Certain Songs #934: Liz Phair – “(Sometimes a Dream) Is What Makes You A Slave”

Album: Girlysound
Year: 1991

I think it was Ranjit who sent me a copy of Liz Phair’s Girlysound tape. This was, of course, after Exile in Guyville came out, and definitely after he and I had met in person after becoming friends on Prodigy’s Replacements bulletin board.

I got quite a few tapes (and hopefully sent a few) that way. People who I met online from all over the country exchanging music with people who were otherwise just words on a low-rez computer screen, and without even the benefit of avatars or bios or anything, you had to determine who you liked or disliked just by the words they wrote.

Two decades on, that’s just how it works, of course, and I’ve made loads more friends on social media in that time, but in the mid-1990s, it was still incredibly fresh and new and weird.

Anyways, at some point he sent me Girlysound, the already infamous set of self-recorded cassettes that Phair did before she put out Exile in Guyville. Nowadays, somebody would just fire up Garageband and be done with it, but of course, they would be losing the ineffable atmosphere that helped make Girlysound so effective.

And “(Sometimes a Dream) Is What Makes You A Slave)” is a microcosm of everything that I loved about Girlysound, right from the opening.

I can’t remember the last time
That I felt good for more than a week
I mean really good, for more than a month

That opening is sung over a sad, ghostly acoustic guitar, and leads into one of the steals that are all over Girlysound — in this case, the chorus of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On,” but because her vocals are multi-tracked, she’s also singing her own words and melody against it.

It was actually almost a hip-hop trick: stealing someone else’s music or melody or words, but recontextualizing it in a new way so that it becomes its own thing. And she did it over and over on Girlysound — using bits from Johnny Cash, Malcolm McLaren and the Troggs to supplement what she wanted to express.

Also extraordinary: her guitar playing. It’s probably not technically great, and possibly out of tune, but it was aggressive on the tougher tunes, sadder on the melancholy tunes and smart and varied enough so that the limited amount of instrumentation on Girlysound never got boring.

On “(Sometimes a Dream) Is What Makes You A Slave” it circles around itself over and over again, perfectly expressing the rut she’s singing about.

“(Sometimes a Dream) Is What Makes You A Slave”

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