It’s no surprise that among Flavorwire staffers, Hole’s masterpiece Live Through This remains an all-time favorite. Back in April, when the album turned 20, we tapped some of our favorite musicians and music writers to dissect the album track by track. Reading Australian music critic Anwen Crawford’s new 33 1/3 chapbook on Live Through This, however, I got a sense that there are endless words for art as complicated as this.
Live Through This remains a document of a number of different movements and situations that were catalyzing around its release: Riot Grrrl and the feminism adjacent to it, Alternative as the new normal, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love being frustratingly reduced to Gen-X’s Sid and Nancy, the couple’s new daughter Frances Bean and their custody struggles, to name just a few. But Live Through This is also an album that bridged a lot of gaps. An album about the female experience to which many rock dudes listened, if only to be able to discount it later or claim Kurt wrote in some sort of backhanded compliment to Courtney. A record that dealt in feminism but openly eschewed Riot Grrrl, as if to show that there’s more than one way for women to get where they’re going. Songs showing that fear and strength are just different sides of the same knife.
Crawford clearly understands all this, and as a result, her entry into Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on important albums is one of the best I’ve read. The book was released last week, but Flavorwire is proud to run an exclusive excerpt from the chapter that focuses on the song “Asking For It.” In it, Crawford connects the rape-referencing track to early performance art from Yoko Ono, Marina Abramović, and British artist Tracey Emin’s 1995 film Why I Never Became a Dancer
“The chant became louder—‘SLAG, SLAG, SLAG’—until, in the end, I couldn’t hear the music anymore, or the people clapping.” — Tracey Emin
‘Asking for It’ is the fourth track on Live Through This. It is the song that gives the album its title, and the only lyric included among the album’s liner notes. Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice? ‘It’ is never speciﬁed. Rape, assault, abuse: all are implied. Courtney Love has said many times that the song was partly inspired by her experiences stage diving, and one incident in particular, during Hole’s 1991 European tour with Mudhoney, where ‘I just dove oﬀ the stage, and, suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn oﬀ of me, my underwear was being torn oﬀ of me, people were putting their ﬁngers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like “pussy-whore-cunt”. When I got back onstage, I was naked.’ Did she ask you for it? Did she ask you twice? The questions circle, an interrogatory rhyme.
The song follows no clear narrative. Lyrically, it shifts from questions to promises — the much-quoted, seemingly clairvoyant couplet, If you live through this with me/I swear that I will die for you — while, musically, it is restrained until almost the exact midpoint. Then the song takes oﬀ in a fury; then it diminishes again. The arrangement exempliﬁes the album’s sense of space; Kristen Pfaﬀ’s bass line carries the melody, and the guitar chords chime like bells. Sean Slade observes of Eric Erlandson’s guitar playing: ‘His chord voicings are very good. He plays open ﬁfths, which creates a lot of space in the music. By leaving out the thirds, you get much more of a ringing tone.’ Courtney whispers her questions, her sarcasm audible, and then she screams them out, demanding an answer. ‘I can’t compare it to rape because it’s not the same,’ she said of the crowd who violated her. ‘But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience, ﬁguratively, literally, and yet was I asking for it?’
For women, the ﬁgurative and literal space between stage and audience is highly charged. The old myth — that female actors, artists and musicians are sexually promiscuous, or are prostitutes — has never entirely been destroyed. It lingers in the way that we evaluate a woman’s ‘availability’ as a performer. Is she giving too much away, emotionally or otherwise? Are her clothes too revealing? Does she deserve what she gets? It is no coincidence that Courtney Love framed her stage-diving experience with reference to performance art — ‘I felt like Karen Finley,’ she said — for there is a clear line of inheritance from the groundbreaking performance work of feminist artists in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to the confrontational tactics of the riot grrrls, and of Courtney herself, during the early 1990s. Teasing, provoking, antagonising: all have been methods by which feminist artists have sought to expose the latent enmity that lies between their publicly visible bodies and a viewing audience.
Yoko Ono ﬁrst performed Cut Piece in 1964, at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo. She walked onstage in a loose-ﬁtting garment and knelt down on the ﬂoor. A pair of scissors lay next to her. Cut Piece was one of many ‘instructional’ artworks that Ono conceived — works that required an audience to complete them. Here, the instruction was one word: ‘Cut’. And, so, the audience did, slicing away at Ono’s clothing. Ono repeated this work many times, and, with each iteration, the dynamic changed. Sometimes, the audience was polite, almost apologetic; at other times, it was ravenous. In existing footage of a 1965 performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the overall mood is calm. People step forward one at a time. Occasionally, Ono looks down at her cutters, but mostly her gaze is level, focused beyond the audience. At the eight- minute mark, a young man in a pressed white shirt, neat trousers and polished shoes walks onto the stage. You hear him murmur, ‘This might take some time.’ He cuts through the remaining top portion of Ono’s dress to reveal her slip, then makes a vertical incision through her slip to reveal her bra. You sense the atmosphere changing. Ono glances at him more frequently as he continues to cut away her slip, and the camera operators giggle. Somebody says, ‘Playboy’. Then the man in the white shirt slices through each of Ono’s bra straps, and she raises her hands to cover herself. Hissing breaks out among the seated crowd. The footage ends.
Exactly a decade on from Cut Piece, in 1974, Serbian artist Marina Abramović undertook Rhythm 0. Seventy-two objects were placed on a table for use by the audience. Honey, feathers, grapes, a rose; knives, a whip, a gun, a single bullet. The rules were that, for six hours, the audience could do as they pleased to Abramović’s body, and she would not resist, refuse or call a halt to the performance. ‘I am an object,’ she instructed them, ‘you can do whatever you want to do with me.’ Audience interactions began hesitantly, but, over time, grew bold. Abramović remained passive as she was alternately caressed and assaulted. Some people kissed her. Others cut her with knives and stuck rose thorns into her ﬂesh. She was carried around the gallery, and, as with Yoko Ono, her clothes were sliced oﬀ. A ﬁght broke out between audience members after one person loaded the gun, aimed it at Abramović’s head and placed both their own and the artist’s hand on the trigger. After the agreed six hours had elapsed, gallery attendants announced that the performance was over. ‘I start moving,’ Abramović recalls, ‘I start being myself, because I was there like a puppet, just for them. At that moment, everybody run away. People could not confront me as a person.’
Common to both these now-iconic performance works is a cool, unblinking examination of the dynamics that produce objectiﬁcation — and yet the balance of power between audience and artist is not altogether clear. Who is really in control: the audience who do as they please to the performer or the performer who has invited them to do so? Where does consent begin and end? The implications of Rhythm 0, in particular, have haunted me ever since I ﬁrst stumbled across descriptions of the piece as a high school art student, around the same time that I was listening to Live Through This as a form of psychic defence against the relentless hostility of my peers, who saw me as an object to be targeted. I read Courtney Love’s descriptions of her stage diving, but it was years before I saw any footage. When I did, I was deeply disturbed. The aggression meted out to her was extraordinary. ‘Love made a swan dive into the pit, emerging with her clothes in shreds and hunks of her hair plucked out as souvenirs,’ wrote Brenda You of a 1994 Hole show in Chicago. When Hole began touring Live Through This, several months after the deaths of both Kurt Cobain and Kristen Pfaﬀ, some audience members threw shotgun casings at Courtney’s feet.