Music Feature: Listen through this

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

Published September 11, 1998 7:00PM (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.

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