Laura Barton on the women who have bared their soul through music

From Carole King to Tori Amos, confessional artists have sung with searing honesty about everything from divorce to menstruation. As Liz Phair's classic album Exile in Guyville is re-released, Laura Barton celebrates the women who shared their dreams and demons

Fifteen years ago the music world was turned upside down with the release of Liz Phair's album, Exile in Guyville. Written in response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street (both were double albums, 18 tracks long), it matched that record in grandeur, ambition and achievement and quickly attracted a stream of superlatives.

The praise has continued with the album's re-release this summer, and Phair's performance of it in its entirety at a string of US concerts. In fact, as the Village Voice recently noted: "It's near impossible to overstate Exile's importance as an astonishingly honest, influential, genre-busting exercise."

Phair's debut was a revolution for women listeners in particular. A mix of indie rock, power pop and folk, Exile attracted attention for its sexually frank content and confessional nature, and amid all its talk of blow jobs, fucking and running, there was also an emotional openness that brought a vulnerability to Phair's swagger. The same woman who sang "Every time I see your face/I think of things unpure unchaste/I want to fuck you like a dog/I'll take you home and make you like it" also spoke with a pang of romantic longing. "I want all that stupid old shit," she admitted, "like letters and sodas."

"I am a feminist, and I define myself," Phair said at the time. "Be yourself, because if you can get away with it, that is the ultimate feminist act." And perhaps more than anything, Exile in Guyville provided an introduction to feminism for a generation of young women who had assumed the battle had been fought by their mothers, but found that they needed a new form of feminism to address not only the persistent social imbalances, but also issues such as the expression of sexuality. It was, if you like, third-wave feminism with a beat.

Shayla Thiel-Stern of the University of Minnesota recently reflected, "The album made it OK for us (girls) to talk explicitly about sexuality in terms that only guys were allowed to use, and it made it fine to acknowledge both the vulnerability as well as the fun and vulgar aspects of sexuality, even if it was in the form of singing along." Other commentators have testified to Guyville's importance in their feminist awakening. At, for instance, writer Kate Harding declared Guyville "the album that made me a feminist."

Phair wasn't the only woman writing confessional songs in the 1990s; it was a time when this form of songwriting flourished. A year before Exile in Guyville came Little Earthquakes, the debut album by Tori Amos, which was marked by its emotionally cathartic quality. Notably, it included her first single, Me and a Gun, which dealt with Amos's own rape at the age of 21: "Yes I wore a slinky red thing, does that mean I should spread/ For you, your friends, your father, Mr Ed?" It was Little Earthquakes, and Me and a Gun in particular, that shifted the tone of women's songwriting, and convinced record companies that there was a market for confessional albums.

A few years later came Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, a sheeny take on the genre that received relentless radio airplay, but, like Little Earthquakes, was fuelled by a desire to articulate a woman's feelings in the wake of a physical attack. Not long before recording, Morissette had been robbed at gunpoint in LA, an episode that led to panic attacks, hospital visits and therapy. Like Guyville, Morissette's album was characterised by an emotional and sexual frankness ("Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" was the lyric of note) which proved no barrier to commercial success. It went on to be the biggest-selling album of the 1990s in the US.

There were others too, both before and after, who pursued this confessional mode of song-writing: Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco, Juliana Hatfield, Lisa Loeb and Heather Nova all rose to prominence in the 1990s. Before them came Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Suzanne Vega, Carole King, Carly Simon, Dory Previn and Laura Nyro. These artists offered up emotional honesty and spoke of subjects not often addressed by mainstream popular culture - the wish to be viewed as something other than wives and mothers, of frustration, sexual desire, the pain of desertion, rape, abortion and motherhood, masturbation and menstruation.

Of course, confessional songwriting has existed in some form for centuries, but it was the arrival of female singer-songwriters such as Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie in the 60s who paved the way directly for an artist like Phair. As Dr Peter Mills, senior lecturer in media and popular culture at Leeds Metropolitan University, says, these singers "located emotional responses that weren't being articulated by [songs like] Jimmy Mack". Crucially, they began to shift the focus away from songs about being boy-crazy or having traditional ambitions such as getting married, to exploring women's own emotional desires. Mills regards singer-songwriters of the early 70s such as Carole King and Carly Simon as a "bridge" between girl groups like the Supremes and the thrust of Phair's generation. "King grew up writing the boy-centric songs in the Brill Building [the New York office building famously used by music publishers and writers]," he explains, "but she also embodied the barefooted female singer-songwriter." Carly Simon, too, helped to alter the vocabulary of songwriting. "With the exception of You're So Vain, which is about the peacockery of maledom, her early records are very loving," says Mills, "but her songs were not especially saucer-eyed, they're very realistic and mature."

The year of 1971 saw the release of three phenomenally important albums by female artists - Carole King's Tapestry (also re-released next month), Carly Simon's self-titled debut, and Dory Previn's Mythical Kings and Iguanas. All enjoyed considerable success, but while King and Simon are still feted today, Previn is strangely overlooked. Like King, Previn had trained as a lyricist, though she was employed to write film music rather than pop songs. When she embarked upon a career as a solo artist, beginning with On My Way to Where in 1970, she set out the stall of the confessional songwriting that we would see over the next four decades. Much of that first album dealt with her time in a psychiatric hospital and the breakdown of her marriage to the composer André Previn, but there were also references to her difficult relationship with her father and allusions to fantasies of incest. Mythical Kings and Iguanas dwelled less in the past, and focused on a woman's desire for a relationship, along with physical and emotional abuse and being involved with a younger man.

"She hasn't quite had her time yet," Mills says of Previn. "The same could be said of Laura Nyro, and Judee Sill. The language they use doesn't have the rage of Alanis or Liz Phair or PJ Harvey, but there's still some of that matching of rage to articulacy, and that's unusual in pop."

One of the key areas that these women singer-songwriters sought to articulate, particularly in the 90s, was female sexual experience. Mills notes that the explicitness of Phair et al was not unprecedented; lately, he says, he has been listening to a compilation of women's songs called Sugar in My Bowl: Vintage Sex Songs 1923-1952. "There's one called Hot Nuts," he laughs. "You could not play that on the radio now! It's incredibly filthy. So it's not as if it hadn't been expressed before Liz Phair." In fact the arrival of Madonna in the early 1980s had done much to alter the expected image of women pop stars, as well as to expand the vocabulary of feminine pop. "But the appeal [of Phair] was that frankness," adds Mills. "A lot of pop music is sold on its candour, but it's rarely as candid as Guyville. It opened up the expressive vocabulary for female artists."

It's interesting to explore why women have so often chosen confessional songwriting.Sheila Whiteley, author of Women and Popular Music, suggests it is partly because "women don't have that long history of songwriting. They can't refer to past examples which is why they go into themselves, drawing on themselves." The answer might also lie in the history of poetry. Even now, male singer-songwriters are often viewed as troubadors - historically, lyric poets whose subjects were chivalry and courtly love. Widely travelled and educated, troubadors existed under the patronage of a nobleman and were essentially writing to supply him with the tools to woo women.

By contrast, the rise of confessional poetry came in the second half of the 20th century, and is exemplified by poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The genre was defined by ML Rosenthal, in his 1959 essay Poetry as Confession which described it as verse that goes "beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment". The troubadour tradition was as resolutely male as any other male lineage, and with its notions of chivalry and old-fashioned romance, it wasn't a relevant mode of expression for modern women writers. Confessional poetry was a more logical form for them to embrace, in part because it originated at a time of increasing female emancipation, and it tapped in to the idea that women, who had been voiceless for so long, had a story to tell, secrets to confess. On this basis, it is not surprising that female songwriters often plumped for a confessional approach too.

Of course, there are male confessional songwriters, but Mills suggests that their songs are "frequently almost tactical, part of seduction. It's confession with a point." The confessional tone of much female songwriting, by contrast, "is not there to impress, or to seduce - it's not a dance move." As Morissette, speaking about the objective of her song You Oughta Know, one of Jagged Little Pill's most well-known tracks, once explained: "It wasn't written to elicit a response from this person or to seek any sort of revenge. It was to unburden myself with my now allowing myself to just admit how I felt. And in admitting how I felt by singing it so many times I kind of transcended it, really. I was able to admit all of this and to go forth from there, instead of getting stuck."

Without Exile in Guyville, without Phair and Amos, perhaps even Morissette, the musical landscape would look very different today. Their emotional and sexual candour cleared the way for subsequent generations of female songwriters - Cat Power, Feist, Laura Marling, Amy Winehouse among them - teaching them that to articulate their own thoughts and experiences was empowering, and that in singing of these uniquely female experiences, they could achieve the same heights as their male counterparts. To paraphrase Phair, the openness that she exhibited in Guyville has allowed female singer-songwriters, ever since, to "stand 6ft 1in, instead of 5ft 2in. And that's quite an achievement.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'You could not have given us a bigger middle finger': Liz Phair on how Trump changed her music for ever
Her album Exile in Guyville captured the voice of third-wave feminism – but for the singer/songwriter, it’s time to head out and fight the patriarchy all over again

Evelyn McDonnell

03, May, 2018 @12:26 PM

Article image
Liz Phair’s teenage obsessions: ‘I wanted to be a 6,000-year-old vampire with style’
The singer-songwriter on watching The Hunger 60 times, how EE Cummings inspired her lyrics and discovering magic mushrooms at a Grateful Dead show

As told to Dave Simpson

03, Jun, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
How do pop stars juggle babies and their careers?

Juggling a baby and a career is difficult enough for anyone - but how do you manage it when you're a pop star? Caroline Sullivan finds out.

Caroline Sullivan

25, Sep, 2003 @10:43 AM

Who knew a bad girl could be a good mum?

A rock critic who once got married in a gorilla mask, Evelyn McDonnell worried that having a child would curb her spirit. In fact, it made her more radical than ever.

Evelyn McDonnell

10, Aug, 2007 @2:02 AM

Article image
Interview: musician Thea Gilmore

Thea Gilmore has released five albums, received rave reviews and turned down endless offers from major labels. And she's still only 23. She talks to Caroline Sullivan.

Caroline Sullivan

23, Oct, 2003 @11:24 AM

Article image
Emine Saner meets Amanda Palmer

Her record label criticised her figure. Radio stations refuse to play her song about date rape. But does Amanda Palmer care? Emine Saner finds out

Emine Saner

06, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Ms Dynamite's big achievement

Ms Dynamite exploded into the national consciousness this week as the first black female performer to win the Mercury Music prize. She might be commercial - but she still rocks.

Hannah Pool

19, Sep, 2002 @10:20 AM

Article image
'I don't make things easy'

Some think she's the greatest singer-songwriter of her generation. So why haven't more people heard of Thea Gilmore? Stephanie Merritt reports

Stephanie Merritt

29, May, 2008 @11:09 PM

Article image
Billie Eilish embodies the angsty spider-eating teenage girl in all of us | Suzanne Moore
The 17-year-old was astonishing at Glastonbury and reminds me of Kate Bush – but she should not have to disappear like her to express her artistic freedom

Suzanne Moore

01, Jul, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Laura Barton on the legacy of the Riot Grrrl scene

Laura Barton: The Riot Grrrl scene brought feminism to alternative rock in the 90s. Fifteen years on, the aftershocks are still making waves

Laura Barton

04, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM