Exile In Guyville and Born to Die aren’t the same kind of record. They’re not in the same ballpark and, to paraphrase Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction, they’re not even playing the same fucking sport. Liz Phair’s debut record is pretty damn close to a classic, a game changer that — along with PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me — blew a hole in the male-driven rock of the early ’90s (and, oh, forever before that).
Phair, despite her best attempts to sabotage her credibility with terrible late-career albums, has become an established female voice in the rock world, a voice of reason and revolution, one who will — despite her own lacking output — correctly call rock on its shit. So how curious it was when she jumped to the defense of Lana Del Rey recently in the Wall Street Journal. Perhaps it’s not totally surprising, since it gives Phair a platform to remind us she’s around while at the same time standing up for her long-formed beliefs. Which is all well and good. But it also raises questions about what Del Rey and Phair have in common, and what the one’s debut might say about the other’s.
On the surface, not much. Phair’s record is lean and tough, Del Rey’s is soft with saccharin layers and overbuilt. Phair’s record is nearly flawless, while Del Rey’s is full of stumbling moments. But if the argument over Del Rey is one of authenticity, well then there’s quite a bit to learn from Exile In Guyville. It’s a record constantly celebrated for its brash realness. Phair command’s a sharp tongue and a sharper sexuality. She sneers and snarls, plays the guitar with a percussive, angry strum, and absolutely commands every moment on the record. She is the center of these songs, quite literally. Producer Brad Wood recorded Phair’s parts first and, in an unorthodox move, recorded drums and bass around her.
She’s got all the charm and volatile energy to pull that off. The dead-pan chorus on opener “6’1″” or the faux-disinterest in the verses of “Never Said” show her playing possum while “Mesmerizing” or “Fuck and Run” are her in all her piss-and-vinegar glory. But make no mistake, this is not real. Which is to say the emotions may resonate, they may be true, they may even be autobiographical. But they aren’t real. It’s not, as we’d like to call it, authentic.
This isn’t a criticism. In fact, it’s what makes it brilliant. Phair injected herself into the dude-rock that surrounded her and created her own deliberate space in it. She didn’t just become a rocker, she crafted a particular persona, one meant both to crumble the vision of phallocentric rock potency and affirm her own female power. She successfully demystifies the myth of the sexually passive female — enough has been said of this — but what’s more interesting is her use of guitar tones. The guitars here aren’t full up with distortion, or really built with any kind of texture. They sound like they’re being played through one of those amps you can clip to your belt.
It’s fascinating that we laud this album for being so rocking when, really, it cuts less like the jagged blade of most (distorted) guitars and more like an ultra-thin, tight wire. This shows us Phair’s own isolation, since this is a break-up record at heart, but it does something else. It plays with the idea of guitar-driven power. These guitars are brittle, even feeble sounding. The tones themselves are impotent, and Phair only conjures power out of them through her own sheer will. Considering the obvious phallic symbolism of the guitar, we can not only hear Phair taking on male power in her lyrics, but also in her very sound. She knows the strength of a lean, ragged song — and pulls it off well — but she’s quick to twist all the guys’ guitar tricks (there’s not a solo to be found, rarely even a discernable riff) into their equally powerful antithesis.
Phair crafted this rock persona not only to crumble the male rock heirarchy; she also did it to mask her own hurt. It’s been “fuck and run” for Phair — or this version of Phair — since she was a kid, which is less to say she was molested and more to say men have fucked her over in one way or another all her life. All she really wants, when the bile clears and she’s being honest, is a boyfriend. So Phair may appear power-driven and self-assured here, and in fact she is, but that is also in service of hiding and (hopefully) coping with a major hurt.
Though there may seem to be no clear link to Del Rey in all this, there are some connections we can make. Del Rey’s lack of authenticity comes from a similar place, though she takes it in a vastly different direction. If Phair aims for female strength, and takes on the boys’ club, Del Rey’s break-up record revisits the antiquated notion of the victimized female lover, of the woman left devastated when alone. She takes her own shots at male narcissism and impotence (ahem, “Video Games”), but mostly she wallows. To call bullshit on her wallowing is correct. There’s little authentic about it. It doesn’t ring true. But maybe that’s not the point.
If break-up records are cathartic they don’t necessarily have to be painful. At least not for the performer. Del Rey takes surface elements — vaguely nostalgic haze and strings on modern but anonymous beats — and crafts the image of heartbreak. This isn’t to say she’s not heartbroken, just that she crafted a layer to place between her and that hurt. Because, look, real pain is never as beautiful as her voice can be. Real pain never has the order or eloquence of song. But we do — man and woman alike — still like to wallow, and if Del Rey’s woman scorned seems particularly pitiful, and that is what puts us off, then perhaps what bothers us so much is what of our own tendencies she might embody.
Our reaction to her is nothing so simple, of course, but we dismiss her as fake in the same way we lauded Phair for her strength (often ignoring the deep, complex pathos below it). Part of the confusing reaction to Del Rey comes from the fact that, really, we’re now dealing less with what she’s given us and more with our own knee-jerk reactions. We built buzz on two songs from an unknown singer because, yes, they were great songs, but also because, let’s be honest, she was a beautiful cipher. A girl with a pseudonym (real name Lizzy Grant) who was young enough she didn’t have much of a back story. What she did have was a striking look, and unique features, that mysterious look, and a hell of a voice. And we made her what we wanted her to be.
So if we’re let down with Born To Die, we should be let down with ourselves. What Lana Del Rey reminds us is that we are easily fooled by beauty, that we responded partially to the talent inherent in those songs, and more to the puzzling beauty of the person who same them. The same could be said of Phair, as in we need to wonder if we would still have loved Exile In Guyville, if it still would have been as thought provoking to us, if Phair hadn’t been such a knockout. This isn’t their burden to bear but rather our bias to overcome. In Phair’s case, we stumbled on a vital document, but with Del Rey we ended up selling ourselves (at least on the first album) a bill of goods.
But just because the album isn’t very good, doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Del Rey’s image of the victimized female, one we clearly still romanticize is worth reexamining. Her much-heckled perfomance on SNL shows us quite a bit about this persona. It shows us both the limits of what we want to see from a victimized female image. We want the submissive pain as long as it’s framed in beauty and grace (i.e. – as long as its unreal, dreamlike). But the more interesting thing here might be Del Rey herself, her inability to render that persona in a live settling, in front a live television audience. Nevermind the obvious issue — that we can’t allow a young performer to be nervous on such a big stage — what’s more interesting is what this says about Del Rey, that she knew the distance, the gap between person and persona, had faded in the spotlight. Her own insecurities came out, and if they made for an awkward performance, they also made for our first glance of Lizzy Grant, of the person hiding behind that voice for so long.
Phair, as it turns out, has her own problems of persona, since she’s shape-shifted herself into near obscurity. But the different between her and Del Rey is she could sell that image back in 1993, convince herself of it and make it work for years. Del Rey doesn’t seem to have the same ability — in fact, her talents as a performer and songwriting long term are very much in question — but for right now that doesn’t matter. Right now, whether you love or hate what she’s doing, arguments over authenticity are beside the point. Her fakeness is exactly what makes her interesting (maybe the only thing), and there’s power in that. Just ask Phair. She built a persona and, like all the Johnnys and Joes, knocked us dead. No wonder she’s stood up for Del Rey, because she knows how true the false can be.