How Liz Phair Paved The Way For Snail Mail, 2018’s Buzziest Indie Band, Back In 1993

Matador Records

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Earlier this week, I squeezed into a sold-out show in a small St. Paul club to watch Liz Phair play a stripped-down 75-minute set composed mainly of songs that were at least 25 years old, and yet sounded like any number of indie-rock records that have come out in 2018.

The 51-year-old Phair currently is on a short tour celebrating the release of an excellent new compilation, Girlysound To Guyville: The 25th Anniversary Box Set, packaging her landmark 1993 debut album, Exile In Guyville, with songs from the series of underground “Girlysound” tapes that preceded it. (The tour wraps Saturday in Chicago; a more extensive, full-band tour is set for the fall.) For diehards, the shows are a rare opportunity to hear pre-fame obscurities like “Fuck Or Die” and “Ant in Alaska,” which Phair recorded on her own when she was an art student who made up witty, frank songs as a hobby. But it was evident at my show that the club was also filled with younger fans that hadn’t even been born when Guyville was released and regarded Phair as a Gen-X icon with uncommon contemporary relevance.

Phair hasn’t put out new music in eight years, nor has she toured regularly since 2010’s Funstyle was largely ignored by audiences and panned by critics. She might have faded away entirely at that point as a relic of ’90s indie-rock were it not for a generation of musicians, many of whom are women, that have praised her as a crucial songwriting influence, and an overall role model for how to survive in what remains a dude-heavy scene. While Phair made several good-to-great albums after Guyville — that run may even include 2003’s Liz Phair, depending on your feelings about lightly trolling pop-rock numbers like “H.W.C.” — those early songs have remained a blueprint for Phair’s artistic offspring. Any aspiring musical diarist seeking to integrate sharply observational lyrics spiked with clever one-liners and cutting shrapnel from personal traumas into hooky, threadbare rock songs will eventually come to study Exile In Guyville.

Having safely passed the “test of time,” Phair has returned to reclaim her rightful stature in modern indie. And how great it was to see that she remains every bit the consummate rock star she was in the early ’90s: funny, smart, charismatic, provocative, imbued with a god-given strut, and self-confident enough to expose herself completely in her music, even the less-than-honorable parts. (Her taunting delivery of “Girls Girls Girls” is as hilarious and coquettish as ever.)

As a teenaged boy who discovered Exile In Guyville via the rock magazines that covered Phair with a mix of titillation and thinly veiled skepticism, I was raised to view her back then as a novelty, a sexually confident woman making it in a male-dominated music world historically wary of (if not downright hostile toward) femininity. While Guyville was among the most critically adored records of its time, the praise was often qualified, placing the album in the realm of “women’s music,” rather just regular rock and roll. Phair wasn’t simply one of the best songwriters of her time, she was an “antidote,” a “necessary” alternative to the norm, a cover girl for those special “Women In Rock” issues that kept female musicians pushed to the side.

Twenty-five years later, the “norm” has shifted. Women are so pervasive in indie rock now that singling them out seems counterproductive, even strange. (People still do it anyway.) What matters is that even as the world has changed in so many ways since 1993, Phair remains the same — she’s a complete and utter original, and too singular to ever function comfortably as anyone’s figurehead. Perhaps now, finally, she can be fully appreciated as such.

While I was at the Liz Phair show, I thought about Lindsey Jordan, the 19-year-old Baltimore native whose band Snail Mail has garnered more press than just about any indie act this year. If you haven’t heard about her yet, then you probably don’t read major music websites, or even mainstream outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post. Jordan has been as hyped by the media in 2018 as Phair was in 1993.