COURTNEY LOVE: Icon or Frustrating Jekyll & Hyde…?

Courtney Love

Hated by many, maligned by many more, mocked and frequently disregarded… Courtney Love must be one of the most abused artists and cultural icons of modern times.

That she IS (or at the very least was) a cultural icon – of Athenian proportions – is quite beyond doubt.

Hole‘s music in the early nineties was more powerful, more relevant, and probably more influential than pretty much anything that the diminishing rock and indie genres have produced in the passed decade.

Hole’s debut LP, Pretty On the Inside surely can be cited as one of the most exceptional debut records in rock, whilst the second album, Live Through This, should, in a just world, be regarded as one of the finest, most poignant pieces of rock or pop albumry ever produced. Music like ‘Jennifer’s Body’, ‘Violet’ and ‘Asking For It’ – all from that second album – are about as potent as gets.

Even tracks from the later, more commercial releases (1998’s Celebrity Skin album, Courtney Love’s later solo release America’s Sweetheart, and the more recent Hole comeback LP Nobody’s Daughter), though certainly not as good as the earlier stuff, retain a rare resonance and power. Tracks like ‘Petals’ and ‘Reasons to be Beautiful’ from Celebrity Skin or ‘Samantha’ or the title-track from Nobody’s Daughter still have both a sophistication and a visceral power that is beyond the grasp of most artists or musicians.

As mentioned, America’s Sweetheart was a bit of dip in quality; and, of course, the old Hole was where the greater power lay; with Patti Schemel on drums, Eric Erlandson and either Kristen Pfaff or Melissa Auf Der Maur on bass (Auf Der Maur‘s backing vocals, which gave a lot to Celebrity Skin, are definitely missed on subsequent material); and Patti Schemel was an awesome drummer. I have no idea why those guys are no longer part of Hole.

Even so, the recent Nobody’s Daughter was a quality album, with classic Courtney lyricism and songwriting sophistication.

And it’s more than just the music.

Courtney was an icon back in the day. Culturally, socially, even in the fashion sense (that ‘kinder-whore’ look she may or may not have stolen from Kat Bjielland is still iconic). She wasn’t just a potent musical force; but a feminist icon, a fascinating intellect and an always engaging character (and with a razor-sharp wit).

But fast-forward a decade or so from those halcyon days of riot grrrl, grunge, and the general abundance of high quality, life-altering music being recorded by great artists in the alternative rock genre, and Courtney Love isn’t given anywhere near the credit and respect that her work warrants.

She doesn’t do herself any favours by cheaply parading herself around as a tabloid celebrity so often.

Anyone who values great art and disdains modern celebrity culture would wish she’d just leave all the celebrity nonsense out of it and just focus on her work. Less stupid antics and attention-seeking is what I would wish for from Courtney: but, from the late 90s onwards, it seems to have been too late to rewind the clock.

 Courtney Love: black and white photo 

If Courtney Love had avoided the lure of tacky star behaviour and purely presented herself as musician and songwriter, I believe she would be widely hailed as one of the greatest artists of the passed twenty years. Certainly one of the last great rock stars.

But she has ended up an exasperating Jekyll and Hyde; a bona fide genius conjoined to a tacky celebrity. A woman of great intelligence and intellect and substantial vision, being swallowed up in the soapy repertoire of a tedious attention-seeker. She is Sylvia Plath, Billie Holliday and Joan of Arc, wrapped up in a cheap and dirty layer of Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears. It’s ill-fitting and unnecessary.

All the oversexed, over-egged celebrity BS has distracted everyone from the fact she is, in fact, an extraordinary talent of true caliber and massive depth.

I mean, sure, she had some evident bitch tendencies on display even back in the day: the bitter taste she apparently left in the mouths of a lot of people she crossed paths with, or incidents like her appalling assault on Kathleen Hanna (another icon of the era).

But at least back then – and even with those things kept in mind – she still had a power and potency about her.

Had Courtney maintained at least some veil of mystique and maybe stepped back from the limelight some time after Hole’s first two albums – when she was at the height of her artistic potency – as well as of her cultural relevance and influence – she might be held up today as a major and enduring cultural heroine.

That she was – or still is – a cultural heroine isn’t in doubt; but Love is more powerful, more meaningful, as a sub-cultural icon and not as mainstream celebrity fodder.

Sixteen years as a tabloid celebrity has (unjustly) cheapened her legacy and tainted her power.

Something vaguely similar happened to Michael Jackson, who made two of the greatest pop records ever recorded, but then spent twenty years as a weird super-celebrity entity being gang-banged by detractors, tabloid and gossip columns until you no longer even associated him anymore with the music that made him famous in the first place.

Courtney hasn’t quite been that far lost to the celebrity quagmire, but she definitely patronizes the same tabloid brothel.

People hardly ever talk about her as an artist anymore. At best, they talk about her as a celebrity or as an oddity: and, at worst, they talk about how they think she had her husband murdered.

Some of her new, more recent music is genuinely good and often poignant (Nobody’s Daughter is a really good album, and a song like the brilliant ‘Samantha’ is as powerful as anything from Live Through This); but you get the sense that the expanding corona of nonsense and baggage surrounding Courtney Love has the ill effect of smothering or drowning out the artistry.

It’s a shame, because in an increasingly shallow culture, where so-called ‘stars’ mostly read as vacuous, superficial crash-test dummies with nothing relevant to utter, it’d be a wonderful thing if the old Courtney Love could emerge from the ashes of the parody; like a phoenix being reborn from itself in a fiery supernova.

Or like a modern Jesus, needing to be mocked, jeered and ultimately crucified before he could come back even better and stronger than before.

S. Awan

Independent journalist. Pariah. Believer in human rights, human dignity and liberty. Musician. Substandard Jedi. All-round failure. And future ghost.

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