A 33 1/3 book on Liz Phair's Zeitgeist-seizing classic Exile In Guyville seemed like a sure-fire good read, so I added it to my Christmas list without hesitation. It was only when I took it out of the wrapping that I noticed it was written by, of all people, Gina Arnold. Now, to most people, Arnold may be best known for the book Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, which was a pretty decent memoir/travelogue/meditation on the previously under-the-radar indie scene that made Kurt Cobain's accidental mega-stardom possible. But for people in the Bay Area, Gina Arnold was briefly notorious for her weekly music column in the East Bay Express, which, at the time, seemed frustratingly "almost good." Week after week, Arnold would often come close to making a point and then derail herself with non sequiturs or glaring factual errors. My overall impression was that she was well-meaning but clueless. Puncture rejected her writing, but Rolling Stone and Spin embraced her with open arms, leaving some bewildered. How did this writer, of all people, become the alleged spokesperson for our scene?
OK, indie-rockers of the 90s were a self-important, presumptuous lot, and yours truly was no different. In a world without search engines, it could be argued that knowing everything about everything was itself a mark of male privilege. Certainly, Arnold had her defenders that argued just that. I was not buying it at the time; clearly she was just a bad writer! (Actually, she has always written quite well. Even when she came to rather silly conclusions, her ability to craft words really can't be questioned. This is precisely what made her column so frustrating.) In the days before the Internet, writing on the printed page seemed to matter so much more, and the idea that someone was writing future history and getting so much wrong was infuriating.
But most of the flack Gina Arnold caught back in the day had little to do with the flaws many of us railed against. I remember seeing her do a reading at a bookstore in Berkeley and the evening basically degenerated into watching a sincere, opinionated young woman getting shouted down by butthurt Rolling Stones fans who were livid that some girl had dared to treat their latest mediocre product with less than unquestioning reverence. Whatever Arnold's faults as a critic may have been, they melted into insignificance in the face of this display of misogyny-laced mainstream rock conservatism. The letters to the editor in the East Bay Express tended to reflect the same attitude. None of this made me any more of a fan of Gina Arnold's writing, but my respect for her definitely grew. A lot of people in her position would have wilted and hid, but she kept coming back, writing on from a perspective that may or may not have made sense to the reader, but it was her own and she wasn't backing down.
So here we are two decades on. I have not paid attention to Arnold at all until I opened this book, but something told me that I should be open to it, that maybe this is the perfect writer for the subject. 33 1/3 has a great track record in this, of course. But here we have a female journalist who was treated not merely as just another critic one disagreed with, but an interloper who had no right to put her views out there at all. Now consider Liz Phair, an indie-rock singer-songwriter who seemingly shows up out of nowhere and polarizes everyone. How many people wrote about Exile On Guyville as if it was nothing but 18 songs about blowjobs, as opposed to the masterful song cycle of catchy tunes and complex, wryly funny, irreverently lurid, and often-poignant emotional statements that it was? Maybe it's time to look back on the ruins of 90s indie rock and mainstream rock in general and confront some ugly truths about misogyny, pretentious notions of authenticity, and projections about other people's perceived privilege.
Arnold has come along as a writer, and now has the PhD to prove it. Some 33 1/3 books are delightful immersions into studio minutiae, full of wonderful stories about how a song was put together. Others focus on shining a light on the time that the album was a record of, how it was received, what it meant to listeners, and why it mattered. This book is definitely the second kind. It's refreshing to see someone take on Exile In Guyville as the serious, multi-dimensional work it is, and Arnold is spot-on when she recaps some of the more vile criticisms it and its creator endured at the time. (Steve Albini gets singled out for special attention.) Phair's inability to perform the album live is touched on as part of the supposed "authenticity" problem some critics invented. I would just add that much of her troubles in that area were purely technical: you can write and perform a song solo with your guitar in your room, or in a studio, and be able to sing softly in the lowest part of your vocal range, but trying to do the same thing in a live room with a full rock band is nearly impossible. I remember watching Liz Phair on TV struggling to get out one of her catchiest songs, "Never Said". She was forced to sing it an octave higher in order to simply be heard, and the song just didn't sound right. Liz Phair has gotten a lot of flack for her more recent attempts at slick pop where she sings in a high voice, but I have to sympathize with someone whose very signature sound...that deep, worldly-sexy whisper...can't be reproduced in the jangly rock setting that suits it best. Who can blame her for trying other genres and searching for a more comfortable way to employ her undeniable talent?
Caveat: This book is strong regarding culture in general and how both the music business and pop culture have changed. Where it falls short is (surprise!) if you read it without ever having heard the album in question, you will be none the wiser as to what any of the songs actually sound like. Oh well, somehow this manages to be worth your time to read and ponder anyway.