Courtney Love, a beautiful contradiction of ferociousness and vulnerability, sums herself up succinctly by declaring: “I’m not a woman, I’m a force of nature.” Such words evoke images of tornados raging across an open plain, of being both untameable and unruly. Indeed, grunge extraordinaire, bold fashion icon and unapologetic feminist are just some of the ways one can describe the vivacious Hole frontwoman. From singing, to song writing, to acting, Love has enjoyed an international career that has lasted nearly four decades. However, being romantically involved with grunge king, Kurt Cobain, meant that it was inevitable that she was going to be inextricably linked with the tragic figure. Love has courted fierce controversy to this day, mainly for her heavy drug use and the supposed hand she played in Cobain’s death. In fact, few figures have received such invasive and venomous attention from the public. Yet, beyond the endless headlines, Love is an incredible individual who possesses extreme talent, is unafraid to confront controversial subjects and doesn’t care what you think of her.
At the age of twenty, I first discovered Love when I was attempting to drown my sorrows in alternative rock. Listening to Hole on a cold January evening, the volatile riffs and vocals played on my speakers, I felt a sense of calm. “Someday you will ache like I ache,” sang Love repeatedly, her voice rising to a brutal and painful melody. Her uncanny ability to wield completely raw emotions and a siren-like scream culminates in a sound reminiscent of a musically inclined banshee. She is the epitome of a beautiful mess. Her tangled, golden hair, iconic lipstick and Victorian style babydoll dresses portrayed a woman who was at war with the perception of glossiness that haunts many females in the music industry. Like myself, many women across the world have been drawn to the train wreck image that Love has wielded so proudly. Kylie Murphy, in the 2001 edition of Hecate Journal, described her “as an early nineties icon [who] embodies the publicly transgressive women [who] allows women to think through and negotiate new ways of being.”
c/o Alan Levenson, 1992 – Image Via Tumblr
Born July 9, 1964, to say Courtney Love has lived an unconventional life is an understatement. Describing her early years as being defined by “hairy, wangly-ass hippies [doing] Gestalt therapy”, Love was born into chaos and instability. Indeed, the turbulence of her home life was only matched by the turbulence of constantly being relocated. By the time she was sixteen, she had lived in San Francisco, Oregon and New Zealand, whilst also being expelled from multiple schools. Tokyo, Dublin and Liverpool are also among the many places that Love has attempted to call home. To fund her music, she had even occupied a role as a topless dancer in downtown Portland. Prior to Hole forming in 1989, Love also dabbled in other music ventures during the 1980s. She formed new wave band, Sugar Babylon, with Kat Bjelland and Robin Barbur in 1985. This had followed a brief 1982 stint in Faith No More before being kicked out. It becomes clear that Love has always had an inclination towards music, which she then chose to live and breathe.
Citing her influences as Big Black, Sonic Youth and Fleetwood Mac, Love posted an advert in a 1988 music zine that was to change her life forever. The formation of Hole in late 1989 brought a new era for Love and for many other punk and grunge bands. Their first studio album, Pretty on the Inside, was somewhat chaotic. The clash between Love’s abrasive vocals and Eric Erlandson’s thrash-like guitar riffs generated significant attention, with one critic pointing out its contradictions: “Pretty on the Inside is such a cacophony [yet] it’s probably the most compelling album to be released in 1991.” Cited for its somewhat violent imagery and use of profanity, Love’s position as an unapologetic feminist becomes clear throughout the LP. Crucially, taboo topics such as rape (“Mrs. Jones”), suicide (“Clouds”) and moral corruption (“Garbadge Man”) allude to violence against women being a prominent theme. Similarly, elitism, self-image, abortion and murder also frames the narrative of the album. In a 1991 interview with Everette True, Love stated “no one’s taken the time to write about certain things in rock … there’s a certain point of view that’s never been given space.” Her desire to explore what it means to be female through her music in a raw and unabashed manner earned Hole a growing reputation that would eventually thrust the band in the path of Nirvana. Overall, as well as gaining a cult following among rock and punk fans, Love began to gain a prominent reputation.
The release of Hole’s sophomore album, Live Through This, in 1994 has solidified Love’s position as an angry butterfly. Just seven days before the album dropped, Cobain had taken his own life with a handgun in his own home, bringing unimaginable sorrow to many fans across the world. Unintentionally, Live Through This became a poignant rallying cry for those facing the worst of life’s troubles, undeniably seeping with its tragic context. The death of bassist, Kristen Pfaff, from a heroin overdose further emphasised its status as a eulogistic work. Thus, the album became iconic, while Love became an emblem of tragic affliction, forced to live out her grief in the smothering public eye. David Fricke, in a review for Rolling Stone, described the LP as “the work of a woman who measured the depth of her abyss by taking the plunge- and is still struggling for daylight.” A beautiful example of this anguish must be opening track, “Violet,” which skilfully utilises shifting perspectives of zealous emotion. The juxtaposition between Love screaming “Go on, take everything/ I want you to,” repeatedly, and “Might last a day/ Mine is forever,” alludes to an all too real inner turmoil. She is unclear if the feelings of hurt and betrayal will ever go away, if she’ll every be the same again. As the scratching instrumentals fade out towards the end, only Love’s lamenting voice is left, conveying a clear sense of loneliness.
However, in a 2014 interview for Spin Magazine, Love debated the intention of the LP: “it’s [like] living through what I already lived through … It wasn’t meant to be about anybody dying. It was about going through fucking media humiliations like this.” Indeed, Love’s own personal troubles may well have influenced the album. Between her own volatile substance abuse and constant legal wrangling to gain full custody of her daughter, the tumultuous road her life had taken gave Love an almost cruel inspiration. The shock and the infamy of Cobain’s death has no doubt helped shape its legacy, but it is more important to remember that the encapsulated the feelings of Love as a living female (thus allowing many women to identify). The rawness of the lyrics speaks of a more vulnerable, more human version of a grunge icon, even before Cobain’s death.
Courtney Love is considered an icon of third wave feminism, by both critics and fans alike. On paper, she is a woman who lives life in her own authentic way and has achieved her own slice of infamy. A quote from the early nineties sees Love claiming, “I wanna effect culture in a very large way. If I fuckin’ die with having written two, three or four brilliant rock songs, [I] fuckin’ don’t know why I lived.” With somewhat of a prophetic smugness, she has shattered this goal and smashed out way beyond. If musical success is solely measured in sales, then an estimated three million albums sold in the United States alone should be more than satisfactory. Considering that the grunge scene (and the music scene, in general) is largely populated by male acts, to have become such an alternative icon during the nineties is a testament to Love’s prowess. Indeed, everything Courtney Love does is a direct challenge to the masculine landscape of not only the music industry, but also towards the people who would merely have women as background supporters.
Furthermore, when Hole’s debut album, Pretty on the Inside, was released in 1991, Love explained that “what’s important to [her] is getting across the female perspective- and that includes rage and vulnerability.” In a world where “there has been so much male posturing in rock,” she “wants every girl in the world to pick up a guitar and start screaming.” Her energy and passion is reminiscent of fellow rockers, Joan Jett and Janis Joplin, who also transformed music in their own electric way. While making a point of not disparaging the contribution of the other Hole members, it is hard to deny the fervour that Courtney Love possesses.
However, there is no doubting that Courtney Love has generated huge waves of controversy over her career. A mentioned previously, the sudden death of Kurt Cobain in April 1994 has been the main source of vitriol towards Love. The persistent allegation that she was solely responsible for his death, whether by her own hand or by hitman, has haunted her from the very moment Cobain’s body was discovered in the greenhouse. Many of Cobain’s friends and family have stated their disbelief at his suicide and have often alluded to their suspicions that Love was involved. Given his cult-like status, it was inevitable that die-hard fans of Kurt Cobain would develop their own conspiracy regarding their fallen hero. To have him taken away so suddenly has led to feelings ranging from disbelief to outright denial towards a demise by his own hand. Similarly, the release of Nick Broomfield’s 1998 documentary, Kurt & Courtney, represented a further attempt to fuel the ‘murder’ narrative. While the attempt to shape footage as concrete evidence is obvious, the release of the documentary was incredibly problematic for Love.
Love has received intense media covered, where she has had every move dissected and analysed. Her public image has gone through almost every viewpoint- from labelled as a riot grrrl feminist rock star, to being lampooned as a murderous, drug addled bitch. While there is no doubting she has performed many questionable acts (anyone remember her getting a bikini wax in a room full of journalists?), Love has most definitely been the victim of double standards. For her ‘rock n’ roll’ ways, she has been vilified, while her male counterparts have been mythologised for the very same thing.
Numerous critics have drawn comparisons between Courtney Love and Yoko Ono. The latter is an extremely talented artist and performer, but has gained infamy for being the wife of John Lennon until his death in 1980. The attempts of the media and worshipping fans to depict these women as evil and dirty reflects a problematic double-standard of the opposite sex. Kat George, for Dazed and Confused Magazine, sums up the problem: “it’s no secret that society often finds loud, messy unapologetic women threatening to the status quo.” From the very beginning of her career, Love has established herself as a force to be reckoned with, leading to the constant attempts to tarnish her image by disparaging every mistake she has made.
It is true that Love has become an icon of considerable proportions, whether you like her as a person or not. Although this article may seem like an attempt to glorify every aspect of Courtney with no regard for her wrongdoings, I truly do admire how she has managed to carve her own position within the music industry. She has endured so much grief and heartbreak in her life, which she was forced to undergo in the limelight. She has constantly pushed boundaries with her music and song writing. She has been shaped adversity and emerged strong from it. Courtney Love truly is “a force of nature.”