phair-- vapid, cliché-filled rhyme couplets dominate,” writes Matt LeMay, who seems personally offended throughout the review.
To be fair, I understand where LeMay, and other Liz Phair fans are coming from. I love Exile in Guyville. It’s one of my all-time favorite albums. It captures a crucial, uneasy feeling of post-grad destitution, and her later output is far, far removed from what made me a fan. But if you’re angry about that, you’re completely missing the point.
I don’t want Liz Phair to write another Exile in Guyville, because I care about Liz Phair. If she was still making broken twentysomething music (as she approaches 50) that would mean she hadn’t matured emotionally in two decades. Like it or not, Liz Phair is no longer stuck on a depressing, horny hamster wheel somewhere deep in the warehouses of Chicago. She is a grown woman with a mortgage and a kid. Her art reflects that. You shouldn’t want another song like “Fuck and Run” from Liz Phair, because it wouldn’t be genuine. She’d be summoning up distant memories to appease her most conservative fans. I’m far more interested in hearing about who Liz Phair is today, than to watch her try to echo the ageless, nameless ghost in our head.
It’s a shame that so many artists are permanently etched in our brains at the peak of their powers. Johnny Ramone died too young to endorse Trump, a callous Nirvana reunion is off the table, and we never watched Ian Curtis develop into the whiny Madchester elitist he was destined to become. They remain our standard, because the rest of the story isn’t written. I’m not interested in turning a living, breathing human into a monument.
Weezer is another perfect example. The emotional apex of Pinkerton comes when Rivers Cuomo, consumed by a moment of profound self-hatred, lusts over an 18-year old girl’s fan mail and imagines what she looks like when she masturbates. For an album defined by pain, alienation, and clinical exhaustion, this is still a pretty uncomfortable moment. Weezer got famous for reflecting golden-age rock ‘n roll pep - they were Vampire Weekend sans repartee - but suddenly they were taking a hard left turn into nervy dread, global contempt, and a complete indifference towards anyone getting out alive. So naturally when they put out Raditude, which included guest spots from Lil Wayne and Kenny G, and a phenomenally weird punjabi funk sing-along, people were kind of pissed. But let’s be real, do you sincerely want to hear about a snivelling, dejected Rivers Cuomo apathetically banging groupies in the misery of fame on the wrong side of 40? No, of course not, so stop saying you want another Pinkerton. You don’t! That’d be weird!
What about Nas? Nas made one of the greatest rap albums of all time with Illmatic, and since then he’s made crotchety old-man records. A comfortable millionaire raps like a comfortable millionaire. When you long for Illmatic you’re asking Nas to return to his teenager years lost in the terrifying Queensbridge projects. Art should be a reflection of a time and place. Illmatic, Pinkerton, and Exile in Guyville are all ephemeral records. And I’m tired of holding artists to standards they set when they were completely different people.
Unfortunately that guilt trip does work sometimes. A couple years ago Weezer put out a “comeback” album called Everything Will Be Alright In The End. Its lead single is called “Back to the Shack,” and it contains one of the most depressing opening lines in the history of rock ‘n roll. “Sorry guys I didn’t realize I needed you so much/ I thought I’d get a new audience, forgot that disco sucks.” Congratulations Weezer fans! You did it. He finally gave in. Rivers Cuomo wrote his boring throwback rock song for all his boring throwback fans, and it was just as misguided as everyone imagined. You guilted a dad into a midlife crisis, and you’re left with a turgid, empty album built from the ground up to appease anyone who has ever considered themselves a Weezer fan. Was it worth it? Or deep down do you know it’s far more interesting to watch Cuomo goof around with a sitar? I think we both know which one is more authentic.
Meanwhile you have a band like Blink-182 who’s entire comeback has been predicated on a heavy dollop of nostalgia for college girls, burritos, Pacific Coast Highway, and alternative rock as a concept. The just-released California is terrifying, because it proves that you can actually make it to 40 without giving up the Dickies. Their troublemaking isn’t real anymore, but their melancholy certainly is. “Los Angeles, when will you save me,” screams Hoppus on a song that shares the same name as the city. Dude, if you’ve been waiting this long, that’s terrifying. And it’s also terribly fictitious. Blink-182 couldn’t figure out how to be Blink-182 in 2016, so they’re stuck in reverse, and writing lines like “we tumble through the night /we burn so bright /we’re teenaged satellites.” Say what you want about Weezer or Liz Phair, but at least they’ve come to terms with themselves.
I think that’s all I can really ask for from an artist. Honesty. I don’t care if you’re going to disappoint me, I don’t care if that means you’re no longer into what I’m into, I just want you to be honest. Liz Phair hasn’t put out a record in six years, and is instead happy to make ends meet composing for television and touring with the Smashing Pumpkins. Her last artistic statement was this thing called Funstyle, which arrived independently on her website after she was dropped from her label. It’s full of all these goofy little homemade experiments; she raps with evil record executives over a chintzy, Timbaland-ish beat on “Bollywood,” she (accurately) predicts the forthcoming critical reception on the jumbled “U Hate It” - it’s very strange. Pitchfork slapped it with a 2.6, and we haven’t heard from her since. I’m not saying you have to enjoy a Liz Phair rap song, but I don’t get the derision. Liz Phair is being a weirdo in her 40s. As far as I’m concerned, we should be encouraging that sort of behavior. There’s no such thing as aging gracefully in music. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we’ll all be a lot happier.
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