The enduring feminist legacy of Hole: 30 years later, must we still "Live Through This"?

Then and now, Courtney Love delivers raw and unapologetic lyrics that confront trauma, sexuality and agency 

Published April 11, 2024 1:29PM (EDT)

Courtney Love of the band Hole performing on stage, Pukkelpop Festival, Hasselt, Belgium, 1995. (Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)
Courtney Love of the band Hole performing on stage, Pukkelpop Festival, Hasselt, Belgium, 1995. (Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Decades after its April 1994 release, Hole's iconic album "Live Through This" remains a poignant testament of enduring relevance to feminist discourse. As the album commemorates its anniversary, BBC Sounds is offering up eight hours of "Courtney Love's Women," a deep-diving interview series reflecting on many of the female musicians who have inspired her work over the years. It will be interesting to hear how Love lays bare the web of influences that helped spawn "Live Through This," and it's equally important to plot Love's own point in that web as a foremother of the feminist creative juices that flow into our present time over the 30 years since the release of that album. With its raw emotion, unapologetic lyricism and unbridled energy, "Live Through This" not only revolutionized the alternative rock scene but also served as a rallying cry for feminist expression.

One of the most striking aspects of "Live Through This" is its unabashed portrayal of female experience that certainly shared in the raging sentiment of the times.

At its core, the album embodies the spirit of riot grrrl, a feminist movement that emerged in the early 1990s, advocating for gender equality, challenging societal norms and empowering women through do-it-yourself activism that treated the music industry as a site of cultural production that was begging for significant disruption. Hole, led by the fearlessly complicated Courtney Love, became synonymous with this movement in using their music as a platform to confront issues such as sexism, abuse and the complexities of female identity.

Love would probably still disagree with this characterization, as she did in the lyrics to “Rock Star” that explicitly made fun of riot grrrl by arguing that their template for activism was just as guilty of cookie-cutter sameness as the crass commercialism the movement was hoping to defy: “Well I went to school in Olympia, ya, ya, ya / And everyone’s the same.” There was also that time at Lollapalooza when Love punched Bikini Kill’s singer Kathleen Hanna in the face, as inflicting physical harm on a fellow revolutionary isn’t an especially good look for the cause.

Despite Love’s insistence on the hard-rocking uniqueness of Hole compared to other female-fronted bands of the 1990s, whether it was riot grrrl style feminism or not, one of the most striking aspects of "Live Through This" is its unabashed portrayal of female experience that certainly shared in the raging sentiment of the times. Tracks like "Violet," "Miss World," and "Jennifer's Body" delve into themes of trauma, self-destruction, and the pressures of conforming to societal expectations.

"Violet," captures the raw essence of anguish and defiance, with Love's vocals oscillating between haunting whispers and fierce screams, embodying the struggles of navigating abusive relationships and asserting autonomy. "Miss World" confronts the toxic standards of beauty and the commodification of femininity, exposing the internalized self-loathing experienced by many women with lines like “Now I’ve made my bed, I’ll die in it.” "Jennifer's Body" stands as a visceral anthem of reclaiming power, with its searing guitar riffs and unapologetic lyrics challenging traditional notions of female passivity and victimhood. Love's lyrics are pretty much always simultaneously confrontational and vulnerable, offering a glimpse into the tumultuous landscape of womanhood.

The Gurlesque club

Fast-forwarding to the 21st Century, Love might prefer that "Live Through This" be viewed as a precursor to the Gurlesque poetry movement, which emerged in the early 2000s. Gurlesque poetics is characterized by a subversive blend of the grotesque and the feminine, mirroring the album's exploration of femininity through a lens of defiance and subversion. Both mediums challenge traditional notions of femininity, reclaiming the female body and experience from patriarchal scrutiny.

Writer Arielle Greenberg, co-editor of the genre-defining and thus aptly named "Gurlesque" poetry anthology (Saturnalia Books, 2010), couldn’t agree more. Of the "Live Through This" album cover, she says, “The triumphant beauty queen, with her skeezy bouquet, awkward tiara and mascara smudged all over her face, is a good representation of what the Gurlesque embodies: a performative hyper-femininity (to the point of absurdity), a mash-up of the sublime and the grotesque, a basking in the archetypes/stereotypes of girlhood.” She credits Love as one of her inspirations for this poetic movement and for some of her own work, calling the "Live Through This" lyrics “furious and funny, feverish and sarcastic” and concluding that even “the name of the band is likewise an embodiment of the Gurlesque’s Fourth Wave feminist ‘agenda’: brash and obscene, it reclaims rape culture slang and centers the gynocentric as a point of pride.”

Affective outcomes

Another take on Hole’s contribution to the current wave of feminist thinking might connect "Live Through This" with Lauren Berlant’s affect theories, which really took off in 2008 with "The Female Complaint" and then were cemented in 2011 as a thrilling academic avenue with "Cruel Optimism" (both Duke University Press). Berlant was a highly regarded cultural critic, and although they never directly commented on Love’s work, it’s easy to see how their theories apply. Berlant emphasizes the importance of understanding how people negotiate and experience power dynamics within the broader cultural landscape, proposing a nuanced approach that considers the affective dimensions of gendered subjectivity — i.e. the ways individuals internalize and respond to social norms and expectations. In "Live Through This," Love delivers raw and unapologetic lyrics that confront trauma, sexuality and agency. 

Love's raw emotional intensity fosters a sense of camaraderie and connection among listeners.

The album's opening track, "Violet," sets the tone with its defiant chorus: "Go on, take everything, take everything, I dare you to." Here, Love asserts her autonomy in the face of attempts to diminish her worth, echoing Berlant's emphasis on the negotiation of power within intimate relationships. Throughout the album, Love's lyrics navigate the complexities of female desire and self-expression. "Miss World" encapsulates the tension between conforming to traditional gender roles and rejecting them. In songs like "Doll Parts" and "Jennifer's Body," she explores themes of objectification and agency, challenging conventional notions of femininity and sexuality. Berlant's framework helps us understand these songs not as simple expressions of rebellion, but as nuanced reflections of the affective tensions inherent in gendered identity formation.

Furthermore, the album engages with Berlant's concept of gendered subjectivities, which emphasizes the fluid and performative nature of identity. Love's persona oscillates between vulnerability and defiance, embodying the contradictions and complexities of female experience. This fluidity is evident in tracks like "Jennifer's Body" and "Gutless," where Love adopts different personas to explore the multiplicity of feminine identity and challenge essentialist notions of womanhood. This gives rise to new possibilities for belonging, where the album’s themes of solidarity and sisterhood can be seen through Berlant's lens of affective attachments. Love's raw emotional intensity fosters a sense of camaraderie and connection among listeners, inviting them to empathize with her struggles and find solace in collective resistance. Songs like "Softer, Softest" evoke a sense of shared experience and mutual support with lines like “I’d give you anything / And I know that you won’t tell on me,” underscoring the importance of community in navigating patriarchal oppression.

The album’s exploration of trauma and resilience very obviously engages with Berlant's concept of cruel optimism, too. The gist is that people often cling to fantasies of fulfillment and happiness, even when these fantasies are ultimately unattainable or harmful. Hole’s album grapples with the aftermath of personal and collective trauma, channeling both anger and vulnerability into the music. Songs like "She Walks on Me" confront the violence and objectification faced by women, while also acknowledging the complexities of survivorship, as in the deployment of the lyric – eight times in a row, each one inflected just a little bit differently – that forms the album’s title during "Asking for It": “If you live through this with me / I swear that I would die for you.”

"Live Through This" offers a visceral exploration of gendered subjectivity and affective relations as Love confronts the complexity of womanhood in a patriarchal society. She challenges listeners to reckon with the intersections of power, desire, and resilience. In doing so, she creates a space for resistance and solidarity that is true to Berlant’s affective project, inviting listeners to live through the contradictions and complexities of lived experience.

“Do it for the kids, yeah”

In today's sociopolitical climate, the approach of "Live Through This" remains as relevant as ever. In an era marked by ongoing struggles for social justice surrounding gender and sexuality, the onslaught of legislative and court battles to preserve reproductive rights, and the #MeToo movement’s respectability blowing hot and cold, the album's themes of absolute endurance and f**k-all-this punk attitude resonate freshly and deeply with today’s audiences. Love's unapologetic embrace of her own contradictions and vulnerabilities serves as a powerful reminder of the strength inherent in owning one's truth, especially in the face of systematic adversity.

Speculating on Courtney Love's intentions for the album in today's context is both intriguing and complex. Love, known for her outspoken activism and unapologetic persona, would likely want "Live Through This" to continue inspiring listeners to challenge societal norms and confront injustice. In a world where feminism is often co-opted and commodified, Love would probably emphasize the importance of maintaining authenticity and staying true to one's convictions.

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Moreover, Love would want the album to serve as a catalyst for conversations surrounding mental health, addiction and the complexities of fame. She and the rest of the band have repeatedly grappled with these issues in the public eye, with Love being the most vocal about the need for destigmatization and empathy, as in this typically smart and wide-ranging 20-questions interview in Interview Magazine in 2019. Love is able to delve into personal struggles with femininity, motherhood and societal expectations, while simultaneously addressing universal themes of oppression and resistance. Through "Live Through This" she continues to shed light on the darker corners of the human experience for the next generation of young listeners, urging her audience to confront their own demons with ferocious bravery and a biting sense of humor. Hole created something that’s more than a nostalgic gem of a self-aware album: it’s a manifesto for the gutsy, the screwed up and the savagely feminist, even if “feminist” isn’t her favorite f-word.

By Megan Volpert

Megan Volpert has written or edited more than a dozen books, including "Boss Broad," which won a Georgia Author of the Year Award. Her latest is "Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic" (University of Georgia Press, 2022). She is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Kennesaw State University and a fellow at the American Institute for Philosophical and Cultural Thought.

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Commentary Courtney Love Feminism Hole Live Through This Music