NEW YORK - For years, Liz Phair says, she wanted to write a Christmas carol, an instant classic that would change the face of the season forever.
Instead, Phair sat in her bedroom and wrote a set of songs that would help steer the recording industry to accept women - and modern rock - as more than an alternative.
That collection was 1993's Exile In Guyville, a song-by-song dialogue with the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street, which Phair hadn't heard until the day she chose it as the template for her album. She recalls, "I was sitting with a boyfriend talking about how I wanted to use a template, because I didn't know how to make a rock album. I was sifting through tapes that a friend had left in the apartment, and I picked up Exile On Main Street, and I didn't even know it. I was like, 'Is this a good one? Was this a commercial success? Did people like this one?'"
Phair says she related Exile In Guyville to the Stones' album "off the cuff", essentially on a dare from her boyfriend. In motivation and subject matter, she took aim at male indie rockers in Chicago, who she says "always dominated the stereo like it was their music. They'd talk about it, and I would just sit on the sidelines. Until finally, I just thought, '[screw] it. I'm gonna record my songs and kick their [butt].'"
After a major-label bidding war, Phair signed to Matador/Atlantic, (now Matador/Capitol). "I realize now," Phair says, "how unusual it is to have seven presidents of record companies faxing you when you play a 300-person show."
Exile In Guyville, produced by Brad Wood, was too aggressive to be folk, too lo-fi to be easily accessible, and too introspective to be rock. It was a new kind of pop music by a woman, born of the indie tradition, which articulated in detail sexuality, anger, danger, and ambivalence.
Exile was neither behind nor ahead of the material being recorded by some other female acts of the moment (Tanya Donelly, Juliana Hatfield, PJ Harvey, Bikini Kill, the Breeders). Rock women before had strained within the male rock context; Phair's Exile was an intimate album that firmly staked its claim to the periphery.
Phair counts as an influence the "sing-songy" quality of campfire songs, and the tracks on Exile are similarly simple and hummable. However, Exile is also characterized by unusually constructed guitar chords and lyrics no summer camp would condone, though many of the tracks on Exile In Guyville could actually garner a PG rating.
While by 1993 riot grrrl bands had been saying the "f" word and embracing their sexuality for years, listeners often needed to buy radical feminism before buying Bikini Kill. Liz Phair required allegiance only to oneself, and in her confessional role-playing lyrics, she was simultaneously unattainably sexy and palpably real to male and female listeners alike.
Says singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb, a peer of Phair's who signed to Geffen in the summer of 1994, "Liz Phair's way of communicating through her voice and arranging the emotion and passion in her recordings reminded me that that's one of the most important things. In a lot of music, you don't get the person's individuality."
Gina Birch, singer/bassist for the seminal early-'80s English band the Raincoats, says, "As a teenager, putting on things like Bob Dylan's 'Lay Lady Lay', that was not from my point of view - it was a slightly alien thing. Hearing Liz's stuff [on Exile] made me think, 'This is right. This is in focus.' It was madly, wonderfully, wildly inspiring."
But it was the personage of Phair, glimpsed on the album, that would entice the media. Through Exile, Phair became the whipping girl for a primary audience of women her age, publicly and gracefully answering for the contradictory roles many young women felt they had to assume. The more public Phair's persona became, the more albums she sold. "I like stories," says Phair. "I think [the musician's story] is an interesting component of what makes the songs."
Chrissie Hynde, who has listened to Phair's music since Exile, admires Phair's ability to be herself in the spotlight. "An image can't be something that you work at; the whole thing has to be just yourself," she remarks. "Liz was never into simple self-promotion."
Exile has since been certified gold by the Recording Industry Assn. of America. (SoundScan reports domestic sales of 292,000, though that doesn't account for sales in independent non-SoundScan stores.) And with every copy of the unlikely Exile that hopped from the bins and every press clip added to her kit, the recording industry inched closer to embracing Phair's whole gender as a viable musical commodity.
"Liz Phair had a huge effect on the media, and when the media starts to take things seriously, the industry follows suit," says Slim Moon, owner of the indie label Kill Rock Stars. "In the media world, Liz Phair is a real trailblazer for women to be taken seriously, especially as lyricists."
Phair's Whip-Smart followed close on the heels of Exile, and those who weren't yet convinced of the phenomenon soon conceded Phair's (and Matador's) victory. A slicker but equally endearing album sporting its fair share of four-letter words, 1994's Whip-Smart produced the single "Supernova", which reached No. 6 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart. That album was also certified gold, with 347,000 reported SoundScan sales. It and Exile were Matador's first gold records.
By this point in her career, Phair was the darling of MTV's 120 Minutes, late-night talk shows, and college radio. She had graced the cover of Rolling Stone and had even made an appearance on Good Morning America. Phair's sales figures, for indie releases, were large. But her public image was bigger.
The glow of grunge was fading in the West, and "alternative" music was poised to capture the mainstream. Phair's image was fresh in the minds of talent reps, whether they knew it or not. In 1994, Loeb inked her major deal; Alanis Morissette signed to Maverick; Geffen snapped up Hole, helping Courtney Love become a household name; 4AD/Elektra's Breeders hit the airwaves; and Luscious Jackson, among others, caught attention.
For a time, these artists' fierce lyrics and public images dominated modern rock and even top 40 circles. Treading a path to the mainstream that Phair helped pave, they in turn opened doors for artists like Fiona Apple, Mary Lou Lord, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, and the ubiquitous Sarah McLachlan.
"I wouldn't say Liz was the single one out there with the machete cutting through the guy rock of America," Matador co-president Chris Lombardi allows, "but she represented one of the first."
Phair's response to her success is characteristically nonchalant. "It was sheer luck," she jokes, "that I picked Exile On Main Street out of the box. It could have been, like... Neil Diamond."