When Liz Phair plugged in her four-track recorder in the early ’90s, she sent an electric jolt through pop that is still felt today. As Girly-Sound, Phair tossed aside the ideas of “confessional” songwriting, creating music that was as forthright as it was elliptical. She also captured the particular anxieties of Gen X women, who were grappling with an uneven landscape of feminism’s receding second wave, the AIDS crisis, the rise of the religious right, and mundane male-female tensions. The tapes quickly became legendary in the underground, and their songs provided the backbone for Phair’s first two albums, 1992’s Exile In Guyville and 1994’s Whip-Smart.
Listening to those two albums now recalls how “pop” was placed in front of a funhouse mirror by mainstream-adjacent artists like Phair and other denizens of MTV’s 120 Minutes, as well as the way pop—no ironic quotes—became utterly altered by those same artists. You don’t have Alanis Morissette snarling “And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” without Phair’s spectral choir cooing “Every time I see your face/I get all wet between my legs.” You don’t have Christina Aguilera getting “Dirrrty” without Phair doing the same ten years prior. Phair changed the indie rock game simply by putting her femininity forward, with the coy title of Guyville (a reference to her fellow Chicagoans Urge Overkill that doubles as an eye-roll toward her city’s dude-heavy music scene) serving as a pointed reminder of even “independent” rock’s very typical gender imbalance. 1998’s tart, hooky Whitechocolatespaceegg planted a flag for thirty-something women who were settled on the surface but felt unsettled about their very existence.
In the teenpop-minded 2000s, Phair teamed with The Matrix, the chart auteurs who ruled radio via Phair heirs like Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff. While the shiny production was far from Girly-Sound’s lo-fi roots, the message was clear: Phair was not going to be defined by anyone’s idea of who she should be. Her 2010 independent release, Funstyle, combined musical flights of fancy with pointed lyrics, and continued that rebellious trend. Even now, as she celebrates Guyville with a Girly-Sound retrospective, she’s bucking convention, looking back on her youth while celebrating the woman she’s become.