Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Exile in Dinoville

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Earlier this month, a writer named Nick White released Sweet & Low, his debut collection of short fiction. Most of the stories are set in the present day, but one of them, “Break,” includes a paragraph that evokes the early nineties so vividly that I feel obliged to transcribe it here:

For the next few weeks, the three of us spent much of our free time together. We would ride around town listening to Regan’s CDs—she forbid us to play country music in her presence—and we usually ended the night with Forney and me sitting on the hood of his car watching her dance to Liz Phair’s “Never Said”: “All I know is that I’m clean as a whistle, baby,” she sang to us, her voice husky. We went to a lot of movies, and most of the time, I sat between them in a dark theater, our breathing taking the same pattern after a while. We saw Jurassic Park twice at the dollar theater, and I can still remember Forney’s astonishment when the computer-generated brachiosaur filled up the giant screen. “Amazing,” he whispered. “Just amazing.”

And while it may seem like the obvious move to conjure up a period by referring to the popular culture of the time, the juxtaposition of Liz Phair and a brachiosaur sets off its own chain of associations, at least in my own head. Jurassic Park was released on June 11, 1993, and Exile in Guyville came out just eleven days later, and for many young Americans, in the back half of that year, they might as well have been playing simultaneously.

At first, they might not seem to have much to do with each other, apart from their chronological proximity—which can be meaningful in itself. Once enough time has passed, two works of art released back to back can start to seem like siblings, close in age, from the same family. In certain important ways, they’ll have more in common with each other than they ever will with anyone else, and the passage of more than two decades can level even blatant differences in surprising ways. Jurassic Park was a major event long before its release, a big movie from the most successful director of his generation, based on a novel that had already altered the culture. What still feels most vivid about Exile in Guyville, by contrast, is the sense that it was recorded on cassette in total solitude, and that Phair had willed it into existence out of nothing. She was just twenty-six years old, or about the same age as Spielberg when he directed Duel, and the way that their potential was perceived and channeled along divergent lines is illuminating in itself. But now that both the album and the movie feel like our common property, it’s easy to see that both were set apart by a degree of technical facility that was obscured by their extremes of scale. Jurassic Park was so huge that it was hard to appreciate how expertly crafted it was in its details, while Phair’s apparent rawness and the unfinished quality of her tracks distracted from the fact that she was writing pop songs so memorable that I still know all the lyrics after a quarter of a century.

Both also feel like artifacts of a culture that is still coming to terms with its feelings about sex—one by placing it front and center, the other by pushing it so far into the background that a significant plot twist hinges on dinosaurs secretly having babies. But their most meaningful similarity may be that they were followed by a string of what are regarded as underwhelming sequels, although neither one made it easy on their successors. In the case of Jurassic Park, it can be hard to remember the creative breakthrough that it represented. Before its release, I studied the advance images in Entertainment Weekly and reminded myself that the effects couldn’t be that good. When they turned out to be better than I could have imagined, my reaction was much the same as Forney’s in Nick White’s story: “Amazing. Just amazing.” When the movie became a franchise, however, something was lost, including the sense that it was possible for the technology of storytelling to take us by surprise ever again. It wasn’t a story any longer, but a brand. A recent profile by Tyler Coates in Esquire captures much the same moment in Phair’s life:

Looking back, at least for Phair, means recognizing a young woman before she earned indie rock notoriety. “I think what’s most evocative is that lack of self-consciousness,” she said. “It’s the first and last time that I have on record before I had a public awareness of what I represented to other people. There’s me, and then there’s Liz Phair.”

And her subsequent career testifies to the impossible position in which she found herself. A review on All Music describes her sophomore effort, Whip-Smart, as “good enough to retain her critical stature, not good enough to enhance it,” which in itself captures something of the inhuman expectations that critics collectively impose on the artists they claim to love. (The same review observes that “a full five years” separated Exile in Guyville from Whitechocolatespaceegg, as if that were an eternity, even though this seems like a perfectly reasonable span in which to release three ambitious albums.) After two decades, it seems impossible to see Whip-Smart as anything but a really good album that was doomed to be undervalued, and it was about to get even worse. I saw Phair perform live just once, and it wasn’t in the best of surroundings—it was at Field Day in 2003, an event that had been changed at the last minute from an outdoor music festival to a series of opening acts for Radiohead at Giants Stadium. Alone on a huge stage with a guitar, her face projected on a JumboTron, Phair seemed lost, but as game as usual. The tenth anniversary of Exile in Guyville was just around the corner, and a few weeks later, Phair released a self-titled album that was excoriated almost anywhere. Pitchfork gave it zero stars, and it was perceived as a blatant bid for commercial success that called all of her previous work into question. Fifteen years later, it’s very hard to care, and time has done exactly what Phair’s critics never managed to pull off. It confirmed what we should have known all along. Phair broke free, expanded to new territories and crashed through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, and, well, there it is. She found a way.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2018 at 8:41 am

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