This Book Could Change Your Life: Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold

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My title isn’t bullshit. Although hampered by a contradictory section (more on this below), Gina Arnold’s book on Liz Phair’s 1993 double LP, Exile in Guyville, is the kind of book that weighs in, pulls no punches, and shines a light on the entire enterprise of popular music.

I hope that I don’t make Arnold uncomfortable by what I just wrote, but it’s totally true. Arnold’s book is so good in its critique of the white male corporate rock establishment – not to mention so innovative in the way in which it links said corporate rock establishment to the indie rock establishment – that it almost made me throw my hands up in the air and ask for perhaps the zillionth time, “What’s the point of music writing?” Better, “Why do I write for a magazine that has, to a huge extent, given in to forms of music writing (lists and such), which in Arnold’s excellent critique, make music into a competition?” Indeed, “Why do I write about music at all?”

I imagined Arnold – whose book indicates that she comes from the exact same academic background as I (we both have Ph.D’s in literature from very prestigious universities, which make us conversant with critical and literary theory in all its Frankfurt School, feminist, Marxist, and New Historicist guises) – hovering over my shoulder as I read, scaring me with her intelligence and the simple fact that she’s one of the best cultural critics and music writers whom I’ve ever read.

Why does my imagined Arnold scare me? Well, for starters, she causes cognitive dissonance, which I often feel in the moment of reading something totally fresh and compelling but am grateful for later. My Arnold-caused cognitive dissonance – again, in the moment of reading – not only made me question the point of a lot of the stuff that I’ve written about music but forced me to think deeply about the POV of that stuff, i.e. where in my brain and existential needs it came from.

Arnold knows where it came from – and I know she’s right, at least partially. Her book on Phair made me realize that a lot of what I write comes out of my being a denizen of a place called Guyville – a place in Chicago (of which I hadn’t heard before I read Arnold) but also a paracosm, an imagined, systemic reality akin to the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings universes. For me (and, I guess, for Arnold and Phair) living in Guyville wasn’t a choice, but the systemic and controlling way in which capitalism permitted me to experience both corporate and indie rock.

I’m younger than Arnold and Phair, but I still came of age musically before (but only slightly before) the rise of the Internet. Like Arnold, nostalgia (which Marcel Proust always considers dangerous because it’s the stuff of imagined realities that never were) has led me for many years now to think of the late 80s and early 90s as halcyon days of an indie rock community that thrived on a sense of community, a rejection of corporate rock, an observance of the authenticity of indie rock, and the idealism of a group of people who somehow had defeated the forces of homophobia, gender inequality, racism, etc.

Salman Rushdie somewhere talks about the dangers of idealism. Although Arnold never talks about Rushdie’s claim in her book on Phair, she makes the same claim herself. Specifically, she argues that the values of the indie rock community – the ones that I listed in my previous paragraph – simultaneously existed and didn’t exist. We upheld these values but never really defeated anything – and this is because the same patriarchal structures that upheld the corporate rock system upheld the indie rock system. On a very basic level – and I’m extrapolating this from Arnold’s much more complex, interesting, and cogent argument – there’s a reason why Nirvana was the first band from our world to make it really big in the mainstream. Kurt’s band, although informed by punk, post punk, and indie rock, sounded a lot like the poppy heavy rock of the hair metal from which it supposedly differed from so extremely.

And I don’t want to pick on Kurt – Arnold doesn’t do so in her book – but as the (I still think unfortunate) publication of his journals indicates, he was, like your reporter, a denizen of the Guyville paracosm. He, for example, populates his journals with lists of the best bands and albums, lists in which classic rock (Neil Young and The Beatles) mingle with protopunk and punk (Raw Power by The Stooges is his number one record) and arcane acts like The Shaggs – lists that transform music into a competition.

It can’t be denied that Kurt’s approach to music was influenced by and perhaps determined by the male-centered perspective of Guyville, a “hip” place where an archival mentality reigns, where a canon of classic rock abides, where knowledge of obscure bands is paramount, where collecting and vinyl is king…

Guyville is patriarchal because men primarily create it, expound on it, and benefit from it, even if they’re “liberated” hipsters like Kurt and yours truly. I can’t possible get at all the fine points of Arnold’s deconstruction of Guyville here, so you should read the book to delve into its nuances and to see how right she is.

Now, despite Arnold’s necessary deconstruction of Guyville, her critique of it is somewhat flawed and contradictory. She argues strongly and brilliantly against seeing music as a competition (her screed against lists, for example), but when she actually gets around to examining Phair’s album, her book sets up a competition between Exile in Guyville and Exile on Main St.. This part of the book seems, to me at least, unfair to both Phair and The Rolling Stones.

It basically boils down to the fact that Arnold conflates the Phair and Jagger-Richards narrators with the authors themselves. In other words, all three songwriters, according to Arnold, don’t write characters but themselves. Any cursory study of Exile on Main St. will tell you that many of the lyrics were made up on the fly in an L.A. studio using the deconstructive cut-up method pioneered by William S. Burroughs in The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express. This method fits perfectly with the sense of ennui, decadence, and distancing that the music conveys – music and lyrics that can be heard as a strong critique and not a celebration of the corporate rock lifestyle.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not endorsing what some of the songs on The Stones’ LP say about women – far from it. I’m just pointing out that it’s a critical fallacy to put Jagger and Richards in a tradition of Romantic poetic expression in which lyrical content can be equated with direct access to the writer’s soul and authentic self. The Stones quite simply don’t come from that place.

Jagger’s singing style (especially the way in which he sometimes pronounces his vowels) annoys Arnold. This approach is often parodic and delivered in a way to suggest that The Stones themselves are a parody of their often African-American source material. These guys don’t take themselves all that seriously when they dabble in, for example, the blues and country (“Dear Doctor,” “Dead Flowers,” etc.). And when they do, they never exploit their sources, as Arnold claims. Their cover of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips,” for example, announces in its lyrics that the song was written by Slim Harpo himself. They’re honoring the guy.

The Stones – unlike Zeppelin, for example – always give their sources and inspirations full credit. They brought Howlin’ Wolf over to England to appear on TV. The sight of Brian Jones jumping up and down with excitement when he and Jagger introduce Howlin’ Wolf as “one of their greatest idols” and “one of the reasons they started playing music in the first place” is in no way exploitative of an African-American artist. Rather, it not only provides what can be construed as true insight into The Stones’ heart but also shows The Stones using their pop clout to introduce Wolf to a wider audience. I could be cynical and say that Jones is just another white man making Wolf’s acceptance possible for an equally white audience. But I won’t. I’m humanist enough to believe the truth of Brian’s facial expression.

Finally, it’s very difficult for me to accept Arnold’s critique of The Stones’ music. She writes of their “brand of rock music” as being “musically unchallenging, borrowed from better sources, and exuding an unapologetic sense of the world as white, male, and privileged.” This kind of totemic statement avoids the complex experience of actually listening to The Rolling Stones. How are the experimental records of the psychedelic period musically unchallenging? Aftermath and Their Satanic Majesties Request are chock full of the same experimental tendencies as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Velvet Underground & Nico. Did The Beatles borrow from “better sources” when Dylan, Brian Wilson, and Ravi Shankar inspired them? What about The Velvets with Ornette Coleman, Raymond Chandler, and John Cage? It’s the way in which The Beatles, Stones, and Velvets blend their source material that makes them interesting and compelling to this day. Why pick on The Stones for doing the same thing as The Beatles and Velvets?

In fact, as mentioned above, The Stones did their best to use their privilege to expose the masses to African-American culture and not to exploit it. They brought acts like Stevie Wonder and Ike and Tina Turner on the road with them when they toured Exile. Heck, they even had Prince and Living Colour as support acts in later phases of their career.

Are some of The Stones’ choices exploitative and indefensible? Yes. Some scenes in Cocksucker Blues endorse the abuse of women, lyrics for songs like “Brown Sugar” are racist and embarrassing. THESE ACTS CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT BE DEFENDED.

But my argument is simply that The Stones are more complex than Arnold makes them out to be. Like it or not, the way in which Richards, Wyman, and Watts approached rhythm is insanely innovative – with Wyman on bass holding the beat, and Richards playing slightly before and Watts (the drummer!) playing slightly after. The Stones are capable of stuff like this rhythmic sophistication and sometimes – but not all the time – horribly sexist lyrics. They are complex.

Does what I just wrote make me anti-Liz Phair? No way. I know that I could critique her in the same way that Arnold critiques The Stones. Let’s just say that most of her recent music is weirdly conformist and unchallenging in a way that The Stones’ music never was. But to say this is a matter of subjective opinion. Liz Phair’s criticism of the Guyville mentality is as necessary today as it was in 1993, maybe even more so. Her criticism of some aspects of The Rolling Stones is so, too. The conformist and corporate nature of her recent music doesn’t change this. She is complex.

I want to end this review by saying that even though it’s unfortunate that Arnold’s book has one small section that evades the complexities of The Rolling Stones’ project, it’s still utterly brilliant. It in fact did change my life. In writing this review and everything else I plan to write in the future, I’ll have to come up with a compelling reason for doing so.

I want to thank Gina Arnold for her book. It affected me deeply and made me question my future.

  • Barrison Hughes

    This has got to undoubtedly be one of the most pretentious pieces of wank I’ve ever read. No one cares about your Ph.D you and the author have in common. And the last sentence? Come on, man, do really believe the bullshit you write? This is supposed to be a book review, not some narcissistic advertisement for your abilities.

    “THESE ACTS CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT BE DEFENDED.” Wow. Just terrible.