Tattoo by Versace

Courtney Love shuts herself up for acceptance in the straight world of Vanity Fair.


Sarah Vowell
February 21, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

You are bothered by Courtney Love's picture in a magazine, and you are
bothered that you are bothered. Because what could be more usual than
Courtney Love's picture in a magazine? You're used to her face by now, aren't
you? You have an entire photo album of her in your head, do you not? That
one with a stripe-shirted Kurt and the baby? The smeared lipstick one in
Rome as she trails his gurney? Wearing his sweater post-mortem? The Oscars
one in a tiara? Falling down at the MTV Awards? And those are only the
one-offs. There are hundreds of variations of her trademark moves: mouth
open, screaming; the leg-on-the-amp guitar stance; the stage dive. Plus,
didn't you see "The People vs. Larry Flynt"? And didn't you force
yourself not to close your eyes when Courtney, the (hopefully) ex-junkie,
shoots up on screen? What could possibly shock you now?

The 10-page fashion ad in the February Vanity Fair, that's what. You would
like to find "Versace Presents Courtney Love Photographed by Bruce Weber"
fun, or at least funny. You would like to be happy for Courtney. You always
rolled your eyes and giggled when she sang "Credit in the Straight World," and
you wouldn't mind letting her have the last laugh. You would like to think
that your grasp of the subtleties of popular culture within a capitalist
system would allow for the tongue-in-cheek confession that A) you, too, like
nice clothes, and B) watching pop stars play around with self-image is one
of the nicest things about being a pop fan.

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You read the papers. You watch TV. You know Courtney went haute-couture way back. You heard about the plastic surgery. But you didn't judge her, because even though you are against plastic surgery, you are also against rules. Your only revenge comes when you listen to "Credit
in the Straight World" and she growls, "I lost a leg, I lost an eye" -- and you yell back, "No, Courtney, you lost your nose." But as her fan, you want to allow her the freedom to change. Because you have always hated that Beach Boys song "Caroline, No" that asks, "Where did your long hair go?" as if getting a few inches whacked off was some kind of war crime. And you
understood the symbolism of the cover on Hole's B-side/rarity anthology from last year, "My
Body, the Hand Grenade," which pictured Courtney's famous Wednesday Addams black dress with the white collar displayed in a museum vitrine, underlining the idea that the past is past. So when other people condemn her these days for betraying punk and/or feminism, or for what she
is, or for what she isn't, you always defend her. You always say, "She can do whatever she wants."

You always stick up for her because you feel like you owe her. You're
grateful. Grateful that she came along, grateful for the courage her
say-whatever, do-whatever persona gave you. Grateful, not least, for her
songs, for the countless times you listened to Hole's "Live Through
This." Because every time you heard it, every time you hear it still, it
makes you feel a little more alive, a little more impressed. It's a great
record, one of your favorites. You can't imagine your life without it
anymore. You wouldn't want to. You think "Rock Star" is hilarious.
"Gutless" knocks you down. "Miss World" cracks you up. It is one of the
funniest, saddest set of songs you've ever heard; so human, so -- and I mean
this in the historical sense -- romantic.

That romanticism is precisely what is lost in Weber's Versace spread. These
black-and-white photographs are too structured, too vacant, too classical. Love doesn't even look freakishly normal -- that David Lynch-style, sinister-beneath-the-surface, brooding sort of bland. She looks good old-fashioned drab; mute even. There is one of Courtney wearing a bra and mannish trousers and shoes in which her torso looks rigor mortis-stiff. There is one in bed in which the white sheets don't look like a soft spot to sleep in so much as a marble
fragment from the Parthenon frieze. There is one in which Courtney, wearing
a man's white shirt and boxers, stands in a contrapposto stance like some
stone-cold Greek god. The only one with any personality at all, which has
her crouched with her tongue sticking out, has her styled into the spitting
image not of herself but of Madonna. The woman you've always loved as
Subject, capital S, has been turned into Object -- thoughtless, powerless,
frozen. This sexy woman -- whose sexiness was always so raunchy, so challenging -- now looks sexless and easy to figure out. The woman whose wisecracks have had you in stitches for years is made to appear humorless. The woman whose noise has inspired so much hope has been silenced.

And that's the shocking part. You look at these pictures, and you
remember that Hole has a new record coming out in the near future -- and
for the first time in the four long years you've been waiting for it, you
kind of dread its sound.

You remember how you once heard that every January, Courtney's New Year's
resolution was always to just shut up. Hushing herself was always the plan,
but she could never follow through. She always had too much to say. You
always liked that about her. You always enjoyed that sense of
self-recognition, that she considered, if only once a year, donning a more
elegant persona. Still, you never worried she'd actually do it. Until now. You look at these photographs and wonder if this is the year she finally keeps quiet. You look at the calendar. It's February. Where there are 10 months left, there's still hope.

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Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

MORE FROM Sarah Vowell

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