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Personal Essays

It’s Not Phair

The early ‘90s were a great time to be a female singer-songwriter; that is, if your name was Liz P-something. The former Zuzu’s Petals lead singer listens to a long-avoided album, and lays her axe to rest.

Summer 2003, in a kittenish mood, I purchase Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville. I pop it in my car CD player on the way to register my son for swimming lessons. Oh, I do like that song about never sayin’ nothing. I never listened to the album in its heyday. It’s a long story…

1991ish

My pen pal and former drinking buddy, Chris in Boston, sent me a cassette made by an old college pal, a woman named Liz. He saw Liz in San Francisco while trying to score with her roommate. When the cross-country-trip-for-some-nookie turned unfruitful, Chris ended up hanging out with Liz most of the time. Liz, a painter (like Joni Mitchell), was writing songs and making demo tapes of them on a four-track recorder in her apartment. Chris, a musician, loved them.

I was not in a good place to be taking in this demo cassette entitled Girly Sound (or was it Girly Songs? Girly something). At the time I was trying to write a lot of songs and I’m a sponge and a copycat. I was desperately fearful of competition, terrified of being surpassed.

My band, Zuzu’s Petals, also had demo tapes and singles, yet I knew Chris wasn’t toting them around, telling people, ‘Oh, man, dude, you’ve got to hear this!’ He did, however, for Liz, and he also gave his record label—an upper-echelon independent label—a copy of her cassette. But my copy of Girly whatever got pitched into a box already overflowing with cassettes (that was later stolen by a sound man), never to be listened to.

The next thing we knew, everything, everywhere, everybody was like, ‘Exile in Guyville, you’ve got to hear it, it’s soooo amazing!’ But I wouldn’t listen to the album; I was too envious. I chose to seethe alone: Liz Phair, I told myself, Talk about just a case of being at the right place at the right time. Talk about a lucky break. Talk about… probably… a lot of talent. But I wasn’t ready to accept that; instead, I focused on the chatter:

‘She can’t perform her way out of a paper bag.’

‘The producer did everything—all the instruments, all the arrangements—on that record.’

‘Her demos were awful.’

‘She can’t sing.’

‘She’s pulling the Carly Simon stage fright stunt.’

I mean, I had stage fright too, but I got over it, and not even over it—I just performed anyway.

We released our first album, When No One’s Looking, shortly before the Exile hysteria. We had one song with only two words: ‘Dork Magnet.’ We toured for 10 consecutive months because the album received a minor, but favorable response. I thought it would be cooler to open for Adam Ant for a month than to attend South by Southwest. I made a lot of unwise decisions and never once mentioned oral sex in my songs.

 

We all know what happened: Liz Phair became the female songwriting voice of our generation. We—female singer/songwriters—had been struggling, roughing it, paying our dues over and over again, and we were left eating her dust. Everybody loved her. I buttoned my lip through all the rave reviews, and protested her success by not listening to her record (ew… that was effective). I stewed in my juices. Got writer’s block. Accused her of copying us—though she probably never even heard us.

I managed to convince myself that those who went to private colleges (Oberlin) and received better educations were more connected and savvy than us state-educated, public-school survivors. Elitism had, in my belief, finally entered the once working-class music industry.

But public opinion on Liz Phair was in: Exile in Guyville topped all the 1994 ‘Best of…’ lists. Her bright, sassy picture, alongside bright, sassy quips filled the pages of the music press. The album was considered by many to be a ‘concept album,’ a female response to the male-ness of the Rolling Stones’ excellent but, you know, misogynistic, Exile on Main Street.

Liz Phair released a successful second album, and Zuzu’s Petals did not. We recorded under pressure to ‘strike while the iron is hot’—it was lukewarm at best—even though we didn’t have fully formed new material. I abandoned the music industry in utter despair. And no one noticed.

 

Where are we now?

She’s divorced. I’m married. Many are the days I envy that her for that alone.

We’ve both had kids. She was photographed soon after giving birth, sporting a super-buff body and an offer to be a guest editor at Jane magazine. I lost my baby weight when my son was five and chose to focus my creative energy on writing and motherhood.

She’s asked to comment on VH-1 specials, I’m asked to comment on students’ papers. She’s on tour, I’m headed to a water park in Wisconsin.

Last year she released a ‘comeback’ record where she both looked really hot with long hair and got to sing through the Cher tube (a studio device that makes your voice sound wiggy—not to be confused with the Frampton tube). I’ve been growing my hair for something like five years, but repeated pool trips and bleach jobs have rendered impossible the dream of long hair at 40.

As it turns out, I like a lot of Exile in Guyville. As with most double albums—with the exception of Exile on Main Street—it should only be one album. Sure, I wish I’d written ‘Johnny Sunshine’ and ‘Divorce Song.’ And I’m not buying the concept-album schpiel. That was clearly a marketing tool. I know Exile on Main Street better than I should, and I’m not hearing the ‘response-to’ claims. This large collection of songs, many of them good, are not addressed to Mick, Keith, Charlie, Woody, and What’s His Name. I hear no intertextual wordplay, no thematic parallels, no ‘I’m Billie Jean, and I’m mad as hell’ directives.

Liz and I are too different for me to still be puce with envy. Though I do overly identify with her line about turning anger into fame, I would never say, ‘I’ll fuck you ‘til your dick turns blue.’ Not on record anyway, maybe as a joke in the van. Though I could’ve said, ‘I’ll be your blow job queen,’ I’d be lying because the procedure has always baffled me. But I didn’t, and I didn’t on purpose. It didn’t feel subversive or seem like an eye-popping exercise in artistic freedom to let that kind of stuff loose in a song. Maybe it’s the repressed Midwestern thing, but I think saying that kind of shit is a prison you’d have to live in the rest of your career. One thing I learned during my affair with music is that you can’t choose what the public will notice about you.

I’ve let go. Moved on. I wish Liz and her skinny ass good luck.

Laurie Lindeen is the author of Petal Pusher, a memoir of her Midwestern childhood in the ’70s and her extended adolescence in the rock band Zuzu’s Petals. She teaches writing and lives in Minnesota with her husband and son. A “well-balanced” Libra, she enjoys ladies’ night out, cover bands, and dark beer. More by Laurie Lindeen