I’ll just come out and say it: I’m too young to have appreciated the grunge era in its moment. Growing up in the rural Midwest, my first introduction to Courtney Love was in middle school when one of my older brother’s friends—in my eyes, an expert on all things alternative, since he regularly smoked weed in the city park after school, most likely in his mother’s minivan — pulled me aside and told me Kurt Cobain’s suicide was a hoax, since there was no way he could have pulled the trigger of a shotgun on himself.
Forget the note, forget the heroin; Kurt Cobain had been murdered, and, really, there was only one feasible culprit. I may have missed the grunge movement, but Courtney Love’s public image problem was alive and well all those years later.
Last week marked the 25th anniversary of Cobain’s death, a moment of cultural remembrance (rightfully) hailed across a swath of publications from NPR to The New York Times. In these articles, Love is mentioned in passing, usually in connection to Cobain’s drug addiction or her own; it’s a rare piece on Courtney Love to not mention the infamous 1992 Vanity Fair article that insinuated she continued to use drugs well into her pregnancy with their child. At best, she’s depicted as an ancillary character in the drama of Cobain’s life who used her husband’s tragic heroic arc as social currency for her own career; at worst, she’s the temptress that led him to his death, indirectly or otherwise—as recently as this week there are still conspiracy articles surfacing that she murdered Cobain.
This month, however, marks the 25th anniversary of Hole’s Live Through This, the record with the haunting (or, at the absolute least, titularly ironic) luck of being released a week after Cobain’s death. For most records, even existing in mere proximity to Cobain-the-Fallen-Rock-God™ would be enough to establish a lasting reputation, but as an album mercilessly helmed by Love, Cobain’s death is a horsefly in Live Through This’s legacy—relentless, vexing and distracting. Is it true that he wrote the songs for her? Aren’t Hole’s songs just ripoffs of Nirvana’s? Is she the Yoko Ono of the ’90s?
In Love’s words from Live Through This’s “I Think That I Would Die”,” there’s really only one appropriate response to all of the questions above: a bellowing, unapologetic “FUCK YOU.”
With that out of the way, let’s re-examine the kicking and screaming legacy of Hole’s Live Through This, a quarter-century after its inception.
1. Live Through This is less about surviving her husband’s death (and more about surviving the fame that came with being married to him.)
By the time Live Through This was released in 1994, Nirvana had dominated mainstream airwaves for the last three years. Love coupled with Cobain in late 1991, just before the band’s commercial breakout with Nevermind the following year. In the media, she was depicted as an interloper inserting herself into the band’s dynamic, a domineering presence who pursued the more sensitive Cobain until he relented into marrying her. And while it’s true that Hole’s sound changed on Live Through This from their first album once Love met him—sonically, the band’s mirrors the pattern of pop songs laced with arsenic, heavy choruses that Nirvana had monopolized on—the album is unique in its intelligent discussion of the boundaries and loopholes of femininity in a way that validates Love’s work as an individual artist. Aside from some backing vocals, Love claimed she didn’t accept Cobain’s help (or songwriting talents) on the record: “It’s like, ‘No fucking way, man! I’ve got a good band, I don’t fucking need your help.’”
2. The album is laden with motifs of motherhood and milk.
“I want my baby / Where is my baby?” Love loops on the album’s centerpiece “I Think That I Would Die,” in a pointed reference to her real-life custody battle over her and Cobain’s daughter. After the release of the Vanity Fair “Strange Love” article, the Department of Children and Family Services temporarily took custody of newborn Frances Bean, the pain of which is all too palpable in Love’s increasingly guttural screams on the track as she howls that “There is no milk!” Love’s unwillingness to give up her (seemingly) conflicting identities as rock star and mother further turned her into a tabloids villain, and she became a personified and (literally) amplified version of the debate over whether or not women “can have it all.”
3. Love used her physical beauty—in contrast with some of the album’s uglier content—as a means to an end.
The cover art of Live Through This features an image of newly-crowned pageant queen clutching a bouquet, with the band’s name stylized to resemble the Mattel Barbie logo. She’s beautiful, but mascara is running down her face, giving her an unpolished, almost crazed look. In an interview, Love stated that she wanted the cover to convey a feeling of “’I am, I am—I won! I have hemorrhoid cream under my eyes and adhesive tape on my butt, and I had to scratch and claw and fuck my way up, but I won Miss Congeniality!’” It’s a brand that Love perfected in her own look—she openly admitted to using a display of hyper-femininity as a way to garner attention for her messages. “When women get angry, they are regarded as shrill or hysterical… One way around that, for me, is bleaching my hair and looking good,” said Love. Stylized as an atomic blonde in delicate silk slips, Love’s howling vocals and unfettered rage becomes even more shocking. (Though, in truth, Love knew some will only see her as a pretty face/ass/set of tits; on “Doll Parts” she describes herself as an Frankenstein-ien amalgamation of attractive features, rather than as a whole.)
4. It’s an album about desire, in more ways than one.
In an interview with Melody Maker in 1994, Love described her desire to have a child with Cobain: “I wanted his babies. I saw something I wanted, and I got it. What’s wrong with that?” Though frequently wielded against her in descriptions of her thirst for pop stardom, Love’s insatiable desire—for sex, for power, for what she wants—is a thematic cornerstone of Live Through This. Simultaneously playing herself off as an object of male desire and as a defiant powerhouse of norms via her masculine-styled vocals and role as lead guitarist, Love acknowledges the slippery nature of her position and her desires on opening track “Violet,” screaming “Go on, take everything / Take everything, I want you to / Go on, take everything / Take everything, I dare you to” until it quickly becomes unclear who has the upper hand.
5. Hole’s discussions on sexual violence are just as (if not more) relevant than ever—and distinctly different from Nirvana’s.
In direct contrast to the Nirvana song “Polly,” which Cobain wrote from the perspective of serial rapist Gerald Arthur Friend, Love addresses sexual violence from actual experience on “Asking for It.” “Was she asking for it? / Was she asking nice?” Love can be heard snarling on the track, inspired by a stage dive gone bad. After leaping into the crowd, the power dynamic between Love and her audience shifted faster than she could control: in her words, “Suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn off me, my underwear was being torn off me, people were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like ‘pussy-whore-cunt,’” Once again, Love is deconstructed into a collection of body parts to be consumed and abused by her male fanbase. It’s a horrifying anecdote, not only as a reminder of how delicate her grip on her own image is, but also in the universality of the powerlessness she’s scathingly describing.
6. Love makes a space for her own female anger.
In 1995, Love’s therapist mother told Vanity Fair that Love’s fame “is not about being beautiful and brilliant, which she is. It’s about speaking in the voice of the anguish of the world.” While anguish works, anger—nay, unadulterated rage—is often a more apt descriptor of the fuel for Live Through This. When asked in an interview with Sidelines in 1991 why she writes “such fucked-up lyrics,” Love responded “What do you mean by fucked-up? As in passionate or angry…? I sometimes feel that no one’s taken the time to write about certain things in rock, that there’s a certain female point of view that’s never been given space.” On the album, Love bellows visceral lyrical descriptions of distinctly feminine topics, like breast milk and sexual assault, from the bowels of her vocal range—at one moment her voice an ugly, angry sound, the next it quickly melts back into traditional femme sweetness. Through bait-and-switch moments like this in her delivery, Love coerces her audience to finally make room for female anger.
When asked where she got the name of her band from, Love has said that she was inspired by a line from Euripides’ Medea: “There’s a hole that pierces right through me.” Maybe that’s true, or maybe the name is a callback to Proverbs 22:14 (“The mouth of a loose woman is a deep pit”), which Love included on the back of Hole’s 1991 single “Dicknail,” or maybe (read: probably) it really is just a plain old euphemism in the corner that we’re willfully ignoring. But there’s a poetic appeal to Love linking herself to Medea. Often only remembered for her violence—she murdered her brother to distract her father long enough to escape him—Medea is depicted as both highly intelligent but reliant on animalistic emotions to survive, as feminine in her manipulation of men but masculine in her ruthless pursuit of revenge. On Live Through This, Love is bold enough to straddle a similar binary, regardless of the public contempt it places her in. She takes the pain of that situation and, once again, turns it back onto her audience: “Someday you will ache like I ache.” It’s a lament, but don’t be fooled: it’s also a threat.