How to love Courtney Love

Author Anwen Crawford on the potential redemption of grunge’s persona non grata, Courtney Love, and her one undeniable triumph

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Courtney Love sings at the Cannes Lions 2014, 61st International Advertising Festival in Cannes, southern France, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. (Lionel Cironneau/AP Photo)
Courtney Love sings at the Cannes Lions 2014, 61st International Advertising Festival in Cannes, southern France, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. (Lionel Cironneau/AP Photo)

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Last month, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon had not yet released her memoir, Girl in a Band, and already the first headlines trumpeting excerpts from the book focused on harsh words for Courtney Love. Spin magazine: “Kim Gordon calls Courtney Love ‘mentally ill.’ ” Pitchfork: “Kim Gordon trashes Courtney Love.” When one of rock’s greatest feminists writes a memoir, it seems everyone wants a catfight. (The book was released on Tuesday.)

Love, of course, is the other highest-profile woman of the grunge era— the widow of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and bandleader of Hole—but she has been persona non grata ever since, due to both her own erratic behaviour and sexist theories that blame her for her husband’s suicide. Last month, after receiving raves in an off-Broadway play and landing a role in the new Fox series Empire, Love may have come two steps closer to redemption. Meanwhile, Australian journalist Anwen Crawford has just published a fascinating and convincing book-length essay celebrating Love’s one undeniable triumph, Hole’s 1994 album Live Through This. She spoke to Maclean’s from her home in Sydney.

Q: Live Through This, if it’s thought of at all today, is considered a relic of the 1990s. It was very much a zeitgeist album, one that resonated for so many reasons. And yet I’ll admit that I hadn’t listened to it in, oh, 18 years. Was it on your playlist in the last 20 years?

A: Definitely. It was really the same for most of the fans I interviewed. It was one of those albums from that time that people really stuck with. I’ve never left it behind, the way you do with some albums you love as a teenager.

Q: The culture wars of today are the same ones we were in 20 years ago: domestic violence, access to abortion, sexual assault, redefining family values.

A: The kind of provocations that Courtney Love offered as a cultural figure are still with us. Not only because she is still with us, but because we’re still arguing about the same things that were brought to bear by Hole.

Q: I can’t imagine an album like this existing today, for so many reasons, starting with the fragmentation of the mainstream.

A: I thought about that. This album and the circus around Hole and Nirvana, that was all happening immediately before the Internet. 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—things like riot grrrl. That was something I’d heard about, but really only in the vaguest sense through magazines like Rolling Stone. There were no riot grrrl chapter groups where I grew up [in Australia]. It was an idea more than a reality: which I think was good. That was the power of riot grrrl. You could take the words and run with them and make what you would out of it.

Q: The riot grrrls were reluctant to engage with the media, so that made it more mysterious. Whereas Courtney—who had a very complicated relationship with riot grrrls, to say the least—wanted as much media exposure as possible.

A: That’s right, the riot grrrls had a self-imposed media ban. The fact that a woman like Courtney was everywhere was really powerful as a crossover act. Nirvana is interesting for the same reason. Later, Radiohead was also interesting for bridging rock’n’roll with experimental dance music. Those bands have interesting functions. To quote the old Magazine song, they get shot by both sides, because the underground hates them for selling out and the mainstream thinks they’re wankers. There’s no winning for those artists at the time. But in the long term, their function and legacy is really important. Hole is a way into so much feminist theory and art-making that was otherwise difficult to access.

Q: Has there been anyone in the mainstream even remotely like Courtney Love since, either lyrically or as a personality? Lady Gaga?

A: I remember seeing a show the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played here in Australia. They played at this little venue in Sydney. [Singer] Karen O was on fire. It was off-script and wild in that way you don’t often see anymore. You mention Lady Gaga: Bad Romance struck me at the time as having the same ugliness to it; she’s playing with the same themes lyrically and visually. I’m equally impressed by Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé. When Beyoncé did her big VMA thing last year and had her moment with the word “feminist” and was given the award with her husband and her child there, I genuinely got teary. Part of my reaction was thinking that this was the moment Courtney never had. She never had the world acknowledge her and say, yes, you are amazing, with her husband and her child at her side.

Q: Jay Z and Beyoncé are the only power couple in music that are remotely comparable to Kurt and Courtney. But everything about those two is incredibly scripted and controlled; there are a lot of reasons that moment happened for them and not for Kurt and Courtney.

A: That’s true. I thought that last Beyoncé album was amazing. It’s an unusual record in that a lot of is about motherhood and a woman’s sexual life after motherhood. That’s still a pretty radical gesture in popular music. Courtney did it with Live Through This, but you’re right, the atmosphere around that couple is very different. No one was in charge of Kurt and Courtney. It was clear at the time and it’s even more clear in retrospect that things were very chaotic for them. We love talking about the wild, out-of-control rock’n’roll romances, but in the case of Kurt and Courtney or Sid and Nancy, those ended in tragedy.

Q: I’m hard-pressed to think of any artists that a) talk about motherhood at all, but b) talk about in a way that’s terrifying. We all agree it’s a beautiful thing, but nobody talks about post-partum depression, nobody talks about horrible thoughts people have about their own children, parents who are conflicted in their role. Those things are still the biggest taboo.

A: They are. Particularly toward the end of Beyoncé’s album, [it is] a pretty sentimental view of motherhood. What Courtney did with Live Through This is not sentimental at all. I think what she did with that record was to deliberately tackle the accusations levelled against her. She didn’t deny them; she took on the taboo of the bad mother and threw it back in people’s faces. She played with the sense of monstrosity. Still, I feel like it’s her defining reputation. When I mention her to people, nine out of 10 times the first thing that comes up is a reference to her perceived failure as a mother.

Q: And a widow.

A: Yes, that’s still the defining narrative. Sonically, as much as anything else, Live Through This is audacious and brave in the way it deals with motherhood as a topic. So many of those lyrics take on the way in which motherhood alienates a woman from her own body. You can draw parallels there to girls going through puberty, which is another reason why people connected with the record so deeply. You have no agency and control over your own body, or what other people are going to say about it.

Q: Most people understood when Kurt was being sarcastic. Yet everyone took Courtney literally—so apparently not only can women not be tough, ambitious or talented, they can’t even be funny. Which is why a line like “I don’t do the dishes, I throw them in the crib” rattles so many cages.

A: She was very funny! And sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. But there are plenty of people who would read it and take it literally and not give her the credit for being self-reflexive and insightful as she was. She always did everything with a knowing wink that few people were willing to recognize.

Q: What do you make of the acrimonious relationship between Love and the riot grrrls? At the very least, whether either side would want to admit it, Hole was a gateway drug for many into riot grrrl.

A: What’s easy to forget is the age difference between Courtney Love and the riot grrrls. One of the great powers of riot grrrl was that it was very much a movement by teenage girls for teenage girls. 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. That has a lot to do with why Courtney Love wound people up: she was an adult woman with a lot of life experience, a lot of sexual experience, and at the same time she offered all these provocations, lyrically and otherwise. I think people just found that too much. Riot grrrl was easier, in a sense, for people to write off or ignore as the silliness of teenage girls—which is ridiculous and sexist in its own right.

Related: The return of the riot grrrl

Q: That’s why the song Olympia is so funny, right down to the rehearsed cough at the beginning, the false start, parodying a scene that at times fetishized amateurism. It’s brilliant satire.

A: Courtney’s wit and sarcasm extended to being mean to other women. She was just as willing to be mean about her female peers and rivals. A lot of people disliked her for that. The riot grrrls were really important to me, but I didn’t realize until I was an adult that the riot grrrls had this kind of “salvation project” and Courtney didn’t have that. 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.

Q: That’s another product of the gap between 19-year-olds and 27-year-olds.

A: Exactly. You have that kind of righteousness at that [younger] age—I certainly did—that the world can be transformed into the way you want it to be.

Q: Of all of Courtney’s supposedly unfeminine qualities, it is her ambition that turns people off. We still don’t see a lot of women like that.

A: That’s why I think of Courtney more today in relation to people like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga: women in popular music who have that ambition to be at the very top. What’s that line on the new Nicki Minaj album? “Bitches don’t have punchlines or flow / I have both and an empire, also.” The audacity of that line is brilliant, and exactly the kind of thing Courtney was after. She wanted it all. She wanted the crown. She wanted to be the biggest rock star in the world. As if that wasn’t provocation enough, not only did she want that, but her husband was already the biggest rock star in the world—and she wanted to be better than him. People could not cope with that. They still can’t.

Q: You mention Yoko Ono—the parallels between her performance art piece Cut/Piece and Courtney Love being mauled while stage diving. You seem to almost purposely leave out the fact that Yoko is the second-most-reviled spouse in the history of rock, after Courtney. Even Courtney herself often made Yoko jokes about her relationship with Kurt.

A: [The omission] wasn’t quite on purpose. But it was true to my experience learning about Yoko Ono. I studied art at school, and did my undergraduate degree in art. Obviously I knew who Yoko Ono was and something of her relationship to John Lennon, but in my mind she was always first and foremost an artist—so that’s how I wrote about her. That’s how I think of her.

Q: You didn’t have the cultural baggage that someone even 10 years older than you might.

A: No, that’s true. I was born too late to have that sense of Yoko as “the great demon force who broke up the Beatles.” The great injustice of that narrative is that she’s this woman who is such an important artist in her own right and has been that for what, 50 years now? And people still only want to talk about her and the Beatles.

Q: As recently as last year, she played a British festival with Yo La Tengo backing her up and a clip of the show went viral, attracting all kinds of nasty comments: “Why does this talentless 80-year-old woman think she can make music,” etc., etc.

A: That’s depressing. No matter what she achieves, she’ll never eclipse that narrative. Same with Courtney, although I’m the first to admit that Courtney hasn’t exactly had a stellar career in the past 15 years. No matter what she still might achieve, that narrative of being a bad mother, bad wife, the bitch who was some kind of horrible, fatal influence on Kurt Cobain—leaving aside the grotesque conspiracy theories that I don’t want to give any time to—that narrative will always dog her.

Q: Some musicians only ever have one truly great album in them; some writers only have one great novel. Lightning strikes at that moment, and they spend the rest of their life trying to measure up to that. Do think that’s the case with Courtney Love?

A: To a certain degree. Hole had two terrific albums: I really love Pretty on the Inside, and then Live Through This. But we rarely allow female artists the same leeway—there are plenty of artists in rock history that we always allow the achievement of that one record they have. There are plenty of male rock stars and actors and writers who have also had troubles with drugs. We’re much more willing to allow men in the public eye a chance at redemption, to allow them to have a second wind, and to say, “Well done! You had this terrible time for 15 years, and now you’re back and we’ll take you seriously.” Courtney will never get that. The same thing happened to Sinead O’Connor. She got pinned as a crazy woman in the early ’90s, and once she was there she never got out. Britney Spears had a breakdown, and she’s still “just a crazy woman.” That stereotype is almost impossible for women in the public eye to ever undo.

Q: No Robert Downey Jr. moments there.

A: No.

Q: I’ve known men who can’t listen to any so-called “angry women” because they take those songs personally, they can’t empathize with a female narrator singing about heartbreak, never mind more piercing issues.

A: I saw a comment on Facebook a couple of weeks ago about my book, from a man saying, “I’d really like to read this book, but I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to.” I thought, are you serious? Do you want to have a conversation about the way gender excludes people from conversations? There is a sense in which men feel incredibly challenged—as they should—by an album like this. But one thing I really wanted to emphasize in this book is the way in which we refuse to take the concerns of teenage girls seriously, we refuse to take artists who really speak to teenage girls seriously. We’re willing to write off those artists as being trivial and shallow and hysterical and all those things teenage girls are labelled as. For a band like Hole and a songwriter like Courtney to produce an album that speaks so resonantly and powerfully to not just teenage girls, but particularly to teenage girls—we don’t take that as a serious achievement. It doesn’t matter. Even though we’re happy to endlessly applaud the writers and songwriters whose work has some resonance for teenage boys and young men—we can celebrate the Beat Poets for the next 10 million years! It’s the same debate we’re having right now over Taylor Swift.

Related: The illusory everygirl quality of Taylor Swift

Q: And yet a lot of people have been taking Taylor Swift seriously over the last year; I’ve read plenty of think pieces in outlets not geared to teenage girls. Whereas I just can’t take her seriously; I’d much rather be talking about Beyoncé or Robyn or Ariana Grande or just about anybody else, really.

A: Fair enough. Even when I don’t like an artist—and I don’t particularly like Taylor Swift—I think the fact that she speaks to so many teenage girls is interesting. I’m unwilling to dismiss her outright, because clearly what she’s doing has a resonance for people. I’m willing to give Taylor Swift the benefit of the doubt, even though I don’t like what she does. People are very passionate about her. If you were to write the history of popular music according to teenage girls and the artists that were important to them, you’d get a very different narrative and history of music than the rock canon we have.

Related: Q&A with Sleater-Kinney guitarist Corin Tucker

Q: What do you think of the new Sleater-Kinney record?

A: I think it’s terrific. They’re very important to me. I cried when they broke up [in 2006]. I’ve never done that over a band before. I’m very glad they’re back. In a sense, it sounds like the perfect Sleater-Kinney record, it’s so Sleater-Kinney…

Q: It’s better!

A: Sleater-Kinney came up a few times when I was interviewing Hole fans. I’ve often thought Sleater-Kinney became the feminist rock band a lot of people wanted Hole to be, but Hole—for all kinds of reasons, mostly because of personal tragedy and disaster—never got there. Hole had that one moment, but they couldn’t sustain it. Sleater-Kinney managed to sustain it over pretty much every album they did, and they’re still doing it now.