The album that made me a feminist

A remembrance of Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville," which is being rereleased for its 15th anniversary.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

I was 18 in 1993, and I still remember getting a mix tape in the mail from my friend Jill, with Liz Phair’s “6’1″” on it. “I kept standing 6’1″ /instead of 5’2″/ and I loved my life/ and I hated you.” Jill said she immediately thought of me, a 5’2″ badass (in my own mind, at least) when she heard it, so she had to pass it along. Good call on her part. I went out and bought the CD, “Exile in Guyville,” right away, and I played it into the ground.

“Guyville” was not only my favorite album of 1993 but an early foundation of my feminism. In those days, I still didn’t like to call myself a feminist (icky!), and I actually believed that as a white, middle-class person, I would never face any institutional challenges to my own success. All that gender gap stuff had been figured out already, and the women who still complained about sexism were boring relics.

But getting pissed off at individual men who screwed you over? Now that I could get behind. And in 1993, there was no better soundtrack to getting pissed off than “Exile in Guyville.” “Fuck and Run” went out to every guy who had hooked up with me or one of my friends and then immediately gone incognito. “Help Me Mary” went out to every guy who had taken my patience for granted and, you know, played me like a pit bull in a basement. Which wasn’t even that many, if I thought about it, but the image still resonated with me. So did “Divorce Song,” even though I’d never had a long-term relationship at that point. The opening line of “Strange Loop” — “The fire that you like so much in me/ is the mark of someone adamantly free” — hit home more because the guys I knew didn’t like the fire in me so much (they helpfully told me I was “cute enough, but really scary”) than because I’d felt precisely that.

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When I listened to that album, I felt as if Liz Phair was speaking for me — except I hadn’t actually had most of the experiences she was talking about. Or anything like them. It was almost like there was something, oh, I don’t know … universal about her songs. Like she was describing struggles between men and women that went way beyond individual relationships — something I was already a part of, already felt, even if I’d never had a real boyfriend. It was almost as if I was finally wising up to the continued need for feminism. (And man, did Liz Phair ever create a monster with that.)

After “Guyville,” Phair got increasingly poppy and increasingly soppy, so I took her out of rotation. I haven’t bought any of her albums since “Whip-Smart,” her second, but you’d better believe I’m gonna run out and buy the reissue of “Guyville” — with bonus tracks and a DVD — when it’s released on June 24, to mark its 15th anniversary. These days, I’m a lot less angry overall. But the other reason I played that album so much in college is that it was some damn fine rock ‘n’ roll, period. The feminist awakening was just a bonus.

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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