Twenty years after the release of Hole’s Live Through This, the level of critical praise and commercial success the album achieved is perhaps lost on those who didn’t witness it firsthand. Over two decades, Courtney Love has, unfairly, become one of rock’s biggest punchlines. A new generation that could really use Live Through This identifies Love with her public outbursts, her legal battles (with the surviving members of Nirvana, her daughter, and most recently, a Twitter defamation case from her ex-attorney), and worst of all, as just Kurt Cobain’s widow.
At the time of Live Through This, Love separated herself publicly from the riot grrrl movement, forging her own path with songs that are just as radical as anything by Bikini Kill or Bratmobile. Moreover, she had the balls to release these shockingly raw anthems into the world while all eyes were on her. The result is easily one of the best albums of the 1990s, not to mention one of the greatest works of feminist art ever created. Live Through This was an album that reached listeners who were new to this kind of worldview and could stand to experience that wrath and scorn that is a Courtney Love “FUCK! YOU!” And really, who couldn’t use a Courtney scream to awaken the senses every so often?
To celebrate Live Through This’ 20th anniversary (April 12, 2014), we tapped some of our favorite feminist-leaning musicians and music writers to dissect the album front to back. Each of these 12 contributors — Flavorwire editors included — took a different song and discussed it from critical, personal, and/or historical perspectives. Our contributors are as follows, in order of their appearances on the following pages: Daphne Carr, Lindsay Zoladz, Maura Johnston, Dan Weiss, Tyler Coates, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, White Lung’s Mish Way, The Coathangers’ Julia Kugel, Judy Berman, myself (Jillian Mapes), Tom Hawking, and Tacocat’s Bree McKenna.
“Violet” — Daphne Carr
“Violet” is the match that burns down the silent good girl archetype, a foundational statement for the public testimony that is Live Through This. With its “angry female” pop-punk burn, “Violet” is a master study in 1990s rock structure, recording, and affect. This is a slick pop song with not one but two choruses, hooks galore, and lyrics crafted for maximum shout-along potential for all genders and ages. Little embellishments pushed high in the mix-pick slides, feedback squelches, a synth countermelody in the second verse, and girl-gang backups mixed with Love’s rough vocals mark it as of a specific time (“when punk broke”).
The simple barre chords and chant are so basic to rock form that the song is considered a standard for teachers of first-time players at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, where for six years I taught girls to sing in time while picking the descending riff. Each day their sense of time got surer and their yells more rhythmic and ferocious. It was a perfect way to unleash the inner girl rocker.
The bassline holds the groove while the sweet, Fleetwood Mac-like verses shift into chorus chaos with the basic ingredients of punk’s magic brew: Patty Schemel’s hard and forward toms pummel, Eric Erlandson’s wall of monster distortion and Love’s sneer and howl of self-destruction. And those chorus lyrics, they haunt as both dare and prophecy, within the song and the life of its author: “I told you from the start just how this would end/ When I get what I want, I never want it again.”
The inspiration of the song, penned in 1991, is said to be then-recent ex Billy Corgan’s cruelty, but these words speak to the greater story about an abused lover breaking free from violence, daring to declare her anger publicly. “Go on, take everything,” Love sings over and over again. As the takeaway sentiment of an opening track, it doesn’t leave a lot of room, but her taunt — “I dare you to” — suggests that this is a band that can embody the rendering of women’s pain into art. It is that strong survivor spirit that will inform the rest of the album and serve as model for an an alternative, brash and fearless femininity in the 1990s.
“Miss World” — Lindsay Zoladz
Between the predictably tortured ages of 11 and 15, I was of the opinion that “Miss World” was one of the greatest songs of all time. And I know this for a fact because — ever the personal archivist — on my birthday each year I would make a mixtape of The Greatest Songs of All Time. I never shared these tapes with anybody else; they were my secret equivalent of the pencil mark on the kitchen wall, documenting the ways I’d changed (or, more often, hadn’t) over the course of a year. With those creaky-staircase chords cradling Courtney Love’s fractured croak of “somebody kill me,” “Miss World” made the cut every year, always to my slight disappointment. In your pre-teen and early-teen years everybody loves to tell you that It Gets Better, so it was a bummer to check in at the beginning of a new year and confirm that the raw and throbbing pain encased in this song still rang unbelievably true. Really? Twelve still feels like “Miss World”? And 13? And 14? And…fuck.
Like most parents, my parents did not like Courtney Love. And given that pretty much all my music purchases during those years took place on family trips to the mall, it was very heavily implied that Live Through This was not a record I was allowed to own. Sure, the Parental Advisory sticker did not bother them when it was warning against something a little more dudely — Smashing Pumpkins or blink-182 or (yes, I will admit this publicly) 311 — but there was a certain danger surrounding Courtney Love’s potential influence on a 12, 13, or 14-year-old girl. Identifying too closely with Courtney Love posed a threat to my parents that I could easily become her, the fallen girl in the tattered baby doll dress. Which, duh, only made me worship Hole more.
I taped “Miss World” off the radio on my bedroom stereo when I was 11, and so on early Greatest Songs of All Time compilations the intro was clipped. Napster arrived when I was 13, so on the later mix CDs it is encrusted with (thank you, dial-up) 96 KB-sludge. It’s not that my opinion about this song really changed after 15, it’s more that I associate it so specifically with this particular period of my adolescence, when my obsession with it felt like a dirty secret. “Miss World” was one of the first songs I ever loved privately and disobediently, and for that reason I will love it forever.
“Plump” — Maura Johnston
Courtney Love’s ability to transform feminine ideals traditionally associated with beauty into something ugly helped Hole resonate with young women who were just waking up to gender’s infrastructure in the 1990s. Her gnarled, acidic voice combined with descriptions of curdled femininity made potent the already-turbocharged rock on Live Through This.
Love was also one of the few women to talk about body image in the frank manner that she did; she frequently referenced how being overweight during her stripping days resulted in fewer tips from patrons. In an intense 1993 interview with Rollerderby , she described in detail how she thought that giving her image a total overhaul got her laid and got her famous. (It’s a pretty convincing case.) In the context of Love, who was simultaneously (and savvily) upending some female conventions while hewing closer to others, simply titling a song “Plump” is a statement, although digging deeper into the lyrics and the cascading-rainstorm riffs reveals a startling portrait of squalor and loathing directed inward and outward.
Domestic bliss has been upended (“But I don’t do the dishes/ I throw them in the crib”); rivers of vomit and milk run through the lyrics as Love sings of “my baby” playing around with someone else in a way that could be construed as motherly or romantic, depending on how hard you squint at it. The unease with feeling not at home — whether in one’s body, one’s living space, or one’s fundamental relationships with others — persists throughout, which is why Love’s yowling over her band’s dour chugging feels especially cathartic on this brief, brutal track.
“Asking For It” — Dan Weiss
Courtney Love is no stranger to cruelty. Admitting her mistakes but not total defeat, Love wishes she was a more adequate mother to Frances Bean and that she would’ve taken care of her pets better, suggested by the single most upsetting story you’ve ever read about her. But the amount of hatred you can find on Twitter or VH1 for everything else she’s done — for sleeping with every reigning alt-peer imaginable, for punching fellow feminist heroine Kathleen Hanna, for claiming to have located flight MH370 and showing us what the experts could not via Microsoft Paint, for either shooting her husband or making him want to kill himself and thus depriving a generation of misguided males of their depressive prophet — many people would use her own words against her. That she was, indeed, asking for it.
What’s so sad about all this is how those are the same people who need to hear the song “Asking for It,” who need to understand that a rape threat doesn’t equal a retaliation fit for this or any century. Dr. Dre threw an MTV-employed woman down the stairs and doesn’t have to worry about his legacy fading, despite releasing his last culturally relevant album only two years before Love’s. That double standard is sickly, and sadly hasn’t eroded much 20 years on, not with “legitimate rape” a top search term in an election year.
Before lollygagging around the backdrop of the Friar’s Club Roast for Pamela Anderson (another action that doesn’t warrant rape threats), Love wrote “Asking for It” about her own experience being assaulted by an audience: “People were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like ‘pussy-whore-cunt,'” Love told Nirvana biographer Everett True. She wrote the song out of penance, echoing too many survivors’ private worry that they brought their sexual assault onto themselves. Something like this seems unthinkable in social media times. Publicly, anyway; too many women know those words and threats don’t just stop at YouTube comment sections.
The title was re-borrowed again for the Ask for It EP, which featured a pair of slit wrists on the cover. It’s hard to blame her. “Live through this with me and I swear I’ll die for you” isn’t just historical catnip for those who’d rather dig for morbid clues in Kurt Cobain’s widow’s music rather than acknowledge Love’s very real experience. It’s a meditation on life after a crowd rapes and threatens you, on how to convince the person who helped you survive stay alive himself. As an album title it reads like Love’s final plea. On record it sets up the loudest, hoarsest refrain of the song. She keeps asking and the void keeps not answering. At the time she might’ve wanted it to say yes, you did. Social media belatedly granted that wish. But she chose to live.
“Jennifer’s Body” — Tyler Coates
Even though I knew of Hole and Courtney Love as a kid, I somehow missed Live Through This when it came out. I was 11, after all, and it was beyond my comprehension back then (plus, I spent most of my childhood listening to showtunes, so I imagine it would have been a lot to take it at that age). Perhaps it makes more sense that I truly discovered Live Through This as a 26-year-old going through a breakup. I discovered that I couldn’t possibly listen to any new music — everything reminded me of my ex, and the idea of him discovering the same new bands and musicians without me was too painful for me to handle. So I went back 15 years or so and listened to a lot of early-‘90s rock, hearing, for the most part, for the first time a lot of the bands that achieved success before I had the opportunity to teach myself about music.
Live Through This was one of those albums, and it struck me how perfect it was as a brief collection of songs (clocking in at just 38 minutes!). The anger and ferocity in Courtney Love’s voice was a perfect pairing with my feelings of anger and despair. Having known little about her as a person then (and having a giant Nirvana-shaped hole in my knowledge of ‘90s rock), I didn’t listen to Live Through This with any biographical context. I just knew I liked it because it sounded the way I felt.
“Jennifer’s Body” was one of the songs that, not parsing too much, seemed to fit exactly what I was going through. Courtney’s wails and screams were exactly how I wanted to express myself but felt like I couldn’t. The mutilation imagery — body parts, being cut apart, expressing bitterness: I remember wanting to absolutely lose control and throw a temper tantrum, break shit, hurt myself, but I couldn’t because I knew better. “Jennifer’s Body” sounded as if Courtney was doing it for me so I didn’t have to, recognizing that sometimes your own worst enemy is yourself (and, not to mention, the men who profess to be your lover and your friend before cutting you down).
“Doll Parts” — Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Retrospectives on Live Through This are forever diagnosing Courtney Love’s prescience; the album about drugs and love and death and dying was released four days after the suicide of Kurt Cobain, as though this is some grand evidence that she knew her husband would soon die. But if we’re being frank: who didn’t know? Besides all that speculation seeming detrimental, the post-facto mythologizing of two devastated, doomed junkie rock heroes romanticizes what really amounts to a horrific impasse of addiction and depression. Love was not a psychic, just immersed in the thick of her reality, which no doubt kept her still, as though she’d been caught in a tar pit. It was a document of lived tumult, a monster of an album that was also a microcosm of day-to-day turmoil. With its foreboding prom queen on the cover, accepting her award just before you presumed the blood would hit from above, Hole’s second album was the logical conclusion of their first: Love had been “pretty on the inside,” but now that she had become “miss world” she was struggling to stay afloat.
The song “Doll Parts,” as mournful as it got on Live Through This, was more than a metaphor. In the Riot Grrrl ’90s, actual doll parts not only represented how the patriarchy split women into psychological pieces and disembodied us as objects, but were also a prime decoration in the punk houses of the day (an image that stands out is a red candle shoved inside a Carlo Rossi wine jug with a Kewpie doll head glued to it, and oh god there was also definitely the aroma of incense and weed). But more profound than any of the lyrics on the radio at the time — including those by Kurt Cobain, the romantic object of Love’s “want” in this song — was the lyric, “I want to be the girl with the most cake.” The pure ambition in that line, and the ragged, nearly desperate desire with which Love sang it, embodied that specific moment in time perfectly, almost unbelievably so. It made concrete the dreams that women of a certain generation were feeling at the time, but also expressed the anxiety and anguish that we might not get ahead despite the revolution we were cultivating. She was more of an individualist feminist than anything close to a riot grrrl, but it was a sentiment that rang true to millions of women at the time. The difference was, Courtney Love’s primary albatross was herself. “Someday, you will ache like I ache.” God willing, I hope not.
“Credit In The Straight World” — Mish Way from White Lung
Before Spotify, blogs, iTunes, Last.fm, and even Napster, you found other bands through the bands you loved. You would read the liner notes and obsessively fish through interviews with your favorite rock stars and study all their influences. You’d dig into their references.
When I first fell in love with Live Through This, I read Love’s lyrics over and over, but one of my favorite songs on the record was “Credit In The Straight World,” which is a cover. This is how I found Young Marble Giants. YMG’s sole LP, 1980’s Colossal Youth, changed my perspective on music almost as much as Hole did. I remember when my boyfriend brought me an original press of Colossal Youth. I almost fell off my chair. Not only did Hole and Courtney Love heavily influence me as a teenager, but Love herself introduced me to many bands I never would have found out about without her guidance. The woman was always throwing down references and other bands, name-dropping constantly, but she gave me a map. It was a slow grow, but that was what made hunting music fun before digital files became available at the click of a button.
“Softer, Softest” — Julia Kugel from The Coathangers
I was a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, nestled comfortably into the Southern region known as the Bible Belt. The first time I heard and saw Hole, my proper little world was shattered. Yes, there had been others that challenged the status quo before, but Hole emerged as a badass female-run band right in the sweet spot of my adolescence. They were strong, rude, loud, and powerful while simultaneously embracing their femininity. Hole was scary (ha) and fascinating.
For me, “Softer, Softest” was an angst-riddled anthem. A big “fuck you… your nurturing is poison… your milk is sour and makes me sick.” A powerful sentiment and a healthy questioning of parents and authority figures at the time. That is what I took away from it. Perhaps the song was a personal account of childhood abuse (reading the lyrics now as an adult I perceive violence and sadness), but as a young girl the attitude and delivery of the song reeked of rebellion and revolt against the accepted norms of what it meant to be a female in society.
Thank you, Hole!
“She Walks On Me” — Judy Berman
Courtney Love is an outsider even among outsiders, a radical even among radicals. Notoriously, she is a feminist who often doesn’t get along with other women — a reputation illustrated in the alt-rock encyclopedia of ’90s kids’ collective memory by the image of her punching Kathleen Hanna (for no apparent reason) at Lollapalooza. Despite the overlap between the dates and locations of Hole’s emergence and riot grrrl’s, and evidently for largely personal reasons (Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail once dated Kurt Cobain, for example), Love openly sneered at the punk-rock feminist movement with which she seemingly shared many principles. In a Melody Maker interview quoted in Poppy Z. Brite’s Courtney Love: The Real Story, Love complained that riot grrrl was “teensy, weensy, widdle, cutie” and hypothesized that “the reason the media is so excited about it is because it’s saying females are inept, females are naive, females are innocent, clumsy, bratty.”
As someone who credits both Hole and riot grrrl with waking me up as a kid (I was nine when Live Through This came out and discovered it a year or two later), I disagree. But it’s a position Love stuck to throughout the ’90s, and that she often repeated in her music: Live Through This’ “Rock Star”; the Beautiful Son EP track “20 Years in the Dakota,” a song of solidarity with Yoko Ono that featured the blistering indictment, “Riot grrrls, think you can stop me/ You’re forever in her debt/ Well, I know you haven’t saved me/ And you haven’t saved her yet”; and, in a less explicit way, “She Walks on Me.”
The song starts off with a few seconds of tentative, Sonic Youth-style guitar meandering but quickly works itself into a frenzy. When Love’s voice comes in, she sounds like she’s delivering a fire sermon in the midst of a tornado: “Geeks do not have pedigrees/ Or perfect punk-rock resumes/ Or anorexic magazines/ It smells like girl, it smells like girl.” Although there are more intense moments on Live Through This (the “fuck you” and all that comes after it in “I Think That I Would Die,” for one), “She Walks on Me” is its most sustained burst of fury.
Amusingly similar in spirit to Bikini Kill’s “Rah! Rah! Replica,” it’s more than just a swipe at riot grrrl or frenemies like Love’s bandmate-turned-rival Kat Bjelland (of Babes in Toyland, etc.). “She Walks on Me” is about the way women can feed off each other’s energy and tear each other down at the same time, how we ostracize the weird girl and then imitate her when she grows up to be a rock star.
Of course, because no one is more full of contradictions that Courtney Love, “She Walks on Me” is also a song that does the thing it rails against. One of the most fascinating, and frustrating, things about Love is her willingness to take down other women while insisting that she isn’t the kind of woman who does that. Her 1996 Bust magazine essay, “Bad Like Me,” is an exercise in that kind of double-think: “Bad girls are kinder than good girls and they are better to other girls, mostly, unless said other girls are boy-pleasin’ users who want a little bad girl spice rubbed off on ’em like so much perfume,” she writes. Themes of female rivalry have followed Love all the way to her most recent album, 2010’s Nobody’s Daughter, on songs like “Samantha” and “Skinny Little Bitch.”
It would be a misunderstanding to dismiss this as cattiness — as Love’s childhood nickname, Pee Girl, suggests, it’s rooted in some deep autobiographical stuff. And it gets at certain truths about how women turn on each other to survive in a patriarchal system that feminism too often glosses over. Not that I was seriously analyzing any of that in middle school. But as seemingly the only girl in my class who preferred Nirvana and Hole over Hanson and the Spice Girls, the one who had hair like a Brillo Pad and never seemed to buy the right jeans, I sure did feel it.
“I Think That I Would Die” — Jillian Mapes
When I was about 15, I discovered Nirvana in a big way. I had spent my life up until that point obsessing, almost exclusively, over rock music created by men. From a female empowerment/gender politics perspective, Kurt Cobain numbered among the best male role models in rock ’n’ roll for a young girl to have. I understood pretty quickly what a song like “Polly” was railing against, and what it meant that Kurt wasn’t afraid to wear dresses.
Five years later, I went through a Hole phase. I’ve wondered from time to time what my teenage years would have been like if Live Through This had soundtracked them instead of Nevermind, and I’ve deduced that I would have stood a little taller. Like so many others, music was a source of strength and empowerment in my formative years, one of the few spots where I felt as though I belonged. Except, I was listening to this music where, historically, I did not truly belong. I took guitar lessons for two years and did not once ask my teacher to show me the chords to a song written by a woman.
The word “feminist” is said just once on Live Through This. In “I Think That I Would Die,” Courtney sings, “She lost all her innocence/ Gave it to an abysses/ She lost all her innocence/ She said ‘I am not a feminist.’” While the song is clearly about Love and Cobain losing custody of their baby daughter Frances Bean when she was mere weeks old, this part takes on a few meanings. Courtney could be talking about her own innocence, particularly given her upbringing in broken home after broken home, using drugs early on, eventually emancipating and working as a teenaged stripper. But there’s also a psychic quality to Love’s lyrics (here and generally speaking) when you consider how things played out for Frances Bean: father dies, mother struggles to parent (in a very public manner, no less), emancipated at 17, engaged by 19.
Love draws loose sketches of her motherly agony, spending most of “I Think That I Would Die” asking where her baby is, who took her, and fleshing things out with her Live Through This imagery go-tos (milk and roses). It’s not as though a father can’t express such extreme parental anguish in song, but the only such example that I can think of is Eric Clapton’s miserably sad “Tears in Heaven.” At the time when I first heard “I Think That I Would Die,” I’m not sure I had considered what Courtney and Kurt had gone through with Frances Bean. After rumors spread that Love had used heroin during her pregnancy, child welfare services launched an investigation into the matter and took Frances Bean away from her parents in the meantime.
Starting a family is one of those things that gets pushed to the backburner when you’re a feminist; you’re not supposed to value it, and for a long time I didn’t. But hearing Courtney Love scream her fucking heart out over her child on a record that’s as feminist as they come did something to me over the years. Love’s parental struggle is one I hope I can never relate to, but in a small way, I feel as though I belong with “I Think That I Would Die” — something I never truly felt, even in my most outsider moments as a teenager, with a Nirvana song.
“Gutless” — Tom Hawking
Live Through This: even the title always sounded like a challenge. From the opening snarl of “Violet” to the closing broadside of “Rock Star,” the experience of listening to this album circa 1994 felt like stepping through a window into the storm of chaos and adversity that characterized the life of its creator at the time of its creation. And as is often the case, it’s chaos and adversity that produce the best art.
“Gutless,” coming second to the last Live Through This, is as visceral a snarl of defiance as any on the album, a declaration that its narrator doesn’t need anyone, that she’s going to get through this alone. It calls to mind Henrik Ibsen’s declaration that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone” — except in this case, it’s the strongest woman in the world, and she’s excoriating the song’s subject for failing to stand with her.
The ferocity with which she declares “you’re gutless” is intimidating, and the song’s last verse reads as a declaration that Love has lived through this, and will live through pretty much anything else, with or without your support: “You can try to suck me dry/ But there’s nothing left to suck/ Just you try to hold me down/ Come on, try to shut me up.” Shutting Courtney Love up? Um, yeah, good luck.
The song’s funny, too, something that Love never really gets enough credit for, in her lyrics or in her life in general — in particular, “I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus” is one of the best lines she’s ever written, a snappy one-liner that manages to evoke both a nostalgia for lost childhood and a healthy spirit of skepticism (Love once studied theology, remember). Again, it evokes a sense of standing alone in the storm, without a crutch or support, and emerging stronger when the winds have blown themselves into submission. What doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger, y’know.
“Rock Star”/”Olympia” — Bree McKenna from Tacocat
A few years ago, I did a one-off show in a Hole cover band and learned the basslines to “Rock Star.” Of course, the first order of business for playing a live show became the question: “Do we keep this intro for the live show?” My cover band came to the conclusion that the most essential part of Live Through This is the intro to this song. That purposeful double-fuck-up, mocking the precious, naïve indie rock of the time: “Well I went to school. Oh. Haha.”
I certainly have nothing against the ’90s riot grrrls or indie underground (it’s definitely the most inspiring period to me!), but this song is just really fucking funny. Whether anyone agrees with the sentiment or not, you have to agree that it can be pretty difficult to call out people in your scene.
“Rock Star” punches the indie rock/riot grrrl/underground scene roots in the teeth, taking down punk culture and its own conservative restrictions. In this instance, the nonconformist outsiders who had flocked to find a place for themselves as Olympia hipsters ended up in a culture of homogeneous punk conformity. In an alternate version of the song, lyrics are changed to, “We took punk rock, and we got a grade.”
The lyrics may parody what Hole perceives as the hive mind of the Olympia scenester, but the part that’s so interesting to me is that it portrays a freeze frame of the ’90s. A tiny snapshot of angry separation — Courtney Love in her attempts to distance herself from the riot grrrl movement. The song itself is really fascinating because of its honest, critical feminist dialogue of the time.
Later in the song, as Eric Erlandson’s shredding guitar almost gets buried somewhere in the middle, under Love’s angry pleading wails: “Won’t! You! Please! Be! Real! Fuck! You!”
I had always assumed that the title of song was referring to either Kathleen Hanna or K Records founder Calvin Johnson (in a Peel Session, another changed lyric has Love singing “I went to school with Calvin”). But the song is actually titled “Olympia”; it’s credited on the album as “Rock Star” because the removal of the song was a last-minute decision made after the artwork was already finalized. (The actual song “Rock Star” was removed because it included the line, “A barrel of laughs to be Nirvana/ Would rather die” and seemed in poor taste, having been completed before Kurt Cobain’s suicide just one week before Live Through This dropped.)
Despite that last-minute change, the song still fits in perfectly, standing out as the perfect wrap-up to a pop masterpiece on an album already full of fearless confessions.