Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
I will remain forever in awe of Liz Phair’s ability to seamlessly slip the word “fucked” into a dreamy, cloudy-brained pop anthem like “Why Can’t I?” My preoccupation with the song began at the age of ten. It was marked explicit in iTunes and therefore deemed too adult for the music library of my silver iPod Nano. I spent an embarrassing amount of time poring over the song, humming, singing, intently listening each time it came on the radio, searching for the goddamn expletive. The charm of “Why Can’t I?” persisted with the years to come. It wholly encompasses the wholly encompassing early stages of infatuation, the floating feeling of hope and intrigue so potent it inhibits breathing, rational thought.
Phair’s Exile in Guyville preceded the release of “Why Can’t I?” but sheds the latter’s predilection for “stupid old shit, like letters and sodas.” Maybe not so much sheds it as counters it with the cynicism that infects most relationships in one’s mid-twenties. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the critically acclaimed album’s release. Exile’s exhumation comes at a felicitous time, when the music industry is experiencing the long-awaited downfall of guyville; guyville being the male-dominated music industry and more than that: the discouraging and supercilious opinions of close-minded boyfriends, male friends, even men one meets in passing. Matador Records, who is responsible for the re-release of Exile, has been churning out records from the likes of Snail Mail, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus in a concentrated effort to usher in a new era of female and queer-centric indie rock.
Diverse and rightfully disgruntled voices such as Phair have been around for years, as has the desire to hear them out. This proves true as I watch fans from fifteen to fifty crowd the floor and balcony of Union Transfer for Liz Phair and Speedy Ortiz’s sold out show. Speedy Ortiz, a locally sourced Philly band, for lack of a more sophisticated term, rocks in the way I always wanted to as a preteen. Their songs buzz with the same unpretentious grit as early Liz Phair, grounded in lyrics that are angsty but not eye-roll inducing. The first song off their most recent album, “Buck Me Off,” contrasts the gross and gloomy, grime and vampires, with sunrises. It feels like the manic episode under a padded blanket the song itself details.
Phair comes out under purplish stage lights to a properly warmed up audience and opens with “Supernova.” The opening chords, wonky and charged with two decade’s worth of verve, are just as enthralling as the first time I heard them. Phair’s set is a motley of her greatest hits with an emphasis on Exile. She jumps into “Johnny Feelgood,” just as bop-ily entrancing as the diamond thumb-nailed figure she conjures up in the song. It is a “strangely feelgood” song, detailing the exhilaration of being jerked around by an asshole with a convertible.
It’s the tracks from Exile that I find myself most adrenalized by, holding my piss and standing tall on my toes to experience in full. “Never Said” is the first of which, the simple lyrics conveying a youthful, almost mocking sentiment: it doesn’t really matter what you think she’s saying or if you believe it, so long as she’s being heard. It’s an unapologetic anthem for those not taken seriously, those not represented, a sentiment that rings true with younger fans tired of being perceived as naive as well as adults who’ve long awaited inclusivity. “Help Me Mary” more straightforwardly embodies this struggle of trying to be heard in an industry, a world, that would much rather egg and bully and mollify the uninhibited female voice. It’s angry but collected, a call upon a universal female figure (Mary) saddled with burdens bestowed by men. Phair asks that her frustration be channeled into productivity, fame. I contentedly hold my pee and listen.
Phair closes with “Why Can’t I?” but returns for an encore featuring “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song,” all undeniably Good Songs, but the latter two echoing with less fluff and more emotional gravel. Both of which served as my initial introduction to Exile in Guyville, about a year ago. I am no longer ten and imbued with less of a float-y, impenetrably hopeful feeling when I am taken with someone. Being taken with anyone feels debasing. Twenty six year old Phair’s lyrics navigate the conflicting feelings of craving something pure and saccharine and the realization that the sweet and mushy coexist with a sorry, repulsive feeling of dependency and disappointment. She asks “Whatever happened to a boyfriend / the kind of guy who tries to win you over?” bemoaning the loss of the idealized love she was conditioned to expect. This false notion is isolating. The solution: fuck and run. “Divorce Song” is similarly heavy though catchy. It paints a less than perfect portrait of a relationship via separate hotel rooms and lost lighters. However, Phair admits, counting back from ten, stepping back from immediate emotion that the subject “has never been a waste of [her] time / It’s never been a drag” and maybe that makes all of this vaguely worthwhile. She’s not sure, and neither am I. I just know that it makes for a good encore and perennial quandary both mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and lone audience members holding pee, like myself, can understand. — KEELY MCAVENEY