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music friday: liz phair and gina arnold, exile in guyville

I just finished Gina Arnold’s fine book on Exile in Guyville, another entry in the 33 1/3 series. I spent the 90s reading Arnold’s “Fools Rush In” column ... she seemed to inspire a lot of vitriol, not just from people whose missives appeared in Letters to the Editor segments, but from people who wore “KILL GINA ARNOLD” t-shirts. Often, what I loved about Arnold’s columns was the very things that irritated her detractors. She regularly inserted her personal life into her writing. Here she is in a 2001 interview:

I have always felt that one of the flaws in a lot of rock criticism (besides the boring prose style) was that it tried to be objective–which is impossible, with something like music. The best you can hope to be is descriptive: you know: this is who I am, this is what happened to me, this is why it means something to me, if you agree you might like it too. And if you don’t, well then, ignore it.

Katy St. Clair once wrote of Arnold’s decade of writing for the East Bay Express:

A typical week for Gina would involve receiving a gift certificate for the services of Jack Kevorkian from a bunch of slighted Rolling Stones fans (yep, it really happened) or one or two letters making fun of her affinity for you-know-who. Everyone had different reasons for disliking her -- either she didnt get her facts right, or she didnt support the local scene, or she talked about herself too much, or she was too jaded and stuck in 1990.

In the same article, Arnold offers an on-point comment on the criticism she often received:

People would say to me, ... Why do I want to hear about your life every week? And I would say, You think I write about my life? Okay, what do you actually know about my life? And they wouldnt have an answer. I write about music and how it relates to things in my life, but very few people actually know me.

Is it any wonder I loved her? I’ve often argued that rock criticism learned a lot from Pauline Kael’s approach, and you can’t find a better example than this.

Her Exile in Guyville book is unlike her columns, but in a way I think makes sense. There is an academic feel to much of the book, and indeed, since the 90s, Arnold has gotten a Ph.D. from Stanfurd. Her writing now reflects this, and why not? She’s just continuing her personal touch.

She spends a part of the introduction informing us that she wrote much of the book in Seoul. I can already hear those haters from the past ... who cares where she was when she wrote? But one of her primary arguments in the book is that Exile in Guyville is informed by a community, “Guyville”, and what better way to remind us of this than by describing the community where she is writing, and how it helps her both gain the necessary distance from her subject, and also to see similarities between then and now.

The first two sections are the best, as she places Exile within the cultural context of its time. For me, the section where she compares Phair’s songs, one by one, to the corresponding tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., is the book’s least successful. I know that Phair encourages the comparisons, but after such excellent cultural criticism, it’s a bit disappointing to read compare-and-contrast lyric analysis. Arnold does her best with the idea, but I got antsy. She recovers in her brief final section, which brings us full circle to Seoul.

Of course, now I’m going to do precisely what I’m complaining about. Here is Phair’s “Never Said”, chosen as much as anything because there’s an official video:

Arnold writes:

“Never Said” is about keeping secrets, probably the secret of who is sleeping with whom. Liz, alas, was unable to keep whom she was sleeping with secret and suffered the tortures of the dammed when her record came out. People guessed this and that and accused her of “sleeping her way” to the top ... People know who Mick Jagger sleeps with too ... but somehow it never seemed to have the same repercussions as Liz’s peccadilloes.

The very act of making an album that seems to take on the canonical favorite Exile on Main St. is irritating enough to those who make canons that they will find reasons to dismiss Phair from the start.

The Stones’ counterpart, using the track-for-track comparisons, is “Tumbling Dice”, where “The women, alas, are always trying to drag him down, with their bitchin’ and itchin’, but the men – i.e. the proverbial ‘tumblin dice’ of the title – can’t be tied down.... Great riff. Nice metaphor. Internal meaning not so pleasant, but that’s the Stones all over.”

I wonder what Arnold made of Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Tumbling Dice”:

The obvious question arises: what do I think of Exile in Guyville? I loved it at the time, and I think it holds up well. We saw her on her solo tour in 1995, playing songs from Guyville and Whipsmart, and she was admittedly unassuming, but that didn’t change my feelings towards the album. Here’s a very low-fi song from a different show on that tour:

I often think of Phair and PJ Harvey at the same time. In fact, back in 2010, I had an entire blog post about this:

Harvey, on the other hand, has never had to worry about being taken seriously. She didn’t turn into Avril Lavigne … she added theatricality, but in the context of indie rock blues that kept her sound rooted in the “authentic.” She followed up Rid of Me with arguably the best album of her career, To Bring You My Love. Her weirdness always seemed to call on primitive urges, where Phair wasn’t really that weird at all, in the end. Harvey remains uncompromising, remarkably so, really. And I’ve come to realize over the years that yes, PJ Harvey is a “better” artist than Liz Phair. But it still feels like Phair loses because her idea of uncompromising is seen as mainstream, even as she releases new material on her website instead of through a label … if you think Liz Phair is mainstream, you haven’t been listening to the stream for some time now.

I don’t know if I still think PJ is “better”. But I do know that to this day I play Exile on Guyville more than I play any PJ Harvey album. Having said that, I’m always looking for an excuse to post videos of Harvey performing “Rid of Me”, which I love more than any individual song of Phair’s.

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