Liz Phair: Return to Guyville

Liz Phair strutted across the floor of the Metro and on to a small raised platform in the back of the room where I was standing.

“Hey, what’s up?” she asked me. “How’re you?”

“‘Hey! I’m doing alright,” I told her.

I wish I would have said something a little cooler or sophisticated, but my job as a VIP Rep requires that I conduct myself professionally, especially around the artist I’m working for. There’s no easier way to get blacklisted in this industry than by trying to attract too much of the artist’s attention or freaking out like a fangirl. And, if I’m being honest, her authentic kindness took me off guard.

Liz didn’t give me one of those “what’s up?”s you say half-heartedly when you get stuck in the elevator with the kid whose name you don’t know but you definitely had a class with last semester. No, she walked straight up to me, asked how I was doing and waited until I gave her a reply before allowing her tour manager to whisk her away to the center of the meet and greet platform. Thus began my newfound appreciation of 90’s singer-songwriter Liz Phair.

……

Liz Phair blew up in the early 90’s after mild commercial success that followed the release of her 1993 debut album, Exile in Guyville. The 18-track record was filled with songs that Phair described as “emotionally forthright” offering commentary on the Wicker Park indie music scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

guyville
Liz Phair at Idful Music, Chicago, 1992 | Photo courtesy of Vogue

Guyville was an analogy comparing the nature of male-dominated music scenes to small, isolated towns supporting the male community members, leaving women behind. However, Liz’s record was more than a bold collection of songs from a solo female artist. Her vulgar lyrics about one night stands, fucking guys without regret and demolishing her scene’s “boys’ club” helped spark a social revolution not just within her scene but in every woman who was touched by her music. Exile in Guyville made it clear that Liz Phair wasn’t just here to write edgy songs; she was here to take the guitars out of the guy’s hands and place them in the arms of her female comrades.

As a ‘97 baby, I was too young to experience Exile in Guyville at its prime. When I applied to work Liz Phair’s VIP meet and greet event at the Metro in Wrigleyville, the sports bar ridden neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, my only knowledge of Liz was that she was a singer-songwriter around my mom’s age with a couple of girl power pop-rock hits from the 90’s and early 2000’s.

……

Working VIP events is either laid back and fun, or so chaotic and taxing that you want to fling your VIP laminate at every fan who asks you a question. Most people who attend artist meet and greets are enthusiastic and respectful fans who are excited to meet their favorite artists. However, there are others who truly believe that paying a little extra money than the average fan means they are very, very important people and that they should be treated as the same status as the artist they are there to meet.

I worked the Liz Phair meet and greet about two weeks ago when she played two back-to-back sold out shows at the Metro. Behind the stage, she was pretty laid back and so was her VIP event. Fans received a VIP laminate and a limited-issue tour poster and a chance to briefly meet Liz and take a photo in front of a cloth backdrop that I had set up earlier in the afternoon. After I had checked in all 50 VIP package holders, I raced up the winding stairs of the venue so I could hand out posters to the attendees after they took their photo with Liz.

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October 14, 2018 | Photo by Ken Fosnot

The first thing I thought when I saw her strut across the floor to the meet and greet platform was that she was truly beautiful. Her bottle blonde hair was perfectly straightened, something I still haven’t been able to figure out in nearly nine years of attempting to straighten my own wavy hair. She was wearing dark blue jeans, a leather jacket and cute black boots with little heels. Everything looked like it had been tailored to fit her perfectly and honestly, it might have been.

Liz spent every second of the meet and greet sincerely focused on her fans. I watched grown women burst into tears upon meeting her, and men at least ten years older than me were so nervous they wouldn’t look her in the eye and tell her their name. As more and more fans’ eyes filled with tears, I wondered what their connection to Liz was. One young girl with a buzzed pixie cut, accompanied by her mother, told Liz that she had inspired her to pick up a guitar and write songs. Another woman smothered Liz with a sobbing embrace and told her that she wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Liz and her music. I watched the petite 51-year-old, 5’2” blonde woman, break down the hardened exterior of grown adults.

After this short but highly emotional meet and greet, I was dismissed and told I had completed my duties for the night. I trotted down the venue’s intricately decorated staircase and headed to the green room to retrieve my jacket. On my way out I ran into Liz again. This time, I decided to take a risk and actually talk to her.

“Hey! I just wanted to say it was an honor to work your event. Thanks so much. I caught your set at Riot Fest and I just have to tell you that you were cheated out of a headlining spot. You deserved to play way later than 2 in the afternoon.”

Liz Phair takes the stage at Riot Fest | Photo courtesy of Timothy Hiatt

A hint of color flushed Liz’s already rosy cheeks and she responded by diverting the conversation to all the other women she believed deserved better time slots other than herself. Liz was funny and sweet and I wasn’t sure if talking to her reminded me more of talking to my mom or to talking to an overly excited teenage girl.

……

I had assumed that working this meet and greet event would be my last encounter with Liz Phair. However, after listening to her incredible 4-song soundcheck and being in her presence for just 20 minutes, I was left wanting more. Liz’s stage presence was bold yet humble, and sweet yet sexy and strong. As the female vocalist of an otherwise entirely male band, the energy she brought to the stage screamed “look at me, but don’t look too close.”

As a few fans and old friends of Liz left the meet and greet, I heard them mention something about seeing her again at Pitchfork. After doing some eavesdropping, I learned that Liz was doing some sort of Q+A at the Chicago Athletic Association as a part of Pitchfork’s “In Sight Out” series. Even better, the talk was being moderated by Jenn Pelly, a Pitchfork music editor I admire who hosted a similar talk I attended with Jessica Hopper, who is a Chicago-based music writer whose work I consider my holy grail as a music journalist.

Unfortunately, the talk was taking place on a Monday night and I had big homework plans. Plus, the admission fee was 15 bucks, which is a lot for a full-time college student who’s working every minute she’s not in school. I was on the fence about going until I woke up on Monday morning and checked Twitter.

After her Sunday night show, Liz had gone to Reggies, a crazy rock ‘n’ roll bar and venue in Chicago’s South Loop where I also happen to work. She had posted pictures of the owner’s adorable pup, Delta, and photos of her band hanging out on top of the venue and in the men’s bathroom at four in the morning. Any chick who’s willing to hang out with a bunch of dudes in the Reggies bathrooms at four in the morning is cool in my book, so I decided that I would cough up the 15 bucks and go listen to Liz Phair.

……

As a moderator, Pitchfork editor Jenn Pelly comes off as a bit timid. She takes a while to formulate questions and then steps back, giving the person she’s interviewing ample time to answer and to tell their own story. It didn’t take long for Liz to turn the conversation to politics and current events, which isn’t surprising for a historically outspoken musician.

“So, what’s it like touring with an all-male band?” Jenn asked. “Especially with everything that’s been…y’know…,” she gestured into the air, “going on?”

Liz took a deep breath. She explained how bizarre it was to tour with not only all men, but with men that were almost young enough to be her sons. She talked about her fall tour, which had ended in Chicago the day before, and that there had been a lot of tension between her and her band members, not because of personal issues, but because of what had been going on in Washington D.C. and in the media.

She explained that the more media attention Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the charges of sexual assault against him received, the more her band members watched her, expecting her to say something, anything about what was going on.

She kept silent.

Her all-male band tiptoed cautiously around her during the week of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. The day the public was informed that Brett Kavanaugh would be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, Liz said, she broke. Words came pouring out of her, and the words of the lesson she told her band members are words that will stick with me always.

These words hit me in much the same way music does, because they said what I was feeling and what I have experienced as a woman in a way that I had never been able to express my own experiences before. Her words haunted me in more ways than one as I climbed the stairs of the nearest orange line platform after leaving the Chicago Atheltic Association.

I know that you guys are thinking that the women in your life, your mom, your sisters,     your friends, all have three or four incidents that haunt them,” she said, “that stick with them. But that’s not true. That number is not three or four, it’s 100 or 150 or 250 and it keeps getting bigger.

Those numbers, the 100, 150, and 250, hit me in my stomach. I thought about my own number as the train whisked me away. Her words made me realize how lucky I am to have male friends and a male roommate and a boyfriend who are respectful and kind and won’t stand for bullshit. Those numbers made me realize that my personal number will never go down, but that it will only keep increasing for as long as I am alive.

Laying in my bed that night, I couldn’t decide if I regretted hearing Liz talk or if working for her, running into her and attending her Pitchfork event had been a cruel, but necessary, twist of fate. Tears filled my eyes as visions of assault ran through my head and I attempted to calculate my own number. Before I drifted to sleep, I directed thoughts of thanks to Liz for being the painful catalyst I needed to begin the slow process of healing from my past.

……

There are good men out there. There are men who will listen and attempt to understand, but I have never heard a man accurately explain the shame and disgust I feel when I am catcalled. The fear and anxiety I feel when I am followed. The trauma and flashbacks and guilt that have settled in the pit of my stomach after being assaulted.

No, the only person who could speak on this subject with sincerity was a woman, and as Liz spoke, I felt as though she was sucking the air out of me and replacing it with her words.

We need more women in music because of the stories only they can tell. Musicians have a knack of framing the human experience in a way that sticks with us; in a way we can never forget. If female musicians, as well as performers of color and queer musicians, aren’t given a spot on the stage, then their stories and the stories of fans who identify just as their favorite artists do, may never be told.

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