Following on from her cover of ‘Creep’, we take a look at the grunge icon’s enduring legacy as an outsider
Courtney Love has always been a force of nature and, consequently, a divisive figure in pop culture. Since carving out her career as a grunge musician with a cult following, she’s persisted as a party girl icon for the better part of nearly three decades. Although unlike her male counterparts – musicians who are mythologized for their wild ways, and who maintain a respectability based on their artistic output regardless (even if that output’s critical success can be condensed to only a short period of time) – Love has suffered at the hands of her detractors who have dubbed her a substance abuser, a shitty mother, an almost constantly poorly-behaved public figure, and, according to conspiracy theorists, potentially a murderer.
Earlier this week, when Courtney Love covered “Creep” at LA producer Linda Perry’s party, it summed up her plight perfectly. As a woman singing the Radiohead classic, she gave it an even more profound, and brilliant meaning, and her performance hit right in the gut. Love is the proverbial ‘creep’ for sure, but as a woman, that means something very different than it does for Thom Yorke. It means she’s arbitrarily marginalized and judged for the same behaviour that earns men their stripes. Love has always been an outsider (and a breath of fresh air) in a culture that celebrates ‘messy’ men but that derides unruly women – switch genders, and she’s Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious or Ozzy Osbourne, all heralded as legends in different ways. Love her or hate her, there’s a stigma attached to Love that comes not because of her messiness, but by virtue of that perceived lesser quality: womanhood.
We can’t begin to talk about Love without first talking about her relationship with Kurt Cobain, which appeared, on the outside, to be wildly loving and also shamelessly destructive. That same relationship has shaped a lot of our cultural perception of Love, and rather than a young, troubled artist in love, it’s caused many to see her as an opportunistic shrew (although the same people who denigrate her for being calculating are the same who bash her for being out of control – two ideas which are directly at odds with one another).
In a scene from last year’s documentary Montage of Heck, Love reads hate mail while Cobain, dressed glamorously in a gown and fake moustache, mouths the words along with her. The note calls Cobain a “God of love in human form”, while Love is called “nasty” and “dirty” and “running her big fat mouth”. The perceived difference between the two – who, ostensibly, seem to possess very similar personalities and character traits – boils down to one thing, which is gender. Cobain and Love were both grunge music icons, both drug addicts, both controversial in front of the media and in public, yet the former was a hero while the latter was, and still is, vilified.
“It’s no secret that society often finds loud, messy, unapologetic women threatening to the status quo”
The Muse’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd calls this “the persistent misogyny that comes with devoted fans who believe a single woman is responsible for sullying the legacy of their precious man-god (just look at Beatles fans’ feelings toward Yoko Ono).” She says: “It’s a weird confluence of ownership, sexism, loner-hero-worship and, I guess, a disbelief that their idol could express such a human emotion as love, to the point where some fans seem to fetishize monasticism. (Everybody knows saints don’t bone!)”.
It doesn’t help that Love inherited the rights to Cobain’s Nirvana writing and publishing royalties (which she still owns and controls), as well as his image (the latter which has since been passed down to their daughter Frances Bean). On the other hand, it seems to barely matter that in the climax of his suicide note, Cobain wrote, “I have a goddess of a wife who sweats ambition and empathy…Please keep going Courtney, for Frances.” Love was blamed for the untimely demise of her Rock God husband, a repetitive pattern in our culture. Rather than place culpability on a male for his own emotional breakdown and eventual suicide, it must have been the exclusive fault of the crazy banshee at his side.
But let’s not forget that Hole, and Love’s artistic contribution to the grunge genre throughout the 90s, is important. Not speculatively important, but actually important – like Nirvana important. When Love formed Hole in 1989, she was working as a stripper to support the band, and she entered the music scene loudly, abrasively and as antithetical to the submissive, heteronormatively-sexualized women of mainstream pop culture. By the time Pretty On The Inside (1991), produced by Kim Gordon, was released, Love had established a repertoire of shocking stage antics and irrepressible vocality. Love didn’t just appear in order to satiate patriarchal notions of female propriety – she acted, and took to her art screaming lyrics like “When I was a teenage whore/ My mother asked me, she said, ‘Baby, what for?’” In short, Love upturned the notion of how popular female icons should behave, and like every woman before her and every woman after who has done the same, she’s been punished for it, as her personal life has often taken precedent over Hole’s cultural impact.
Love was, indeed, a force on stage, but she was also an important musician with a cult following, and by the time the band’s second album Live Through This was released in 1994, she was a household name. That album was a multi-platinum success, and Hole’s follow up Celebrity Skin (1998) was nominated for four GRAMMY Awards, a sign of having truly conquered the mainstream, a rarity for the grunge genre at the time (save, perhaps, for Nirvana’s success). Love also earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role in The People Vs. Larry Flynt in 1996. What all this adds up to is a successful, if not iconic, career.
Of course, Love has also done some questionable things in her time. She’s admitted to shooting up while pregnant, and her own daughter took out a temporary restraining order against her in 2009. But the way we police female public figures when they mess up in their personal lives is different from the way we talk about men who do the same. When a man is a legend, his behaviour becomes not only forgivable, but almost justified. When the Rolling Stones stole music from a “drugged out” Marianne Faithfull in the early 70s, it took her a protracted legal battle to earn what was rightfully hers. Meanwhile, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, equally as “drugged out”, received the benefit of the doubt. More recently, when Chris Brown assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna, he was almost instantly exonerated and given a standing ovation at the GRAMMYS, while fingers were pointed at her for not having left him sooner. It seems that men are allowed to keep their art, dignity, cultural esteem and our respect, even when their behaviour turns criminal. Women are expected to answer, and keep on answering for, their actions, and the actions done to them. There’s no clean slate for a messy woman.
It’s no secret that society often finds loud, messy, unapologetic women threatening to the status quo – the visible woman should never be heard before she is seen. But in the case of Love, her reputation, and her voice, have always preceded her. When she threw a shoe at Madonna during an interview at the 1995 MTV VMAs, Love established herself as a whirling dervish of a woman who would not, due to her own obstinacy, boredom or inebriation (or a combination of all three) sit down and shut up. You don’t have to like her “as a person”, in much the same way you don’t have to attempt to justify the questionable personalities and behaviours of the Rock Gods you idolize.
What we as a culture do have to begin doing, however, is affording the manic, sparklingly brilliant, noisy, disruptive women around us the same leeway we give their male counterparts. A male rock musician’s reputation doesn’t suffer because of public outbursts, being wasted on stage, bad language or casual sex – we celebrate this behaviour as both inherent and necessary to their image. In the end, these party boys might be false idols, but regardless, pop culture’s party girls reserve the right to same idolatry, especially when the only disclaimer between their art and their actions is gender.