So, Courtney Love.
It’s hard to write about Love in 2012 and sincerely put the music first. While she’s the frontwoman/writer/owner of the influential alt. rock band Hole, a search for “Courtney Love” is more likely to bring you headlines with shock quotes before album reviews. Case in point. It’s worth noting that Love doesn’t speak out to keep herself in the public eye; even at Hole’s height, she was an infamous interview subject. Love’s music career slowed after Hole broke up in 1999 (she reformed the band with new members in 2009–controversy ensued), but her knack for drumming up press never did. She’s developed a reputation as a washed up joke with her best work behind her.
So then, what happens when she dies?
No, really. My partner and I were talking about Love’s inevitable passing. Once a celebrity kicks it, misdeeds and lifetimes of controversy are swept aside for shining pictures of human perfection. Michael Jackson went from “Wacko Jacko” to “the King of Pop” after he died. We assumed that something similar would happen to Love: the past 15 years get swept away, and everyone goes back to the Live Through This era.
Live Through This was released in 1994 as Hole’s second album, and Geffen debut with a release date that was downright tragic: LTT was released on April 12th. On April 8th, Love’s husband, Nirvana frontman, and national rock star Kurt Cobain was found dead from an apparent suicide. Much like Nirvana’s final album In Utero, it’s hard to listen to Live Through This without Cobain’s death casting a shadow across the depression and desperation that was already committed to tape. History has tied the “this” in Live Through This‘s title to Cobain’s death; numerous reviews of the album (both from 1994 and more recent) use his death to give context to the anguish and anger of the record.
But, it’s misleading. The advance copies of Live Through This were already distributed while Cobain was still alive, and his first suicide attempt came months after the album had been recorded. His death can contextualize the album, but not define it. And as for Love, she uses Cobain’s death for inspiration only seldom; “Hit So Hard” and “Malibu” from Celebrity Skin come to mind, as do “Honey” and “Pacific Coast Highway” from Nobody’s Daughter. Often, Live Through This gets misimagined as the album it would be if it had been released a year later. So, if not for Kurt’s death, what does “this” stand for?
The “this” in Live Through This is the booming Alternative Nation scene as seen through the eyes of Courtney Love: Punk rocker and feminist, and all the rage that goes with it. The distorted, grinding “Plump” is a snarling tell-off to Vanity Fair, who alleged that Love used heroin while pregnant, and doubted her abilities as a mother (“I Think That I Would Die” is on a similar subject). Just as personal but more universal is “Asking For It”, which details an experience Love had when she was crowdsurfing, only to have the crowd tear her clothes off and molest her (“asking for it” is often a laughably dumb rape justification: “she was dressed like that–wasnt’ she asking for it?”) “She Walks On Me” comments on how competitive women were within the scene, and tried to tear each other down.
Elsewhere, Live Through This chronicles the exhaustion and the vulnerability that comes with being so raw. “Miss World” confronts depression, substance abuse, and self-image while “Doll Parts” looks for acceptance from someone else (it’s also the LTT‘ song Love says is about Cobain). “Softer, Softest” mediates on Love’s rough upbringing.
Even though there was enough feminist alt/punk rock in the early 90s for it to be its own sub genre, Love managed to stand out. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote songs that were poetic, but often emotionally aloof, while riot grrl bands like Bikini Kill opted for “I took Women’s Studies 232 last semester” style lyrics. By comparison, Love’s lyrics are nothing but firsthand: she doesn’t crawl into a character’s skin like Gordon, or make sweeping statements like Kathleen Hanna; she is the point of view, and she’s the one feeling what she’s singing. It’s a form of feminism that doesn’t need college credit or organized zines; it just needs to be felt. She jabs riot grrl on “Olympia” for this: the scene was so busy, in Love’s eyes, with being a club instead of being inclusive.
If there’s a downside to this approach to songwriting, it’s that it can date the songs. Some of Live Through This is timeless–top song “Violet”, as well as “Doll Parts” and “Miss World” still hold today, but “Olympia” and something like “Plump” are very clearly 1993. This is true of LTT‘s sonic pallet as well; it’s possibly the most self-consciously Grunge album of the grunge era. Hole tempers the hard edged noise of their debut Pretty On the Inside with some Nirvana-style loud and soft dynamics. There’s also an attempt to texture the album with some flanged and chorus affected guitars (the production favors this approach as well), but it hurts the records in most spots by taking away its bite.
While it still has some powerhouse songs on it, as a whole, Live Through This hasn’t aged as well as, say, In Utero. It’s a little too tied to its day to age gracefully, and it’s very front loaded; after “Doll Parts”, my interest dropped sharply. Still, it’s one of the better 3rd wave feminism records put to tape, and it married sheer rage and melody quiet well on occasion. When Hole and Love are finally done forever, will 1994 eclipse anything that came after it? I don’t know, but if Love could live through then, she’s going to be around awhile longer.