Here are the lyrics for “Flower,” the fourteenth song on Liz Phair’s indie rock classic Exile in Guyville. You can read them if you’d like, or you can just listen to the song. I’m doing things a bit differently for this piece, by putting the lyrics in a link and quoting where I can. This will make sense once you read the lyrics: we do our best to keep things PG-13 here at Two Story Melody, which makes talking about a song like “Flower” very difficult.
But there’s a reason why I’m writing about this song, rather than “Divorce Song” or “Never Said.” While its lyrics are explicit enough to make you squirm, “Flower” is much more than base provocation: it’s the best song on Guyville, the most distinct example of Phair’s musical and lyrical gifts, and the song where the album’s concept, nebulous though it may be at times, shines through.
“Flower,” like half of Guyville’s tracklist, can be heard in an embryonic lo-fi state on one of the cassettes Phair recorded under the name Girly-Sound. Both versions of the song share the same structure (one layer of Phair’s vocals repeats two lines, while the other rambles on in counterpoint), and there are only one or two lyrics that are changed. But the Girly-Sound version of “Flower” is gentle, almost soothing, with its patient guitar strum and Phair’s intimate vocal performance. You can imagine her murmuring the lyrics half-asleep in the early morning.
There is nothing soothing or gentle about the version of “Flower” we get on Guyville. Instead of the cozy strum of a guitar, there is an ominous chug of feedback that suggests barely-restrained aggression: it sounds like a car engine thrumming in anticipation, waiting for the driver to hit the gas pedal so it can roar to life. It’s coiled and tense, which contrasts with the blunt, filthy lyrics and makes their danger even more tangible.
While Phair sang in roughly the same register on both layers of the Girly-Sound version, here she differentiates them: the repeating lines are delivered in a high-pitched singsong, while the counterpoint is growled out in a steely monotone. This also provides contrast, both musically and lyrically. The singsong vocals strike a more submissive tone, describing the effect the narrator’s crush has on her without taking any initiative of her own: “every time you pass me by/I heave a sigh of pain.” The monotone vocals, on the other hand, spell out exactly what’s going to happen, in uncomfortably specific detail. It feels as though we’re listening to two halves of one personality talk over each other.
If you can’t tell by now, “Flower” is an extremely sexual song, but for most people it is not a sexy song. As a gay man, I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that most straight men would be terrified if their partner started talking to them like this. Phair leers over the parts of a man people don’t usually leer over: his face, his hair, his lips. She scorns his immaturity (“you act like you’re fourteen years old”) even as it’s part of what draws her to him (“everything you say is so obnoxious, funny, true and mean”). She steamrolls right over what he might think or feel about all this: “you’re probably shy and introspective/that’s not part of my objective.” When she sings “everything you ever wanted/everything you ever thought of/is everything I’ll do to you,” it sounds like a threat.
This is, of course, the mirror image of how many men treat women. Every part of a woman’s body, even parts as innocent as their faces or their hair, is sexualized; immaturity is mocked and fetishized at the same time; their interiority is seen as secondary to their sex appeal. Sex is seen as mutually satisfying only when it flatters the man; when it doesn’t, sex is seen as a service that women provide, or even an obligation they have to uphold. (See “lying back and thinking of England,” or the fringe-but-not-fringe-enough belief that the government should assign girlfriends to lonely men.) By reversing these roles, “Flower” serves as both an empowering song for women and a much-needed dose of perspective for men.
It’s important to note that, despite being a contemporary who covered similar ground, Liz Phair was not a part of the riot grrrl movement. Like Hole or PJ Harvey, she made rock music with a feminist lean, but she focused on the personal more than the political. And while she had an iconoclastic bent at times, she didn’t reject the influence of classic rock. Which is why, when Phair made Exile in Guyville a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., it was more complicated than simply dunking on sexist blues-rock dinosaurs. Guyville exists in conversation with, not in opposition to, what came before it.
The Exile on Main St. song “Flower” corresponds with is “Let It Loose,” a gospel-inflected blues ballad about an ill-fated relationship based around sex. As Rolling Stones songs go, it’s not particularly sexist–it’s no “Under My Thumb” or “Brown Sugar”–but the woman the song is ostensibly about remains an abstraction. She’s pretty, she sleeps with Mick Jagger, and apparently that’s all we need to know. It’s an impressive-sounding song, with its blues wailing and gospel choir, but there’s a void in the middle.
The connections between Main St. and Guyville aren’t always obvious, but they’re there if you look. Both songs deal with sex, but Phair plays up the contrasts. While “Let It Loose” is a sweeping, feel-good ballad, “Flower” is a menacing, bare-bones soliloquy of filth. While “Let It Loose” talks about sex mostly as an emotional experience, “Flower” is obsessed with physicality. And while “Let It Loose” mostly ignores the woman at its center, “Flower” gives its woman not only a voice but a frightening power of her own.