April 2015

Kati Nolfi

nonfiction

Hole's Live Through This by Anwen Crawford

In Hole's Live Through This, Anwen Crawford refers to the inclusion of the eponymous album in Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 Series as "canon-unbuilding," a reimagining and deconstructing of the rock canon. There's no question for me that this album belongs in the series, but 33 1/3 has been slow to embrace women in music, so Crawford thinks that Hole's second record, 1994's Live Through This, subverts the male hegemony of rock. Lyrics like "I don't do the dishes/I throw them in the crib" are not typical of male songwriters; there haven't been a lot of hits about domesticity or parenting.

Yet, Courtney Love hasn't necessarily thought of her music as iconoclastic. She's always been proud of her uncool roots, her Psychedelic Furs, her Echo and the Bunnymen, R.E.M., and Fleetwood Mac. She's seen herself as a populist, has wanted to be mainstream, the most famous, more famous than you-know-who. In wanting to be the "girl with the most cake" she's started more fights with other girls before she's joined forces in building an alternative feminist canon. She could never have allied herself with the K Records cutie pies or political punk riot grrrls of Kill Rock Stars. (And for the record, I love all that music!) She was singular, in the tradition of Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell or Stevie Nicks or Joan Jett, though not as original as those women and owing them all a debt. She boasted about writing good pop songs, a new wave record, spoke of her first album Pretty on the Inside as a bid for indie cred, as inauthentic to her true mission: to get a nose job, lose 40 pounds, be pretty on the outside and infiltrate the system. As she said, "That record was me posing in a lot of ways. It was the truth, but it was also me catching up with all my hip peers who'd gone indie on me and made fun of me for liking REM."

When asked if motherhood would change her songwriting perspective, she answered, "What am I supposed to do, turn into fucking Mother Teresa all of a sudden? Am I supposed to write a country record because I had a baby? I've felt more sexual warfare, political, medical, and media terror in the last couple months than I've ever felt in my whole life." This is not the kind of thing people were used to hearing from rock icons, wives, or mothers. Infinitely quotable, she also said, "Men always get a much easier time about their problems than women do. Just look at Keith Richards. That guy has done more drugs in his life than I could ever imagine. But he gets celebrated as this cool survivor, while I'm branded as some shameless skank."

I am a biased reviewer of this book, or rather just a believer in the worthiness of Crawford's project and a bit covetous of it, too. As soon as I saw the photo of Courtney Love and Amanda de Cadenet in silk charmeuse vintage nightgowns and tiaras at the 1995 Oscars, my life was changed. I had been watching My So-Called Life on Thursday nights after ballet class, had stolen Revlon Blackberry at Rite Aid before my dad picked me up. My discomfiting middle school years had been building to this, the possibility of dissolute glamour and strength. Courtney had swagger, toughness, and fragility. She was a liar, could be mean, vengeful, assaultive: wish fulfillment for troubled girl teens. She stunned and terrified, looking so much larger and stronger and wilder, manic and, once upon a time, lucid than her peers. Nostalgia flattens out a decade, so that Hole, TLC, Boy Meets World, Candies, dELiA*s, and Boyz II Men of the '90s all become missed and beloved equally. But those of us allegiant to a genre, aesthetic, sound, or politics, we did not experience these things equally. There were teenagers with inclusive taste or those who were uninterested, but I was passionate, partisan, judgmental, and desperate for an incendiary bad sister. I was loyal to Courtney from the beginning of my awareness of her and her assaults and pathology, hypocrisy and contradictions didn't change that. The only thing that ended my obsession was the 1997 blonde Junior League Garren-cut bob of the post-The People Vs. Larry Flynt Oscars and the modest breast implants and politesse, and then the sun kissed, glittery angel wings, crop top banality of Celebrity Skin. What a difference two years, a dead husband, incipient movie stardom, and dating Edward Norton make. Her band dissolved, she became boring and pointless, and then fell completely apart amid addiction, mental illness, ridiculous public antics, and no constructive or significant work.

The transformative moment could have been the first time I saw the video for "Violet." While the images might seem trite now, the ballerinas, grubby little girls, strippers, dark Vamp lips, snow, chipped nails, and messy bleached hair were talismanic to me, and I retreated into this world, into magazine cutouts, mall CDs bought one Friday at a time, and MTV glimpsed at a friend's house, to not have to fully inhabit my body on the back of the school bus and not have to live in my dull suburb. The one time I lied about my name I was 15 and I said it was Courtney. A YouTube commenter defends her against all the real and imagined charges, saying she has the best "fuck off voice." That's about right to me and it's enough to rally any teenager, especially one who came up in the age of self-esteem and Reviving Ophelia.

Courtney Love and Hole fans (it's hard to parse the difference) are ambivalent. You'd have to be. As the kids on Tumblr would say, she's my problematic fave. It feels silly and embarrassing to defend her persona or talents, especially knowing now how poor her guitar playing is. The instrument that she has always bestowed with gender equalizing power is little more than a useless accessory to her. I learned in this book that Courtney didn't play on Live Through This. I'm not sure why I didn't already know that. Then, this fall I listened to the isolated guitar track that can be heard on Youtube and various websites. As a fan, I was bothered both by the misogynist contempt she received, but also by her lack of skill. Certain people derive so much glee from testing a woman's skills and authenticity. As Crawford writes, spending any time in Youtube comment hell pushes an erstwhile or conflicted fan into a defensive stance. I treasured this rare comment I found on Youtube that flipped the usual misogynist script: "Courtney looked like an absolute Goddess here; so fucking beautiful, charismatic and beaming with happiness! I fucking hate what Kurt did to her and Frances. I prefer to remember them as a happy family they were here."

"Hole is a Band," or so claimed a 1995 Rolling Stone article in reference to Blondie and the overwhelming attention that Debbie Harry received. The reality that a rock band is a cult of personality dictatorship and that an attractive or magnetic lead singer garners more attention than other players or the band as a whole, should not be news to anyone. Conspiracy theories swirl around Courtney and her music's authenticity. I never believed any of them which is why I feel naively confused as to why she has always asserted the importance of girls and guitars. Just be a lyricist and singer! The list of effective male and female vocal performers is long.

Eric Erlandson is, to me, the least interesting member of the band but an architect of the band's sound. He provided the band's armature, arranged the songs, and played lead guitar. But Courtney brought the twisted soul and darkness, catharsis, scream, personality and life experience, destructively aspirational for teenage girls to feed on. She wrote about the ambivalence of both girlhood and motherhood. Hole's songs don't generally have a narrative, but they establish a visceral connection with the right audience.

Anwen Crawford writes about the teenage girl and gay boy fandom of the band and the feminist context of Love's career. Some of this seems like filler, though readers should know about performance art like Yoko Ono's Cut Piece and how it intersects with the themes of the Hole song "Asking for It." A theme throughout the peak of Courtney's fame was, as the title of Courtney's own zine stated, And She's Not Even Pretty. Journalists seemed mystified by her appeal, especially compared to her "prettier" husband. Crawford's fandom is similar to my own. We were both struck by our own self-loathing and the salve that was Courtney's complicated beauty and her unapologetic need to be real and fake, to claw to the top with artifice and guts. Neither surgical intervention nor being on a major label represented a compromise of values in an era that was obsessed with indie cred. She both "fixed" her nose and proudly displayed her bruises. Courtney Love and Hole had plenty of flaws in terms of performance, consistency, and politics, compared to superior bands like Sleater-Kinney. But they were an entree into a scene, sound, and feminism that changed my life. Courtney Love was so voluble and attention hungry that she was able to alter the consciousness of suburban and rural kids who only had access to mainstream media.

As Crawford writes:

Hers was a difficult beauty: it seemed more an act of will than an incontestable fact. Courtney's beauty was expressive, which meant it was unstable, and the expressions that flowed across her face and through her body rendered that beauty both fragile and frightening.

I found this book to be a delightful nostalgia tour. Relistening to the record, I was surprised by how accessible it is, how it can be warm and jangly, sarcastic and furious, and a gut punch. Live Through This seems like it shouldn't have happened. The record after it, Celebrity Skin, is bland and sunny and, like Crawford, I did not listen to it in 1998. Pretty on the Inside is thrilling to sing along with in your teenage bedroom but it is indeed "cacophonous sludge" (to paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel's positive review), in a good way. It seems impossible to me that, amid the death and drama, Hole was able to make thirty-eight minutes of a record that saved me again and again.

Hole's Live Through This by Anwen Crawford
Bloomsbury Academic
ISBN: 978-1623563776
144 pages