This began as a comment on Latoya’s post about Liz Phair over at Feministe, in which she references my Broadsheet post on the re-release of Exile in Guyville. As so often happens, the comment got so damned long I decided to make it a post.
So first, for the record, I actually didn’t (and wouldn’t) call Guyville “The album that made me a feminist.” That was a case of the editor writing the headline and overstating things. But still, Latoya’s post gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I wrote about the album a few months ago and how I responded to it as a teenager.
If I had that post to do over, I’d definitely take out the bit about Phair’s themes being “universal.” It was really a post about my personal response to the album up to that point — and even if trying to extrapolate that to something “universal” weren’t problematic for all the reasons Latoya lays out, it was both a huge stretch and lazy writing. I was trying to figure out as I wrote why Phair’s very personal songs struck me on a very personal level, even though I hadn’t had most of the experiences she was talking about. And it’s because she tapped into a recognizable male-female dynamic that was indeed larger than individual experience — but that’s still a far cry from a “universal” experience. At 18, affluent, white Chicago suburbs just like the one that produced Liz Phair were just about my entire universe — but there’s no excuse for still thinking about it that way at 33.
It’s really interesting for me to consider what people are saying about the brand of anti-consumerism and feminism that grows out of white middle-class suburbs, ’cause… dude, yeah. Another reason Liz Phair went over so big among my friends is that she seemed solidly “alternative” at first — at the time, we automatically eschewed anything popular, because liking it would have threatened our identities as outcasts and misfits. (We’ll set aside the fact that by the time new music got to us, it was usually doing well all over the country, even if it wasn’t mainstream, per se. This was pre-internet [for us], and we were young, so we liked to think we were discovering all this shit.) And of course, in the scheme of things, as white, middle-class people, we were far from outcasts or misfits — but we felt like that within our own communities and thus felt the need to actively reject everything a majority of our peers thought was cool.
Which brings me to TLC, whom Latoya has mentioned in this post and another Feministe guest post as part of her “awakening as a hip-hop feminist.” I also loved them at the time, but I mostly kept that hidden around my friends, because the band was too commercial to be acceptable in my crowd. I slipped “Depend on Myself” onto a few baby feminist mix tapes I made for friends, but if I’d ever tried to play Ooooooohhh… on the TLC Tip at a party, it would have met with a whole lot of “Why the hell are we listening to this Top 40 crap?”
And the funny thing is, I responded to that album immediately the first time I heard it, but Guyville took several listens before it grew on me. And I only gave it those several listens because I would have felt like an outcast among my merry band of outcasts who weren’t really outcasts if I hadn’t learned to love it. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized I really do love a lot of commercial music (and books and movies) — and although popular shit often is just a bunch of non-threatening mediocrity, it’s also sometimes good stuff (on some level) that represents the wisdom of crowds. But back then, in that white suburban misfit framework, I had to apologize for listening to TLC or lining up for a summer blockbuster. It just wasn’t done. (To give you an idea of how deep this went: Although loving Guyville was de rigueur among my friends, it was not acceptable to love the track “Never Said,” because that one actually got a bit of airplay.)
And in terms of all the frank sexuality shit Phair was constantly lauded for, even then, I would have taken “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” over “Flower,” any day. I never liked “Flower,” still don’t, and am not a big fan of “Glory,” either. (I don’t even want to know about “Hot White Cum.” That one came out way after I stopped listening.) The songs I ended up loving were the faster ones, the less “I’m a girl singing folk songs about blow jobs — isn’t that a scream?” ones. Realistically, the more commercial ones. “6’1″”, “Help Me Mary,” “Divorce Song,” “Mesmerizing” — and yes, “Never Said.” I fucking love “Never Said.” There, I said it.
In retrospect, I can’t believe how ridiculous it was to conceal my love for certain bands and songs just because my friends would have raised their eyebrows, but then, part of the reason I came to love Guyville, and came to see it as an album that influenced my feminism, is because loving it was a community activity, within the angry middle-class white girl community. Ditto Ani Difranco. We didn’t have words for a lot of stuff we were just starting to figure out, but they did, and when we went to a show or sat in a dorm room together and sang along, it felt like we were making a collective statement, even if it was only to each other and the four walls around us. I cracked up when I saw Feministe commenter Crys T’s description of Ani as “what’s-her-name, that musician who set up her own record label in the 90s and all the US-based white feminists worshipped her,” because… yeah again. But when my friend Spillah told me she dedicated “If He Tries Anything” to me on her college radio show, despite the fact that it was an industrial show and I was about 900 miles, ahem, out of range, both the song and the act made me think hard about the power of female friendship — something I’d always taken for granted and, quite honestly, seen as inferior to the male attention I desperately wanted (but was also terrified of). And among other things, listening to Ani made me confront my own homophobia. From the time I was able to understand the concept of fairness, I was theoretically pro-gay rights, but down not-so-deep, I still didn’t want to risk being mistaken for a lesbian, still would have seen that as an insult — which I came face to face with when I hesitated to blast “If It Isn’t Her” or “In or Out” down the hall just as loudly as other songs. There were a lot of little awakenings there for someone who was raised in what was then the most solidly Republican congressional district in Illinois.
Basically, Ani Difranco and Liz Phair helped me take baby steps out of the white, straight, Christian, middle-class, good-girl cocoon I grew up in. They were all about shocking and rejecting the kind of authority figures I’d grown up with, which I didn’t yet realize were a pretty fucking easily scandalized group. They were only baby steps, but I was only a baby — mature for my age in many ways, yes, but still so young and so sheltered. They spoke to me both because I was white and suburban and because I wanted the fuck out of that world.
I’ve been a city girl for over a decade now, and I can’t even imagine going back to the ‘burbs, much less the one I grew up in. But making that transition involved (and still involves) a shitload of unlearning. When I first moved to Toronto (Toronto!!!) I walked around clutching my purse to my chest and waiting to be violently attacked at any moment, because all my life I’d been taught to fear the whole concept of an urban environment — all those people you don’t know everywhere! “All those people who don’t look like us” and “All those poor people” went unspoken, but of course that was at least 75% of the point. When I got to Toronto, I had no idea what cities were really like, I just knew they were the opposite of the suburbs — and I knew the homogeneity, materialism, elitism, entitlement, and female submissiveness that had defined the culture I grew up in were not what I wanted to define my adulthood. Basically, Liz Phair and Ani Difranco were singing “fuck you” to all that at a time when I wasn’t yet ready to do anything but sing along. They were like big sisters who had already moved out, calling home to confirm that yes, Mom and Dad are fucking crazy, and it is way better out here. Even if they’d hardly seen any of the world by then, they’d already seen a lot more than me.
Would I love Guyville or Imperfectly (the first Ani album I heard) so much if I heard them for the first time now? Almost certainly not. For starters, one of the shitty things about getting older is that new music can almost never set me on fire the way it did in my teens and early twenties. On the plus side, that’s largely because I have seen a lot more now, and found my own words, my own friends and lovers, my own wisdom. I don’t need song lyrics to make me feel like somebody gets me anymore — and I’m already older than a whole lot of current musicians, so the insights they offer are a lot less striking to me, to say the least. I haven’t bought a new album by Liz Phair or Ani Difranco in years, and I’m not particularly sad about having outgrown them. But man, those were the perfect albums at the perfect time in the perfect environment for me back then, and I do miss getting that geeked about new music.
On the other hand, I just downloaded Ooooooohhh… on the TLC Tip, since my CD of it is long gone, and it’s still pretty damned fun to go back to old music.
Shapelings, what do you think of all this? What was the music that OMG CHANGED YOUR LIFE when you were young? Do you still like it, or do you cringe looking back? Somewhere in between? Tell me stuff.