In September 1992, at the MTV Video Music Awards, Nirvana singer and grunge poster boy Kurt Cobain and his wife Courtney Love were involved in an altercation with Axl Rose. As the story goes, Cobain and Love were sitting backstage when the Guns N’ Roses singer and his supermodel girlfriend passed by. Love asked the ill-tempered Rose if he’d be the godfather to their new child Frances Bean; Rose took offense at Love’s sarcasm and warned Cobain to keep his woman in line. At the time, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were the couple celebre of grunge, snotty punks with a contempt for the mainstream they were quickly joining. Axl Rose represented everything they supposedly loathed: self-indulgence, misogyny, wallowing in the notoriety of his own celebrity.
And yet this little anecdote, from what seems like a whole other era, illuminates an irony Kurt Cobain didn’t stick around to see: Courtney Love is grunge’s Axl Rose. Like Rose, Love has an uncontrollable temper that has landed her in court several times in the last four years. Like Rose, Love yearns for the media spotlight, then turns on it as if it were uninvited and intrusive. Like Rose, Love’s band succumbed to the ultimate rock ’n’ roll clichékicking her perfectly capable drummer out of the band. Like Rose, Love has become reviled by much of the public, while remaining as compellingly watchable as a car accident.
All of which makes Hole’s long-awaited Celebrity Skin, without a doubt, the late-’90s Use Your Illusionan album that was repeatedly delayed while the ego in control continually fine-tuned the rock ’n’ roll product. The wait for a follow-up to Hole’s stellar preceding album, Live Through This, was four-and-a-half years, same as Use Your Illusion, and during that time so much anticipation built up that it seemed like a dam ready to burst.
Now Celebrity Skin is outand apparently nobody cares. After a surprisingly low debut in the Top 10, Celebrity Skin appears to be heading quickly off the charts. For all of Love’s baiting and teasing, the public doesn’t seem as fascinated with her self-absorbed neuroses as they were with former chart-topper Rose’s. That’s a shame, because unlike the Use Your Illusion records, which unnecessarily glossed Guns N’ Roses remarkably rough edges, Celebrity Skin is an exercise in pop-rock as an art form.
Not exactly the lightweight Fleetwood Mac record everyone was afraid Hole would make, Celebrity Skin owes more to pop-metal confectioneers like Cheap Trick. (Hell, there’s even a song named after the Trick’s ’78 classic Heaven Tonight.) Hole shows that musically it is a band, with all members sharing writing credits. Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan even lent a helping hand on five songs, giving them smartly conceived pop arrangements. (Too bad he couldn’t have done this on his own band’s awful arty-electro record earlier this year.) Each carefully constructed track displays an incredible amount of confidence and songwriting aplomb. The hooks are never rammed down your throat; the band simply allows them to subtly stick in your heada surprising about-face for a band that, just four years ago, was delivering bruising punk-rock anthems like “Violet” and “Plump.”
However, it’s this turnaround in approach that seems to be alienating the band’s fans and discrediting Love’s tenuous alterna-cred. Not only did Love polish up her band’s sound, but she polished up her own imageapparently, a Hollywood actress can’t be an out-of-control druggie in tattered baby-doll clothes. The new Courtney takes jobs as a Versace model, extols the virtues of being a celebrity, and displays some peculiarly perky breasts she didn’t have before. This is the same woman whose last album had a cover shot of a tiara-topped woman with make-up running down her face. While the songs on Live Through This bemoaned the selling of women as commodities (“Jennifer’s Body,” “Doll Parts”), Love’s own newly refurbished image and sound have left her previous audience in the cold. The “rock star” Courtney wallows in her own shallowness.
So is Courtney a hypocrite? A poseur? An ambitious manipulator? Well, yeah, and she knows it. But unlike Axl Rose, who rages with paranoia against his enemies, Love owns up to her glaring faults and exploits them for lyrical substance. Her irritating, self-aggrandizing personality may grate on camera, but it makes for compelling musical psychodrama on recordthe music may be credited to Hole, but its character is all Courtney Love. And, oh my, what a character. By the time you get to the end of the fifth song, Courtney’s sold her soul to Hollywood, declared punk dead, and admonished her late husband for giving up. The combination of raw emotion and pristine pop songwriting indeed achieves the tone of Rumours, the record Love admires so much.
The most fascinating and disturbing theme of Celebrity Skin is the use of Hollywood’s empty facade as a shelter from pain. Although Cobain’s death looms large over this record, Love only references him once directlyby altering a quote from his suicide note. The rest she keeps ambiguous. And yet, on track after track, Love sounds determined to save his lost soul; she almost seems to wish out loud that Cobain could have looked for solace in the artificial glamour of Hollywood, instead of his own self-pity.
In “Malibu,” Love suggests running away to the soft shores of California for comfort. “Reasons to Be Beautiful” finds her trying to help somebody “so sick in his body, so sick in his soul” find the will to live. With her husband, Love of course didn’t succeed, but she’s taken her own advice by becoming another acre of the “miles and miles of perfect skin.”
Maybe watching Cobain deteriorate devalued her previous convictions. Whatever the reasons, Love doesn’t let herself off the hook. She sees all the other lost souls in California looking for escape just like her. But as she points out on the record-ending “Petals,” the Hollywood façade works as only a ruse to hide yourself from the truth.
Celebrity Skin proposes surviving for the sake of self-interest and base pleasure if nothing else, an idea many seem to see as lack of artistic integity. There’s a kind of integrity, however, in not letting aesthetic noblesse control your own sense of self-worth. Courtney Love doesn’t care if she meets the alterna-cred standards as long as the music keeps her alive. How very passionately rock ’n’ roll.
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