Courtney Love Is Way More of a Pioneer than People Still Like to Admit
Once you scrub away the venom projected onto her, you're left with a string of undeniably influential albums.
"I've seen your repulsion and it looks good on you / denying what, what you put me through." These are Courtney Love's snarling words on "Teenage Whore," the first official single from Hole's 1991 debut album Pretty On the Inside. At the time, I'm sure the line sounded defiant. But today, it feels even more so. Delivered between spiky, unhinged riffs and vocals that are spat out like bitter-tasting fruit, Courtney's words sound like a wry "fuck you" to all of her then-detractors, as well the ones that would emerge in the future.
I first discovered Courtney Love when I was at that pinnacle of all ages: 13. While all my friends were obsessively learning the chords to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and saving up to buy Fruit of the Loom Nirvana T-shirts from Camden Market, I was more interested in the woman who always seemed to be mentioned within the same breath as Kurt, but stood just behind. With her knotted tangle of bleached hair, messily applied red lipstick and dirty-looking babydoll dresses, Courtney looked as if she'd accidentally tumbled off another planet when she was wasted and was now stuck on this one, with a hangover. And while Nirvana were masters at taking pop melodies and making them sound bleak, brutal and beautiful, Courtney seemed to disregard melody entirely—particularly on Hole's Pretty on the Inside—instead zeroing in on raw emotions and hurling them at the sky, like a wolf howling at the full moon. To me, that was far more compelling to listen to.
Over the years, though, people have relished chatting shit about Courtney Love. While Kurt Cobain has long been heralded as an icon of our times, Courtney has been painted as a villain, arguably for the exact same reasons. Her history of drug addiction has been scrutinized, her abilities as a mother questioned, her erratic public behavior ridiculed and her marriage to Kurt and even his subsequent death treated as proof that she's nothing more than a wilful opportunist. She's done everything that male musicians are often romanticized and celebrated for, but instead she's been painted by the media as a kind of one-dimensional, psychopathic caricature. Always wild, forever unruly and stubbornly unapologetic for it, Courtney's mere existence has proved divisive, her and Hole's musical output often falling by the wayside in the process.
But once you scrub away all the venom, what you're left with is a string of undeniably pioneering albums. Pretty on the Inside has been described by herself as "unlistenable," but it's one of Hole's most interesting and influential creations to date. Whether she's screaming about "spreading her rot" all over the town (on "Garbadge Man") or gurgling about wanting people to suck her scars (on "Loaded") or screeching the word "ugly" over and over again (on the album's title track) she voices the way Hole take traditional notions of womanhood—and by extension "beauty"—and contort them into ugly, uncomfortable shapes. Forever darting between brutality and vulnerability, aggression and sexuality, the album redefines and fucks with the whole concept of femininity by creating a collage of contradictions. She is saying: try and put me into a box, I dare you.
In the years following Pretty on the Inside, Courtney and her band co-writers stepped away from the sloppy punk sound that defined their earlier stuff and plunged into more hook-driven grunge territory—but that doesn't mean she was any less subversive. Live Through This—Hole's obscenely good second album—is like a masterclass in rage and female grief. "Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to," Courtney yowls in "Violet" using the sort of furious tone you might reserve for an ex while lobbing all the shit you bought for them out the window. Through the band's music, Courtney has a remarkable ability to unveil layers upon layers of herself with every listen, with some songs so tender they could crush you ("Doll Parts") and others so brittle with grief they make you want to curl into a ball ("Gutless").
Predictably, a lot of people would point to the genius of that second album as being the secret work of Kurt Cobain—but just as predictably, Courtney shut those people down. "I wanted to better than Kurt. I was really competing with Kurt," she later told Spin. "And that's why it always offends me when people would say, 'Oh, he wrote Live Through This.' I'd be proud as hell to say that he wrote something on it, but I wouldn't let him. It was too Yoko for me. It's like, 'No fucking way, man! I've got a good band, I don't fucking need your help'."
I could continue describing all the ways Courtney Love's music—both in Hole and as a solo artist—dug its fingernails into society and refused to let go, but you only need to look around to see the effect she's had on pop culture over the years. Whether it's Brody Dalle screaming like a cat warning off its neighbors as part of The Distillers, or Sky Ferreira forever toying with the duel concepts of vulnerability and power in her music, or Lana Del Rey singing inward-looking ballads about how fucked up Hollywood decadence can be, the world Courtney created has seeped so deeply into the blood of what we listen to, it's easy to forget it's even there. "When I first fell in love with Live Through This, I read Love's lyrics over and over," Mish Way from White Lung told Flavorwire, "Not only did Hole and Courtney Love heavily influence me as a teenager, but Love herself introduced me to many bands I never would have found without her guidance. The woman was always throwing down references and other bands, name-dropping constantly, but she gave me a map."
I might not be a musician, but Courtney Love has influenced me in more personal, day-to-day ways. A few weeks before her 53rd birthday, I witnessed the queen in the flesh in May when she DJed and performed at a tiny venue in east London. I don't know what I expected, but as she stood alone in front of the crowd sang a warm, gentle rendition of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" (the band's frontman and her friend Chris Cornell had passed away the day prior) the idea that this was the same woman people spoke about like they would a particularly toxic substance seemed ludicrous. Maybe she's mellowed out in recent years. Or, more likely, maybe people simply find it deeply uncomfortable when a woman continuously refuses to prescribe to preconceived notions of how she's "supposed" to behave—and there's obviously an immense power in that.
Often I will find myself becoming overwhelmed thinking back on all the embarrassing things I've ever done, of all the people I may have offended over the years, of all the times I spoke too aggressively, acted too strangely or did something that made people wince or feel awkward. And often, during those quiet, spiralling moments that usually happen late at night (why is it always late at night?), I will think of Courtney Love and whether she'd genuinely give a fuck. And if the answer is no—which it always is—that anxiety tends to dissipate. She makes me want to live more freely, every day, and I can't help but think she's probably done the same thing for generations of people who were taught to be quiet but wanted to be loud.
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