Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of an album which in many ways changed my life. I thought I’d write a little bit about it, as I think it has a certain cultural weight to it that goes beyond my own personal experience and so it’s therefore relevant for a blog which is supposed to be about the “personal and the political.” The album in question happens to be both.
Hole’s Live Through This, with its 12 tracks of primal punk rock energy from an unapologetically female perspective, was released 20 years ago. It was like a shot of adrenaline to countless of young girls such as myself who were at the time too young to know the potency of Patti Smith, too angry to understand the esotericism of Kate Bush – and too misplaced and politically aware to buy into the mainstream body politics of Madonna.
For us who grew up into our early puberty witnessing 80’s hair bands and their mute bimbo groupies, the onset of punk rock and grunge was a liberating force. Courtney Love’s Hole was an invigorating reality check for us little girls who up until then had been told again and again that anger is a thing that’s best left for boys to do, and that our “place” in rock is, literally and metaphorically, backstage. In fact, before Hole came along, things were so bad that Madonna was able to go around giving quotes such as “I think I have a dick in my brain so I don’t need to have one between my legs” and still be considered an icon of strong womanhood. Hole changed all that by validating the lack of “dick” and stating that not only do girls not need one but they should stop defining themselves by referring to it in the first place. That is, not even in a metaphorical way: the message of Hole’s music was that girls don’t need to adapt into any pre-described male norms in order to succeed. They can do so by their own terms.
Which is where Live Through This comes in. The album has 12 tracks, every single one of them being incredibly catchy and at the same time powerful in their emotional rawness. With their debut Pretty On the Inside a couple of years earlier, the band had already proved their ability to tap into the direct source of psychological darkness. The genius of Live Through This lied in the way it continued on the path of that darkness while pulling it up to the pop surface. Issues such as rape, masochism, anorexia and suicide are all backed up by power chords and clear, ringing guitar sounds. The pop sensibility of the musicians make for a powerful contrast, and the emotional punch is made all the more poignant by the very pop framework it’s delivered in. Love’s vocal work wins over due to her impressive and sincere emotional range rather than neat technical precision. In fact, it is precisely the punky indifference to rulebooks which make Love’s vocal presence on the album so charismatic and timeless.
What makes a great album great and, more to the point, still relevant after several decades, is not just the music. The chords and lyrics need to be backed up by a larger cultural value of the work. And if there is one album from the 90s which fits the criteria for timeless cultural value, then Live Through This is it.
What made Courtney Love such a fascinating persona in rock’n’roll back in 1994 was that she was projecting something new and fresh, something which quite simply had not been witnessed before. This very unfamiliarity was (and still is!) the reason the woman manages to cause so much animosity and confusion amongst people. Back in the 90s, some tried to defend her by comparing her to the unashamed sexual and druggy chaos of Morrison or Hendrix (to name just a couple from the ongoing litany of male rock stars). What these comparisons failed to grasp, however, is the non-compromising femaleness and femininity expressed in the music and the whole visual package of Hole as a band.
“I’m the undefined archetype”, as Love herself put it at the time. Drugs, darkness, chaos, motherhood and femininity all in one entity is considered queer in the way that drugs, darkness, chaos, fatherhood and masculinity within one individual man is not. Just ask any male rock star who has battled depression and drugs and also happens to be a father. The roles offered to girls are limiting and mutually exclusive: by all means be saint, mother, wife, whore, victim or perpetrator – but never all of them. To be a fully realised individual, or even toying with the idea of it, comes at the price of social exclusion, suspicion and fear disguised as concern and pity from the rest of society. This is the very battle described in Live Through This. The album describes the world from the perspective of someone who refuses to fit into any ready-made descriptions of “what it means to be a woman” and pays the full price for her individuality.
Punk rock anger being channeled by a screaming woman in high heels was too disturbing an archetype for many to come to grips with. But to some of us, it not only made sense. It was revolutionary and life-affirming.
Astonishingly, the sarcastic exaggeration of Love’s visual output gets often completely ignored and is at times not even recognised, even though it’s right there staring at us. The baby doll dresses, peroxide blonde hair and badly applied lipstick were Love’s trademark for most of the 90s. Contrary to a surprisingly widespread and perhaps to a certain degree deliberate misinterpretation, they were anything but an accident or a result of poor taste. Love was taking a certain archetype and giving it a deliberate, macabre twist. As a well-read pop culture geek, she was fully aware of each name-drop and visual reference and was in fact giving a nod to Hollywood years before she “re-invented” herself as a film star. The 90s mad baby-doll image was a carefully planned and direct reference to Bette Davis’ character in the 1962 dark comedy “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” To drive the point home, Love even referred openly and often in interviews to her fondness of twisting meanings and symbols: “I’m not checking my sexuality at the door… I’m shoving semiotically all of this female sexuality, all of these things that symbolise historically what we are supposed to aspire to. Lipstick, pair, legs, tits…”
And if that wasn’t enough, the very cover art of Live Through This shows the model Leilani Bishop posing as a beauty queen, ecstatic over her victory, mascara running down her photogenic all-American face.
Can sarcastic social commentary get any clearer? To me, and countless others of my generation, the answer was “no, it really cannot” already 20 years ago. Live Through This remains a ground-breaking work and is still as culturally relevant as it ever was. Because sarcasm, anger, great hooks, pop sensibility and punk rock, whatever archetypal shape or form they take, never do go out of fashion.