Sunday, February 11, 2018

Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville (2014)

I'm still keeping an open mind about the 33-1/3 series, which has spawned so many tempting and intriguing album / author combinations over the years, though too often they seem to be disappointments. I suspect they are hampered as much by the series premise as anything. It looks like such a fundamentally sound idea—one writer, one album, one short book—but the execution can get hairy. How are you supposed to spend your 30,000 or whatever words—on details of production, cultural context, pure critique, gossip, memoir, social theory? With library research or interviews and original research or both or neither? Gina Arnold's return to rock criticism after a hiatus of a decade or so for family and graduate school has to be one of the better titles in the series, simply going by the fact that it's one of the few I wanted to start (for me so far the hard part) and then one I was happy to read to the finish.

Arnold remembers Liz Phair's seminal debut album, Exile in Guyville, and the early-'90s times out of which it came. She lays out how "Guyville" was an actual hipster neighborhood in Chicago, Wicker Park by formal name, ruled by an indie-rock ethos that was largely gendered, and male. Arnold is best when she's getting into these issues and fiercely defending Liz Phair and the album. She tends to cast a rosy eye on the times, and more generally the people surrounding the commercial emergence and fallout of Nirvana, which she alternates with something like rage about the manipulation of indie-rock by the music industry, single-mindedly focused as always on moving units. She more than owns any role she had in an empty commercial process and her sense of shame. In many ways this book feels like an attempt to make amends—to us, and to herself.

But amends are not necessary. For over 20 years in the '80s and '90s Arnold worked from her base in the Bay Area contributing to local and national publications, arguably one of the best rock critics in her time. She published her first book, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, in 1993, a few months after the release of Exile in Guyville. According to Wikipedia Arnold still holds the record at the East Bay Express for volumes of hate mail. She may have bowed to commercial contingencies, but so does anyone attempting to make it as a professional music journalist, and her work was actually much better than nearly anyone in terms of addressing the basic calculus of music and human connection. Her writing has always felt truer, more on-point, and sharper when she is making the case for the righteous. For what it's worth, I share her resentment for how necessities of marketing work systematically to crowd out the basic connecting function of music—more so than ever, as the music industry slowly but surely continues to metastasize into a larger and more pervasive media industry, driven by celebrity.

Inevitably the 33-1/3 problems intrude in this book too. Arnold plays around with an ingenious idea that doesn't quite work (though I wouldn't be surprised if it was key to the book proposal, and sale): a song-to-song comparison with the obvious namesake of Liz Phair's album, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. Phair herself has said she constructed the album as a song-to-song response, which might be true because both albums have the same unusual number of tracks, 18. But Arnold is not much more illuminating than Phair's album on that particular point. Arnold's discussion of the Stones is marked more by repugnance. She has never thought much of them and she thinks the world of Phair.

For my part, I'm not convinced that a head-to-head poll—that is, pick one: Exile in Guyville or Exile on Main St.—would automatically go to the Stones. I think the Phair album is the more important and interesting and so do others I've spoken to (I know that's anecdotal but still). Arnold's assumption that it would be the Stones in a cakewalk and that her position is thus out of step with the mainstream could well be right, of course (probably is, actually), but in any case she is resolutely and ringingly defiant about defending Phair. You can't blame her—Phair was treated shabbily by much of the rock press and fans. And Exile in Guyville is a great album, often pushing against conventional wisdom so profoundly it's necessary to stop for reality checks.

Gina Arnold is not trite or mediocre or whatever all that hate mail was about. She's very good at what she does and what she does is not easy. It's good to see her back at it again, wrestling with music and life. Since publishing this book she has started a blog that's worth checking in on, Fools Rush In. As always with these 33-1/3 books, you're likely to end up playing the album under scrutiny quite a bit. So a good experience all around.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Thanks for the Gina Arnold blog ref. Now I'm chasing down the Breeders bio by Neil Gaiman. (I need to do housework. Help!)

  2. Thanks for this. I was interested to see that Gina's reputation spread beyond the Bay Area. As I recall, much of the hate mail in her Express years was related to her willingness to insert herself into her columns, a la Kael. Again, my memory is faulty at best, but she got a lot of "WRITE ABOUT THE MUSIC!" letters. She's great, and I loved her 33 1/3 book, although I don't think anyone has yet surpassed the James Brown Live at the Apollo.

  3. I've always wondered ab the hate mail stories, although Wiki probably already has the story all down pat, so a big meh to my curiosity. I've only read Route 66, never her columns or only randomly on a couple of road trips, but if I had to guess ab the antipathy, yeah, it's all the Real World journaling ab living in the house where all the bands stay over on Gleason Street or something like that, and other Amerindie scenes in Olympia, Athens, Minn, etc. I can see her first-person accounts resonating w/ some but also others, outsiders, more critical fans, finding these accounts hagiographic boosterism bordering on corny or annoying. I still need to read more of those 33 1/3 books. I did like Carl Wilson's book ab Celine Dion.

    1. Late reply, sorry, just saw this. Again, my memory could easily be faulty, but the Gina hatred wasn't because she talked about hanging with the stars. She talked about herself, which is another way of "not talking about the music", I suppose. For many years in the Bay Area, Bill Graham would put on these concerts a few times each summer, "Days on the Green", that feature four or five big names playing in a stadium. Gina wouldn't talk about kicking it with Peter Frampton, she'd talk about going to other DoGs with her friends, and how that impacted her music appreciation. It's been long enough that I don't trust my take here, but at the time, I loved her writing.

      It's funny, trying to jog my memory, I came across a piece on her from a few years ago at the Stanfurd website, where she was teaching. ( The relevant quotes:

      "Always bearing witness with unabashed first-person passion ... Arnold’s criticism pushed so many buttons that, for years, 'Kill Gina Arnold' graffiti and T-shirts were common sights around the Bay Area."

    2. Yeah, I liked her stuff in Route 66 ab the Replacements and some K Records festival shindig in Olympia. But not hard to imagine how "always bearing witness with unabashed first-person passion" might inspire a satiric troll backlash or two. KGA graffiti sounds like a South Park gag. Kids can be so mean. Even b/f the interweb!

  4. And, oh yeah, count me for guyville over main street. Manifesto over denouement.