Listen through this

Stephanie Zacharek defends Courtney Love's new wardrobe and her new record, 'celebrity skin'

Published September 11, 1998 6:19PM (EDT)

When Courtney Love began appearing in public wearing Versace gowns and an elegant bob, that whining, tiresome drone heard across the land was the sound of punk purists airing their dismay and disappointment. They, as well as straight-ahead rock fans, gossip columnists, some music critics, you name it -- all the people who'd hated her to begin with -- now had proof that
her early punk image (the ratty hair, the smeared lipstick, the kinderwhore
dresses) was just a sham. Clearly, though, most of those people had never
listened to her music that carefully anyway. What was more disappointing
was the attitude of the fans who'd loved her band Hole's first two records ("Pretty on the Inside" and the magnificent "Live Through This") but who now turned away from her in disgust, claiming she'd sold out -- months and months before they'd even had a chance to hear the
third Hole LP, the defiant and blazingly direct "Celebrity Skin."

It's absurd to make pronouncements about Love's commitment to punk ideals -- or, for that matter, her devotion to her late husband -- based solely on her image makeover. But even if the
personae of public figures are largely about surfaces, words and pictures can also help us piece together a kind of truth. Maybe that's why I was relieved when I started seeing photos of the buffed, revamped Love, simply because a live show I saw her give in Boston, in the fall
of 1994, had scared me more than any live performance I've ever seen. It
scared me precisely because it didn't seem so much a performance as a kind
of public breakdown, an intensely personal outpouring by a musician who'd
peeled away every protective layer between herself and her audience -- an
audience that didn't seem sure whether it wanted to embrace her or tear her
apart. The band came on late because Love had received a death threat. At
the time, I wondered -- as many in the audience must have -- whether the
threat was just a ploy, a publicity stunt. (It wasn't.) When Love came
onstage, she said, "So what if I die tonight? What a pathetic footnote to
rock 'n' roll history. This is bullshit. Let's just play." And if the acid in her
voice throughout that performance -- the conviction that on that stage, that
night, she didn't really care whether she lived or died -- was an act, then I'm
a sucker (just as I'm a sucker when I listen to one of Bud Powell's late
recordings and hear him unraveling groove by groove -- or when, for that
matter, I hear the naked anguish in Kurt Cobain's voice on Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box").

So if those Versace dresses put one extra layer of armor between Love and
her public -- if they mark her outwardly as a performer who happens to like
pretty clothes, rather than as a human sacrifice, which is what she seemed to
me that night -- then I say she should pile it on. Her refusal to let her
audience define how she presents herself is a defiantly punk act. And
ultimately, anyone who wants to judge her as an artist should do so only on
the basis of "Celebrity Skin."

We had no way of knowing it, but Hole's 1996 cover of Stevie Nicks' "Gold
Dust Woman" pointed, true as a compass, to the innate fierceness of
"Celebrity Skin." Love's hissing of the line "Shadow of a woman, black
widow," just before the fade-out of "Gold Dust Woman," sounded as punk
as anything I'd heard that year. It was a deeply personal statement, compact
and defiant, both an acknowledgment of the public's perception of her and a
challenge to anyone who felt qualified to assess just how much pain she was
capable of feeling. In "Celebrity Skin," her anger is sometimes (but not
always) more muted, and yet it's always there, whirling just beneath the
surface. One of the great virtues of "Celebrity Skin" is that it's not a showy
record, not a blatant "fuck you" to all those who wondered -- buying
wholeheartedly into that ancient sexist canard -- if "Live Through This"
wasn't really a Cobain record instead of a Love record. The truth is that
"Live Through This" sounded like a Hole record, which is even more
apparent in the context of "Celebrity Skin," which represents a natural
refinement (but not necessarily a softening) of the band's earlier sound.
Love wrote all the lyrics on the new LP, but she and bandmates Eric
Erlandson, Melissa Auf der Mar and Patty Schemel, as well as occasional
guest collaborators like Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan and former
Go-Go Charlotte Caffey, wrote the music together. Love has repeatedly
asserted that Hole is a band, not a backup group for Courtney Love, and
although her scraped-raw vocals are always the focal point of the music on
"Celebrity Skin," her persona never steamrolls over it. Love knew better
than anyone how much her reputation would ride on this record, and the
fact that she doesn't hijack it with prima donna attitude is a mark of
classiness, as well as sound instincts.

I know in my gut that "Live Through This" is a great record, but I also know
that my feelings about it are inextricably tied in with the fact that it came out
the week after Cobain's death, in April 1994. At the time, "Miss World" was
the only song that meant anything to me -- I clung to it like a talisman,
mostly because the music (and to a lesser extent, the words) reflected the
defensiveness, the isolation and the deep melancholy I felt at the time.
Partly because of my age (I was 33), I was surrounded by people who
dismissed Cobain's death as a minor event. Many of them even said, in
print and in casual conversation, that it wasn't as if he were John Lennon or
anything -- which was, in addition to being simply callous, a handy and
loathsome way of dismissing a younger generation's feelings as being less
genuine than their own. In the weeks after his death, I recall having to
explain to the terminally clueless just what Cobain had meant not just to his
audience but to the culture at large, and whenever I heard "Miss World," I
felt as if Love were putting a sword in my hand, just when I needed it most.

"Celebrity Skin" isn't as deeply affecting as "Live Through This," but it's
easier to like: The lyrics cut deep, but the pop-metal edge of the songs is what
reels you in. In terms of its craftsmanship, it sounds like nothing so much as
Love's effort to set herself free, an assertion that no matter how much she
craves attention, she would rather be a musician than an icon. Love has
been unabashedly vocal about her influences -- she loves the New Romantic and pop bands
of the early '80s like Duran Duran and Echo and the Bunnymen -- and you
can hear them here in the glittering-hard, shimmery guitars and reworking
of classic '60s-pop rhythms. "Awful" conjures the cherry-bop sensuality of
early Joan Jett or the Go-Go's in their heyday. "He's drunk, he tastes like
candy, he's so beautiful," Love sings, sounding insatiable, greedy, clearly
immersed in the hedonistic pleasures of rock 'n' roll -- but she's using the
image of incredible-looking boys who are nothing but trouble only as a
metaphor. "Awful" is a lush, alluring, bristly pop song that could be an
indictment of the people who've claimed Love has deserted her roots ("It
was punk/Yeah, it was perfect, now it's awful"), but she's moving too fast to
waste much time on them. Instead, she's fixated on a dank kind of
optimism: "If the world is so wrong, you can take it all with one song," she
sings, a taunt to anyone who'd dare underestimate the power of a pop song.

That's part of what makes "Celebrity Skin" such a fearless-sounding record.
Just when Love's fans are criticizing her for softening up too much, she
indulges her sweet tooth by making an LP laced with tough but pretty rock
songs. Erlandson's guitar on "Heaven Tonight" starts out sounding like a
twinkly medieval ballad and ends up conjuring neon-lit boulevards and
pink Cadillacs -- and he makes the two seem like a natural fit. "Here comes a
storm in the form of a girl/she's the finest, sweetest thing in the world,"
Love sings, painting a picture of a goth Peggy Sue -- perhaps a mixed
metaphor for the girl Love thinks she is and the one she wishes she could
be. Even if Love's lyrics are sometimes a little oblique, she's so emotionally
direct that she never leaves you hanging. "Hit So Hard," the most gorgeous
song on the album, is also the most unsettling. "He hit so hard, I saw
stars/He hit so hard, I saw God," Love sings with a lacerating tenderness, the
words a mournful inversion of the Phil Spector song Love once covered,
"He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)," an admission that sometimes the
ugliness and the sweet mystery of romance overlap. Love's dusky vocals
speak of wanting something so badly you can't stay away from it, no matter
what kind of damage it wreaks.

There's always an awareness of danger, and an undercurrent of rage,
rushing beneath the pop veneer of "Celebrity Skin." Love's anger reaches
the boiling point on "Playing Your Song," in which she seems to be lashing
out at people who've co-opted her husband's legacy. When she sings, "And
oh, they've bought and sold it all, it's gone/They've taken it and built a
mall/And now they're playing your song," there's both mother-bear
protectiveness and wrath in her voice, echoed by the song's spiky guitars.
Love hasn't sold out or cashed in. If anything, she's pulled off an amazing
feat: She and her band have made a record that sounds so confident, so
astute, that the sheer power of its sound is the best response to Love's
detractors. She doesn't have to stoop to dis them -- with lines like "Oh, make
me over/I'm all I wanna be/A walking study in demonology," she withers
them effortlessly, reminding them that she knows herself better than they
think they do. "Celebrity Skin" is proof that Love can't be buttoned down,
dissected, smoothed out. She's heard all the gossip, the vicious rumors, the
petty criticism, the kind of garbage to which there's no suitable response
except "This is bullshit. Let's just play." And so, at last, she does.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Courtney Love Music