For the Love of Love by Lily Brown
When I was thirteen, I fell in love with Courtney Love. In the seventh grade world, this made me very uncool, and it meant that boys hated me. Come to think of it, it meant that girls hated me, too. Love was loud and obnoxious, and she penned explicit, politically-charged lyrics. When my classmates were listening to the Dave Matthews Band, I was playing Live Through This on repeat with my bedroom door locked. Here’s the album’s cover:
My first encounter with Love was on the cover of Spin Magazine, and if I remember correctly, this issue of Spin—and Live through This itself—came out pretty much exactly when Kurt Cobain killed himself. This coincidence felt like a cruel irony. The woman accused of ruining Nirvana, of riding on Cobain’s coattails, and even of killing Cobain, lost her husband at exactly the moment she was slated to come into her own professionally. The only version of the cover I can find online is tiny, but Forever 21 made the cover into a T-Shirt (another cruel irony):
As a teenager with feminist-leanings and no one to talk to about them, Love was my outlet. She talked about feminist theory in interviews, wore hyper-feminine babydoll dresses, and cussed her brains out onstage and off. She was a walking contradiction, exhilarating to watch but so far out that any identification I felt with her was a safe one—I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t emulate her behavior. Watching Love was addictive partially because her behavior was out of the question. She said all of the things I ever wanted to say, and she dared to say them out loud and in a public way. One of the more notoriously outrageous of Love’s outbursts came during an interview between Kurt Loder and Madonna at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards.
I don’t know what drugs Love was on (though per Madonna’s dig about “free drugs,” I don’t doubt she was on them), and I don’t really care. Untouchable, carefully-coiffed, perfectly made-up, fake-English-accented Madonna seems to come alive for a few moments in Love’s presence, anxiously fiddling with the button on her shiny shirt. Kurt Loder is beside himself. Then there’s the love-fest/make-up session between Love and Tabitha Soren. It’s painful to watch this scene now, not only because Love is so clearly a mess (the tumble she takes at the end is pretty amazing), but also because I can no longer understand why I found this clip so invigorating fifteen years ago. How was this behavior appealing to me? Maybe it was because my teenage life was so carefully planned, because I was intensely self-conscious and interior, and Love seemingly had no filter; nothing stopped her from letting the inside out. Watching her was like leaving my brain for a little while.
I’ve heard all kinds of criticisms of Love; the arguments range from her being an unfit mother to being a druggie to being ugly, and through the years I always defended her. Though I don’t follow the life and times of Courtney Love anymore, when I do happen across reports of inappropriate behavior or indecent exposure—just the other week I saw a photo Love tweeted of herself wearing nothing but a thong—I feel sad. I don’t really want to defend her behavior now, but I will defend the music and the performance.
My sister and I went to two Hole concerts in the 1990s, both at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, where we grew up. I’ve combed the internet for footage of one of these shows, and I’m pretty sure I found some. In this clip, Love sings “Pretty on the Inside,” the title song from Hole’s first full-length album. Some part of me remembers feeling thrilled to hear part of that record live—it’s an angry, highly sexualized, in many ways ugly album. For a certain kind of fourteen-year-old girl, though, it’s perfect. Here’s the clip, complete with breast-baring:
At one of the Orpheum concerts we went to, Love climbed up an embankment of speakers, crawled into the balcony, and sang an entire song from the lap of a hyperventilating fan. At the end of the show, she lay down on her back onstage, guitar strapped across her chest, and finished the show with legs splayed apart, writhing on the ground. At the second show we went to, much to the dismay of the panicked security guards, Love invited the audience onstage, where—like a scary schoolmarm—she quickly herded 100ish of her obedient fans into a sort of quasi-order. She had them sitting down onstage and was conducting them in song as if they were a chorus. Security needn’t have worried.
Putting the performance aside, there’s the music and the lyrics. I’m not much of a musician, so I can’t talk in technical terms about Hole’s songs. I can, however, write about my experience of Love’s lyrics, which move along an emotional and topical continuum that spans melancholy, anger, politics, sexuality, gender, and vulnerability. As a poet, I appreciate the associative and sonic logic of the lyrics, along with Love’s figurative language. “Doll Parts” comes to mind as a song from Live through This—a title that itself embodies a kind of aggressive ambiguity through the imperative verb and the indefinite, but also possibly self-reflexive pronoun “this”—that uses metaphor in conjunction with an associative momentum. Here is part of “Doll Parts”:
I am doll eyes
Doll mouth, doll legs
I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait
Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do
Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, but I do too
I want to be the girl with the most cake
I love him so much it just turns to hate
I fake it so real, I am beyond fake
Of note here are the synecdochal and metaphoric representations of the female body. The speaker not only compares herself to a doll—miniature, inanimate—she compares herself to the doll’s seemingly torn-out body parts. The speaker not only feels like an object, then, but she also feels like an object pulled apart, viewed or “wanted” according to its parts, rather than as a whole. The metaphoric language then gets blown out: the speaker is also “big veins” and “dog bait.” Here is an interesting reversal, as veins are interior to the body, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible. So what are “big” veins? Are they visible veins? If we take “big” to connote visibility here, then the speaker’s sense of exposure is heightened. Even this speaker’s interior body parts are exteriorized, uncovered.
“Dog bait,” the last metaphor before the refrain, “Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do / Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, but I do too,” figures “they” as dogs. The “you” in the refrain, furthermore, feels like a “you” that’s synonymous with the “I,” but that can also stand in for another person. The speaker, then, addresses the way she (referred to in the second person as “you”) feels torn apart (“wanted”) by the ambiguous and dog-like “they.” The other possible reading is that an additional person is at play, perhaps the “he” who comes later in the song. In either case, the speaker contrasts “they” to “you”—“they” seem to be out to get “you,” and the refrain closes with another intriguing doubling: “but I do too.” If “I” wants “you,” just as “they” want “you,” what kind of wanting is this? If we think of the “I” as relating to a separate “you,” but also referring to herself in the second person (and thus stating here that she wants herself), then multiple kinds of wanting are occurring simultaneously. The speaker may want to possess the other who “they” also want to possess, she may desire the other sexually, or she may want herself as a whole being, not the self that is objectified, and pulled into doll parts by the menacing dog-“they.”
The lyrics then turn to the hyperbolic statement, “I want to be the girl with the most cake,” where the now childlike “want” is for “cake,” a metonym that seems to stand in for any number of things—power, possession, attention, the biggest, best birthday party… The speaker soon indicates, however, that this desire for “the most,” this excessive wanting, ultimately backfires: “I love him so much it just turns to hate / I fake it so real, I am beyond fake.” Excess turns to its opposite: love into hate, fakeness into realness. What I like about these lyrics is how feminine language results in feminist implications. This sense of faking it seems to indicate that the speaker’s doll-ness was her own doing—her own faking turns into a brand of realness, a comment, perhaps, on the performance of gender. The line between what’s real and what’s fake blurs, the twisted result of desire spun out of control. And the sense of a liminal space between exterior and interior in this song appeals to my poetic sensibilities, and belongs to a territory beyond feminism, where our interior and exterior selves cross. The song takes us into the complex space of identity-in-relation, where we move in multiple directions at once, trying to hold onto the slippery promises of the self under siege.
I like to think of the early-ish Courtney Love now—the one who talked with a sense of humor about the “essence of sickness of our culture,” as in this brief clip, where she discusses the cover of Live Through This:
I don’t know if it’s right or appropriate to call Love a role model, but I think she was that for me. I didn’t feel, as a teenager, like girls were supposed to speak up about the experience of growing up female in our culture, but Love proved all of my ideas wrong, in her interviews, in her performances, and in her lyrics. I think she allowed me to look at the culture and at my more immediate environment with a critical eye, and for that I’m grateful.
I don’t recall
but I climbed it,
I saw the bird-
and knew one centered
on photos would love
the image of one gone
off the natural world,
topping rocks, spent
from a world I loved.
The industrial bird center
brims with a wish
for tipped imagefull
beaks in the darkest
image where I won’t
parts collecting air
in talons and theres.
Lily Brown lives in Athens, GA, where she is a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia. Her first book, Rust or Go Missing, is forthcoming very soon from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Poems are coming soon or are out in 6X6, American Letters and Commentary, and the Colorado Review. In late November and December, she will be blogging from two first book tours here.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com. Check out previous POP essays here.