Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | July 9th, 2019 | 24 minutes (6,539 words)
It’s hard to tell whether Thurston Moore is being sarcastic or sincere. It’s probably a bit of both. “The biggest star in this room is Courtney Love,” says the Sonic Youth singer and guitarist in a scene from 1991: The Year Punk Broke. The documentary follows Sonic Youth’s summer 1991 European tour and features performances and backstage antics from their tourmates, including a pre-Nevermind Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, and Dinosaur Jr.
Moore comments during an interview with 120 Minutes, an MTV program that spotlighted alternative music in the days before the music channel became the home of teen moms and spoiled Laguna Beach brats. As Moore declares his love of English food to the host — most definitely sarcasm — Love is behind him trying to get the camera’s attention. She waves and appears to stand on something to make herself taller. Her efforts pay off and soon she is in front of the host, all brazen, blond, and sporting blue baby doll barrettes.
Tongue-in-cheek or not, Moore was right. Love’s band Hole wasn’t on the European tour bill that summer and their debut album Pretty on the Inside hadn’t even been released yet, but Love was already on MTV.
Pretty on the Inside was released in the United States in September 1991, but it would take me a few months to discover it by fluke, plucking it from a random stack of CDs my friend kept in her car. I chose it because the cover art reminded me of a zine and because I really, really could not listen to Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, my friend’s driving soundtrack of choice, one more time. Pretty on the Inside was only chosen for temporary relief from “Rusty Cage” on repeat, but, instead, it changed my life.
In the 2011 documentary Hit So Hard, about the life of Hole drummer Patty Schemel, Love calls Pretty on the Inside “unlistenable,” but that fall it was all I would listen to. The album’s sound was noisy, confrontational, and messy, and I loved it. It felt abrasive, like sandpaper to my 20-year-old ears. Hearing Love scream and snarl felt cathartic. I worked at a restaurant at the time and shouting Is she pretty on the inside? Is she pretty from the back? along with her made the pain of endless soup, salad, and breadsticks go away. It also made my invites for after-shift drinks with coworkers evaporate. They favored prim and proper pop princesses and were uncomfortable with the raw, in-your-face lyrics (You want her on the bed with her legs wide open and her eyes all spread) they heard coming from the crappy dish pit speakers. On the plus side, I started getting my orders much faster since, presumably, the kitchen staff feared I would unleash Courtney-like rage or screams if my pasta primavera took too long.
Hearing Love scream and snarl felt cathartic. I worked at a restaurant at the time and shouting ‘Is she pretty on the inside? Is she pretty from the back?’ along with her made the pain of endless soup, salad, and breadsticks go away.
But it wasn’t just Love’s screams that intrigued me. Her lyrics were intense and confessional (I’ve seen the things you put me through and I, I wish I could die). This was the first time I heard a woman sing about body image, rape, abortion, and self-destruction (She tears the hole up even wider / Lets all the darkness up inside her). Hole’s music was not only groundbreaking, it was honest and real. “I sometimes feel that no one’s taken the time to write about certain things in rock,” Love said in an interview with Melody Maker when the album was released. “There’s a certain female point of view that’s never been given space.”
Pretty on the Inside’s first single, “Teenage Whore,” would go on to reach No. 1 on the U.K. indie chart. The album received positive reviews in The Village Voice, The New Yorker, and Melody Maker, among other outlets. It was also named one of the 20 best albums of the year by Spin. Writing in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Wurtzel described it as “the most compelling album to have been released in 1991,” while Melody Maker’s Sharon O’Connell called it “the very best bit of fucked up rock ’n’ roll” she had heard all year.
The No. 1 song in America the week Pretty on the Inside was released was “Promise of a New Day” by Paula Abdul. The future reality show judge’s plans for her new day definitely didn’t include being a teenage whore so I sidestepped Paula, and Pretty on the Inside became my No. 1. I also settled into my new part-time job, defending Love.
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Years later, this job is still on my résumé, and it’s not without occupational hazards. I have been in many heated arguments about Love. I have been asked to leave at least one party. In my defense, I already had my coat on. Her name appears as the number one item on several lists made by friends of things we don’t discuss because we have moved well beyond an agree-to-disagree truce at this point. I have also had a red Solo cup full of warm gin and tonic thrown at me by a guy who really, really believed Love killed her husband. Not only was he wrong, but it was a waste of perfectly lovely top-shelf gin, which really should not be consumed in frat party glassware in the first place.
Not only have I been a lifelong passionate defender of Love, but I have also been a believer that if CK One–drenched Generation X and the flannel-loving alternative ’90s had a hero it was not, as everyone claims, Kurt Cobain, but instead Courtney Love.
“She’s not supposed to be alive. She’s supposed to be a pretty corpse,” says Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan in the 2006 documentary The Return of Courtney Love. Love not only lived through the ’90s, she clawed her way out from under her husband’s shadow and refused to play the widow role everyone wanted and expected her to. She fought critics, conspiracy theorists, and Cobain lovers, stage diving head first into all of them, and emerging the ultimate survivor. There is nothing more heroic than that.
Not only have I been a lifelong passionate defender of Love, but I have also been a believer that if CK One–drenched Generation X and the flannel-loving alternative ’90s had a hero it was not, as everyone claims, Kurt Cobain, but instead Courtney Love.
Through a combination of resilience, resolve, and reinvention, Love has been a bestselling musician and outspoken front woman, a cultural and feminist icon, a Golden Globe–nominated actress, and an inspiration to girls with guitars everywhere. She subverts the notion of what a female musician should be, how she should look, and how she should act. While male artists are repeatedly celebrated for their ambition, antics, and their addictions, Love is constantly judged for them. Also, a decade that saw the rise of third-wave feminism and a movement like grunge that championed women’s rights and power should have a woman for a spokesperson, rather than a man. It should be Love, not Cobain.
This July, Love turns 55, an age when we start to think about retirement and taking stock of our lives and our accomplishments. In honor of this milestone birthday, let’s celebrate Love’s musical, artistic, and cultural impact. Let’s finally make Love the girl with the most cake.
This year is important for Love, not only because she turns 55, but also because 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of Live Through This, Hole’s breakthrough album. Released on April 12, 1994, the critically-acclaimed album landed on many best of the year lists; including the Village Voice (number one), Rolling Stone (number eight), and Spin (number one). Being included among bestselling albums from Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden proved Love could compete with the grunge male heavyweights of the day. Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 greatest grunge albums has Live Through This at number four, with Hole being the only band featuring a woman (let alone three) in the top 10. A 2016 issue of British music magazine Q celebrated the 25th anniversary of grunge with a list of the 25 most influential grunge albums. The list includes Live Through This at number 23, the only entry from a band featuring women.
Despite what nostalgia, best of lists, and the New York Times might tell you, ’90s alternative culture was not always so progressive and accepting. Success was still largely a male-dominated field and being angry and angsty was allowed — and even celebrated — if you were Trent or Eddie, but not so much if you were Courtney. If you were a lady and wanted to be angsty they made Lilith Fair for that. “While our culture admires the angry young man, who is perceived as heroic and sexy, it can’t find anything but scorn for the angry young woman, who is seen as emasculating and bitter,” said Kim France, paraphrasing Susan Faludi in a 1996 New York magazine piece on the new breed of angry women rockers that included PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, and women-fronted bands like Veruca Salt.
If you were a lady and wanted to be angsty they made Lilith Fair for that.
For critics who doubted Love’s talent and viewed her as nothing more than a gold digger or a groupie, seeing her compete with, and have success alongside, Eddie Vedder, Beck, and Trent Reznor, as well as Cobain, gave her and Hole currency. For me, it provided inspiration and hope. Hole is one of only seven bands featuring women on Rolling Stone’s list of the 40 best albums of 1994, and I remember how excited I was to see them in the top 10. My excitement was somewhat short lived when I discovered Rolling Stone was happy to reward the success of a woman with a tired sexist treatment. The magazine’s review spends most of its word count talking about Love’s famous husband.
Although regarded as more pop than punk, Live Through This is the album that gave us some of the band’s best songs, including “Violet” (a personal favorite); “Miss World,” the first single from the album; and “Doll Parts.” Live Through This continued the feminist themes Love first explored on Pretty on the Inside, and while she was still angry, her screaming was a little more radio-friendly now.
Despite the mainstream appeal of Live Through This, Love remained the punk powerhouse she always was. I remember seeing the video for “Miss World” for the first time on MTV. It features Love as a pageant contestant in her fancy tiara and satin ball gown, but singing the very unbeauty queen lyrics, Somebody kill me, kill me pills. Part live performance, Love can be seen aggressively playing her guitar and at the end of the video she stage dives into the crowd something pop princesses like Mariah Carey definitely weren’t doing on MTV at the time (both the diving and the playing of actual instruments).
“That’s why a band like Hole was so important, because they were in the mainstream. A figure like Courtney Love and an album like this provided a way into things that were more difficult to access,” said Anwen Crawford in an interview about her 33 1/3 book devoted to Live Through This.
The cover art for Live Through This shows a photo of a beauty queen complete with a crown and feathered blonde hair, but mascara running down her face. Rather than a polite, camera friendly smile, her mouth is wide open (in my mind she is letting out a “fuck you” to the photographer). Controversies and critics who only see her vulgarity often overshadow the feminist aspects of Love and her work. Throughout her career she has challenged traditional notions of femininity and the Live Through This cover is a perfect example. Love has taken a conventional symbol of femininity (the beauty queen) and deconstructed it, showing both the beauty and the ugliness of the image. Behind the beauty queen is the pain of what it took her to get there and her running eye makeup is the crack in her surface as that pain starts to manifest.
Controversies and critics who only see her vulgarity often overshadow the feminist aspects of Love and her work. Throughout her career she has challenged traditional notions of femininity and the ‘Live Through This’ cover is a perfect example.
In the early ’90s, Love and Hole were often lumped in with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and the riot grrrl scene underway in Olympia, Washington. While Pretty on the Inside could have easily been mistaken for a riot grrrl album, the similarities ended there. “Hole had a lot of teenage fans, but Courtney was a good decade older than most of the riot grrrls. The kinds of things she was interested in as a songwriter had a different emphasis, and the things she was interested in as a feminist, too. Courtney was a mess. She was fine with being a mess, and there was no resolution or happy ending for a band like Hole. [The riot grrrls’] music was just as volatile and challenging, but they were ultimately interested in a moral and ethical transformation. Hole was not,” said Crawford.
Love has often had an uneasy relationship with the riot grrrl movement. She liked the music, but didn’t want the politics. “‘Don’t do it! Sellout!’ Girls were throwing riot grrrl zines at me and stuff. I was like ‘Uh, I’m really glad you’re here, girls, but check it out: I can write a bridge now,’” she told Rolling Stone in 1993 of the backlash around Hole’s more pop sound.
Riot grrrls didn’t want mainstream success, and Love did. When media attention and misconceptions became too much, the riot grrrls declared a media blackout. The only thing harder to imagine than Love boycotting the media is her quitting Twitter. Her lack of desire to align herself with riot grrrl and her lack of an Evergreen College education may be the reason some have trouble seeing her as a feminist, viewing her as more opposition than ally, more brashmobile than bratmobile. “I am a feminist and I’ve always thought of myself as a feminist. What I don’t like about feminism and the far left in general is the infighting, the way that the far left infights too much to get anything done and I feel like in feminism it’s like, ‘well, she’s not really feminist enough’ and there can be this kind of less-than thing in feminism,” Love said in a 2016 interview for the Liberatum Women in Creativity series.
From her songwriting themes to her influence on young female musicians to how she smashed the stereotypes of how a front woman should act, Love is definitely feminist enough.
Live Through This was supposed to provide Love an opportunity to step out from her famous husband’s shadow. “It’s annoying now, and it’s been annoying for nine years, Love said in a 1999 Jane Magazine interview of always being connected to Cobain. Released four days after Cobain’s body was found, the album’s promotion was put on hold. Rather than retreat from the public eye, Love openly mourned and helped fans of Cobain and Nirvana make sense of the singer’s death. She sat with grieving teenagers gathered outside the couple’s Seattle home and recorded a reading of parts of his suicide note that was played at the singer’s memorial that gathered near the Space Needle. In the days following his death, Love showed a very raw and emotional side and admitted that, like many fans, she didn’t have all the answers.
It was, and still is, impossible for people to discuss Live Through This without noting the irony of the album’s title. Love has said the name was not a prediction at all, but instead a reflection of all she had endured in the months leading up to its release, including a very public custody fight with the Los Angeles Department of Family Services over daughter Frances Bean. Rumors suggested that Cobain had written much of Live Through This (it’s Miss World, not Mister, just FYI). “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,’” was Love’s response to critics in Spin’s oral history of Live Through This. Love and Cobain often shared notebooks and lyrics with each other, and while there is talk of Cobain’s influence on Love’s work, or the writing of all of it, less is mentioned in the press of her impact on his lyrics and music. Rather than sucking all the life out of Nirvana or threatening the success of the band, like many assumed she would do, she inspired Cobain. Fun fact: In Utero, Nirvana’s last album, was named for a line from one of Love’s poems.
Sadly, songwriting rumors would be replaced by other rumors. Women are often vilified and condemned for the deaths of their male partners. Love, like all women, was supposed to save her partner from death and addiction. Fans of Cobain projected all their anger and resentment over the loss of the Nirvana front man onto Love, and soon she was blamed for not only his addiction but also his death. There are even two movies devoted to the theory that Courtney killed Kurt: the awful Soaked in Bleach (2015) and the equally awful Kurt & Courtney (1998). If you think we’ve come a long way, baby, sadly we haven’t.
One year after Anthony Bourdain’s death, Asia Argento is still being blamed, and in September Ariana Grande had to take a break from social media after fans blamed her for the death of her ex Mac Miller. A few months later, she would be blamed for new beau Pete Davidson’s mental health and addiction issues. It’s amazing she finds the time to write hit songs what with all the dude destruction she has going on. When women are not being blamed for the deaths of the men in their lives, they are being attacked for not grieving properly. “She wasn’t crying. She’s got $30 million coming to her. Do you blame her for being so cool?” a hospital staffer said of Yoko Ono following John Lennon’s murder in 1980.
About four months after Cobain’s death, Love went on tour to promote her new album. Some questioned and judged why she would go on tour so soon, but Love has said it was a necessity. She had a young daughter to support. She needed to work. She also, sadly, still needed to prove herself. “I would like to think that I’m not getting the sympathy vote, and the only way to do that is to prove that what I’ve got is real,” Love told Rolling Stone in 1994. Not only did Cobain’s death overshadow the album, but it also meant Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s death two months later received significantly less attention than it should have.
Twenty-five years later, Cobain’s death still hangs over Live Through This. In the days leading up to the anniversary of Cobain’s death, former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur wrote an open letter to music magazine Kerrang saying she “would not stand for Kurt’s death overshadowing the life and work of the women he left behind this year.”
“We were extremely well designed for each other,” Love has said of her relationship with Cobain. In a letter reprinted in Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love, she calls him “my everything. the top half on my fraction.” The two had similar upbringings, both came from broken homes and spent childhoods shuttling between relatives and friends. They both grew up longing for love and acceptance. When we tell the story of Kurt and Courtney we talk about drugs and destruction, but we don’t talk enough about love.
The two also shared an intense drive and ambition. “I didn’t want to marry a rock star, I wanted to be one,” Love said in a 1992 Sassy interview. Evidence of her drive can be found in the many notes and to-do lists she kept, some of which are collected in Dirty Blonde. There are reminders to send her acting résumé to agencies, to write three to four new songs a week, to “achieve L.A. visibility.” A scene in the documentary Kurt & Courtney features an ex of Love’s reading from one of her to-do lists, which has “become friends with Michael Stipe” as the number one task to complete (not only did Love do this, but he is her daughter’s godfather). This ambition is not surprising from a woman who, when she was younger, mailed a tape of herself singing to Neil Sedaka in hopes of getting signed. Love knew what she wanted at an early age, and what she wanted was fame.
A shrewd businesswoman, her negotiating skills saw Live Through This launch the first-ever major label bidding war for a female-fronted band, and Hole’s seven-album contract earned the band an advance in excess of a million dollars and more royalties than Nirvana. She was certainly living by the “do not hurt yourself, destroy yourself, mangle yourself to get the football captain. Be the football captain!” motto she championed in the 1995 documentary Not Bad for a Girl. Ambition is often a dirty word when it is used to describe women and Love is no exception. She has been repeatedly described as calculating and controlling when she should be rewarded for her blond ambition and viewed as an inspiration. Critics and the press often call her a gold digger who only married Cobain for fame and money. They fail to mention that when the two met Pretty on the Inside was actually selling more copies than Bleach, Nirvana’s debut album. Even post-Kurt, Love’s intentions were always under scrutiny. On the Today Show to do press for The People vs. Larry Flynt, Love refused to talk about her past drug use, despite the host’s repeated questions, saying the topic was not an appropriate fit for the show’s demographic. She was right, but it didn’t stop a writer from describing the move as “calculating” in a 1998 Spin piece.
A shrewd businesswoman, her negotiating skills saw Live Through This launch the first-ever major label bidding war for a female-fronted band, and Hole’s seven-album contract earned the band an advance in excess of a million dollars and more royalties than Nirvana.
Cobain was ambitious too; he was just much slyer and more secretive about it. He was known to call his manager and complain when MTV didn’t play Nirvana’s videos enough, and he would correct journalists who misquoted the band’s sales figures in interviews. While success is typically celebrated and rewarded for men and it certainly was for Cobain, he also had to be mindful of the slacker generation that loved Nirvana and greeted success — and especially mainstream success — with oh, well, whatever, nevermind.
Love spent two years on the rock stage promoting Live Through This, and in 1996 she turned her attention (back) to a different stage. She traded her signature baby doll dresses for ball gowns and transformed herself into a Hollywood movie star. Name-checking musicians was replaced by mentioning famous actor friends and directors she wanted to work with. A Jane Magazine cover story on Love reveals that “at her first show at the Roseland Ballroom, Courtney drops the names of Cameron Diaz and Matt Dillon. … During the next five days she goes on to mention Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck and Drew Barrymore during concerts and TV interviews.” Photos from the time show Love hanging out with Barrymore, Winona Ryder, and Kate Moss. Love also traded rock star boyfriends for actor Edward Norton. She became a staple on Hollywood red carpets and best dressed lists as people talked about her new movie star image. Gone were smeared lipstick and tattered tights, fashion choices that definitely wouldn’t appeal to the mainstream moviegoing public Love was now courting.
Even though Love’s appearance is often judged, her influence on fashion has always been downplayed. In the ’90s, her baby doll dresses, barrettes, and Mary Janes were a subversive fashion statement with the kinderwhore aesthetic being one of the defining styles of the decade. Kinderwhore again saw Love challenging traditional notions of femininity by taking baby doll dresses and knee socks, typically good girl, childlike elements of fashion and turning them on their barrette-adorned head. There was Love commanding the stage wearing a Peter Pan collar dress and Mary Janes, but singing Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to. In 1994, I worked at a bank and was often written up for unprofessional dress. When I told the boss it was the kinderwhore look he told me to dress like a reform school 6-year-old on my own time. Fair enough.
Kinderwhore again saw Love challenging traditional notions of femininity by taking baby doll dresses and knee socks, typically good girl, childlike elements of fashion and turning them on their barrette-adorned head.
Love’s cleaned-up image and movie star transformation were called her second act, the age of New Courtney. “It becomes clear that you are in the presence of a new Courtney Love — one who often bears little resemblance to the punk provocateur normally on display,” a 1997 Telegraph piece proclaimed. Love starred in five films between 1996 and 1999, including Feeling Minnesota and 200 Cigarettes, but her biggest role was playing Althea Flynt in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. Love worked hard to get the part, and the performance earned her Oscar buzz, a Golden Globe nomination, and other accolades. “Love proves she is not a rock star pretending to act, but a true actress,” said Roger Ebert in his review.
During the age of New Courtney, Hole developed a more mainstream sound, releasing Celebrity Skin in 1998. The band’s normally subversive cover art was replaced with a boring generic shot of the four band members with something burning behind them (maybe their punk cred?). The album was dedicated to Los Angeles, fitting given the city is often associated with reinvention, and Love was in the process of her own rebirth. Writing in The New Yorker on the 20th anniversary of the album, Naomi Fry said that the reinvention took “Love from a chaotic, thrift-store-wearing avatar of the grunge era to a kempt, Versace-gown-clad star, and that makeover continued into the studio: in many ways, Hole’s third album smoothed the band’s difficult, discordant rock into something more commercially palatable.” Not only was the singer earning awards for her acting, but Celebrity Skin earned Hole its first No. 1 single for the album’s title track. It topped the year’s best-of lists and was nominated for four Grammys.
But critics remained skeptical of Love’s transformation and refused to let the old Courtney go. In interviews she was still asked about drugs, about Cobain’s death, and about the tabloid fodder aspects of her life. Instead of focussing on her acting, a 1995 Barbara Walters interview with Love begins with Walters asking her if she is on heroin. Love’s past, misogyny, and the skeptics kept her from ever being fully embraced by Hollywood, meaning she was once again an outsider, just as she had been with the riot grrrls and as the most infamous grunge girl.
Instead of celebrating Love for her reinvention, her second act was always questioned, picked apart, and greeted with distrust. “Once an icon of uncompromising female rage, she now seemed grasping and shallow, hungering for fame and acceptance as a movie star, putting on designer gowns to attend the Academy Awards and posing for Richard Avedon ads for Versace. Was she anything more than just desperately ambitious?” said writer Philip Weiss in a 1998 Spin cover story on Love.
Instead of celebrating Love for her reinvention, her second act was always questioned, picked apart, and greeted with distrust.
Love was not allowed to exist outside the widow, train wreck, fucked-up front woman narrative others had created for her. The world would not accept or trust Love as both an actress and a rock star, even though we never question when men pursue both. Will Smith started the ’90s moving in with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air and ended the decade in the Wild Wild West, with two successful albums in between, but there was no way Love was going to start the decade with Pretty on the Inside and end it pretty on the outside in Versace.
Love’s acting ambitions were described as calculated, even though she had been acting for a long time, including an audition for The Mickey Mouse Club under the name Coco Rodriquez when she was young. “I tried out for The Mickey Mouse Club when I was 11. But I read a Sylvia Plath poem about incest, so that wasn’t really flying with Disney,” she said of her first acting audition. Ten years before The People vs. Larry Flynt, Love starred as Gretchen in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, after initially auditioning for the role of Nancy Spungen. Cox was so impressed with Love and with her on-screen presence, despite her being in only a handful of scenes in the movie, that he made her the lead in his next film, Straight to Hell. These two performances led to Love being a New York celebutante of sorts in the late ’80s. She appears in a February 1987 piece in Interview magazine and also in a 1987 segment of Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes, where host Debbie Harry calls Love “a flamboyant rising new star.” Her acting career and accolades were not a calculated public relations makeover, as some suspected. Love had, in fact, always been an actress, saying she wanted to act since seeing 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal win the Oscar for Paper Moon. She started doing commercials and youth theatre, telling the Los Angeles Times, “I owned the Pacific Northwest when it came to the children’s slot in radio jingles and voice-overs.”
What she hadn’t wanted to be was a tabloid headline. Drama and dysfunction have often obscured Love’s talent and accomplishments. She was the original tabloid target: Her legal troubles and addiction issues coincided with the rise of tabloid journalism, the birth of TMZ, and the popularity of celebrity gossip blogs. Love was the first female star of the ’90s to have her personal life judged and picked apart and her self-destruction be a regular part of the around-the-clock news cycle. This set the tone for how tabloids cover the lives and exploits of so-called troubled female celebrities from Lindsay Lohan to Amy Winehouse to Britney Spears. Their work, talent, and art are always overshadowed by coverage that focuses on drugs, mental health issues, and arrests, or they are reduced to punchlines.
While female celebrities like Love are criticized for their rebellion, male celebrities, like Cobain for example, are celebrated and mythologized for it. Cobain and Love both struggled with addiction, but it is Love who is repeatedly vilified for her drug use. “She was vilified for being a mess, for being a drug addict, for not being a great parent — in other words, all of the things we expect in a male rock star,” said Bust magazine in a piece in the magazine’s 20th anniversary issue, which featured Love on the cover.
We make jokes about the drug antics of male celebrities from Keith Richards to Charlie Sheen, idolizing their debauchery and depravity. The new Netflix/Lifetime movie by Jack Daniels, The Dirt, about Mötley Crüe, takes the band’s excesses to almost comic levels. Check out crazy tourmate Ozzy Osbourne snorting a line of ants by a hotel pool! Such zany antics! I would love to see Lindsay Lohan try to get away with that. We never allow women to live down their arrests and their addictions, but we repeatedly allow men to have a redemption arc. Robert Downey Jr. was in and out of jail and on and off drugs for much of the mid to late ’90s, but we rarely, if ever, talk about his past.
When Love isn’t being attacked for her addiction issues, she is being judged for her parenting. Love’s first unflattering press was “Strange Love,” the much publicized 1992 Vanity Fair profile by Lynn Hirschberg. While the piece talks at length about Love’s drug use and constantly questions her parenting ability, it doesn’t paint Cobain in the same light. “It is appalling to think that she would be taking drugs when she knew she was pregnant,” says one close friend in the piece. Hirschberg relies on many unnamed sources and focuses often on the tabloid-like aspects of Love’s life and addictions. “Courtney has a long history with drugs. She loves Percodans (‘They make me vacuum’), and has dabbled with heroin off and on since she was eighteen, once even snorting it in Room 101 of the Chelsea Hotel, where Nancy Spungen died,” she writes. “Reportedly, Kurt didn’t do much more than drink until he met Courtney.”
This double standard was common in coverage of the couple. In Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the 2015 documentary by Brett Morgen, Love asks her husband, “Why does everyone think you’re the good one and I’m the bad one?” Later in the film we see a scene of Frances Bean’s first haircut. The child sits on Cobain’s lap while Love searches for a comb and scissors. The camera shows Cobain nodding off, and while he maintains that he is just tired, it’s clear he’s not. The scene is painful to watch, especially because those around Cobain carry on like nothing in wrong, giving the feeling this is just like any other day in the Love-Cobain household. The scene is a reminder of how the press treated Cobain’s addiction when he was alive. They just carried on like nothing was wrong, instead directing all their judgement at Love.
This year Love’s first solo album America’s Sweetheart turns 15. Released on February 10, 2004, it was a disappointment for Love, selling fewer than 100,000 copies and receiving mostly negative reviews. In 2010, Love released Nobody’s Daughter with a revamped Hole, which was greeted with mixed reviews. She has also branched out from music over the past few years, and her influence on pop culture shows no signs of letting up. She released her diaries in book form as Dirty Blonde in 2006, mounted an art show called “And She’s Not Even Pretty,” collaborated on a fashion line called Never the Bride, became the face of Yves St. Laurent, has been a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and cowrote a manga series. She has a bit part in the film JT LeRoy, which is currently in theatres, and she has appeared on television, with roles on Empire, Sons of Anarchy, and as Kitty Menendez in the Lifetime movie devoted to the murders by the Menendez brothers.
Each time Love stars on a television show, appears in a movie, or releases a new album, headlines proclaim “the return of Courtney Love,” even though she has never gone anywhere. She has always been here, but it is as if the media and critics want her to prove herself all over again. When men retreat from the spotlight or take a break from making art, there is no comeback narrative. Even if the media does declare a “new Courtney Love,” in my mind, they still never let Love escape the old Courtney. They are always skeptical, always distrusting, always assuming she is on drugs. They will never really let Love have her second (or third, or fourth) act. As I write this, there’s news that Mel Gibson who is antisemitic, homophobic, abusive to women, and once called a female police officer “sugar tits” after being pulled over for DUI, has been cast in a new movie. Called Rothchild, the movie also stars Shia LaBeouf, who has had his own issues with arrests and alcohol, as well as bizarre behaviour involving live heart beats and paper bags. I originally thought this casting announcement was an Onion story. I can’t wait for the new buddy movie starring Lindsay Lohan and Courtney Love. Maybe they can do a remake of Weekend at Bernie’s and the corpse can be played by the image the media has of both female stars’ careers.
Hole was one of the most popular and successful female-fronted bands of the ’90s and when we discuss Love’s cultural impact, we can’t underestimate the influence she has had on female musicians, this author included. “I want every girl in the world to pick up a guitar and start screaming,” she said in a 1996 interview. She has been name-checked for her role in inspiring young female musicians from Alanis Morissette to Lana Del Rey.
“I saw Courtney Love playing guitar on MTV in the ‘Doll Parts’ video and I immediately was like, ‘I can do that.’ I hadn’t seen any other women on TV making music before, so I didn’t even realize it was possible,” said War on Women front woman Shawna Potter in a 2017 New York Times piece on rock being ruled by women (apparently a new thing).
Love has always been a great front woman, although she prefers to be called a front man, rebelling against the idea of how a woman onstage should act. She is not afraid to take up space. As in life, she is outspoken, she is unpredictable, she is messy, and she is raw. She will not stand politely before you quietly strumming her guitar or do a choreographed dance dressed like a giant cupcake, even though I would pay very good money to see that. If she did, the icing would probably be running down her face like the mascara on the Live Through This cover. Male musicians are allowed, and expected, to wail and scream onstage and, Love has always showed that she could give as good as her male counterparts.
As in life, she is outspoken, she is unpredictable, she is messy, and she is raw.
Her live shows are often unpredictable, but the spectacle should never replace the song. When I saw Love perform in Toronto in 2013, the people beside me complained throughout the entire show, and at an unacceptable volume, that Love didn’t throw a microphone stand into the crowd or verbally assault the entire front row. It’s too bad that their complaining made them miss a great show. One of them was wearing a Cobain shirt, which deserves a verbal assault.
When Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell died in 2017, articles mourned the loss and talked about how Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam was the last grunge hero standing. Love deserves the title much more than Vedder, for all she has endured, for her strength and for her musical and film contributions. Male musicians can write pro choice on their arms with felt markers all they want, but grunge has never fully acknowledged or accepted the contributions of women and female musicians, so the Vedder pronouncement was no surprise.
Love has always been an outsider, whether it be from her family, from the male-dominated Seattle scene, from riot grrrls, or from Hollywood. But it is this status that makes Love the ultimate spokesperson for a generation that wanted to exist in the margins. With a career that has spanned decades, she is a survivor, despite all of those who bet on her self-destruction. If we acknowledge that the alternative movement of the ’90s began when Pretty on the Inside was released and was wrapped up by the time Celebrity Skin was replaced by boy bands and Britney, then Love was not only the girl with the most cake, but the last one standing.
Her birthday aside, this year seems like the perfect time to celebrate Love. The girl culture of the ’90s is back. Bikini Kill is on tour this year and playing to sold-out crowds. The New York Times recently published a piece asking the question, “What was, or is, riot grrrl? A movement, a genre, an era, a scene?” Her Smell, a movie starring Elisabeth Moss as a very thinly veiled Courtney Love is in theaters, and new memoirs from Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair are being released this year.
So, on this her 55th birthday, may Love be what she always has been and always should be, the girl with the most cake. Happy birthday, Courtney.
Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine. Her writing about arts, pop culture, feminism, mental health, and why we should all be nicer to Lindsay Lohan has appeared in a variety of Canadian magazines. She is currently working on a book about the band Cub to be published by Invisible Publishing.