The Animal Power of Courtney Love

‘The way she stumbled on stage, with her smeared lips and perfect legs, appeared at once criminally affected and wildly persuasive’

Hole, Live Through This, 1994

Hole, Live Through This, 1994. Courtesy: Triclops Sound Studios

She was the opening act. In fact, it was Hole, her band, that opened for The Lemonheads at the 1993 show I attended, but the stage belonged to Courtney Love. Pushed up to the edge of that stage, I was unprepared for the extremity of her glamour, a sort of animal power I had never seen in a woman – in anyone – up close. The way she stumbled on stage, with her smeared lips and perfect legs, waving a stubby cigarette and croaking nonsense, appeared at once criminally affected and wildly persuasive.

Along with much of the audience, I stood dazed for most of the set, a collective paralysis Love took for apathy, or worse. She hated us and I loved her for it; I hated us, too. The vibe was timid, terminal self-consciousness. Guitar slung across her hips, bleached hair askew, eyeliner pooling, Love’s rage intensified, her scream grew more tubercular. We didn’t know yet it was cool to like them, she spat; they’d come back in a year, when we had caught up. I want to say they played a few cuts from the band’s forthcoming album, recorded the previous month. I know they sounded hellishly good, better than seemed possible. Then in my late teens and drifting around the country, I left the show devastated: if she was for real, I thought, what was I even doing with my life?

For me, Live Through This, Hole’s 1994 album, was a precision strike – the right words, the exact sound, at a time when little seemed to matter more. Twelve songs, each one tighter and more savagely melodic than the next, a feminist manifesto and inadvertent statement of persistence, released a week after the suicide of Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain. Love’s aesthetic, a sort of trashed femininity – half careless, half caring a whole lot – infused lyrics about mothers and witches, pageants and pee girls, shattered bodies and violet skies. Her voice was a warm, congested alto, confiding, accusing, capable of ripping new strata into the upper atmosphere. What was that roar? Where did it come from? I heard it in my spleen. It felt important that it was less a shredded sound than the sound of something that shreds.

Love confounded the punk-rock cognoscenti, with her open embrace of archetype, of money, beauty and power; of being beyond fake. She spoke without guile about her own construction, her hunger for fame; she would not apologize for wanting what the boys had. To love the music, one had to contend with Love, her appetites and unmanageable contradictions, her impossibility and utter realness. She lived to try the patience of purists, to crush precious notions of art and authenticity. In an era of terminal self-consciousness, it was her most brilliant trick.

It seemed to me a lot died with Cobain: Love appeared even then to be the alpha and omega expression of a moment already in flames. Entering university in 1994, I pinned Kurt’s image to my dorm-room wall, but put his records away. It was Hole I listened to, over and over, perhaps sensing the dark season about to begin, from which I either would or would not emerge. I listened in part because Live Through This was the sound of survival, an invitation to look at what was and to wax, rage, call names and carry on. Canny, hapless, awful, sublime, Love drew power from her imperfections, a willingness not only to admit but to mine them. If the effort was fearless, its revelation lay in yielding something perfect.

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life: Essays (2013). She lives in New York, USA.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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