‘Live Through This’ at 25: How Courtney Love Proved Herself to the World
On Hole’s 1994 breakthrough album, Live Through This, frontwoman Courtney Love presented a gruesome prophecy: “If you live through this with me/I swear that I will die for you,” she sings on the hypnotic, rumbling “Asking for It.” Love belts the line with more restraint than she usually displays: a disarming moment of vulnerability from the world’s then-most cataclysmic woman.
Love wrote the song after a 1991 show in Glasgow, after Hole wrapped up a European tour with Mudhoney. In one fleeting moment of punk rock abandon, Love stage-dived into the crowd — and was met with an onslaught of abuse from the audience. “I just dove off the stage,” Love told New York Magazine in 1996. “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. I felt like Karen Finley. But the worst thing of all was that I saw a photograph of it later. Someone took a picture of me right when this was happening, and I had this big smile on my face like I was pretending it wasn’t happening… I can’t compare it to rape because it’s not the same. But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience, figuratively, literally, and yet, was I asking for it?”
At the time, Hole had occupied the territory between two scenes: the Olympia feminist punk milieu that spawned riot grrrl, and the Seattle-based, male-dominated grunge scene that helped catapult Love’s husband, Kurt Cobain, and Nirvana, to international acclaim. Yet ever the nihilist, Love wanted little part in any community; but both in her lyrics and sound, she reckoned with the same sexism and martyrdom that pervaded Washington’s musical identity in the Nineties.
With Hole’s 1991 major label debut Pretty on the Inside, Love purged her deeply personal musings on beauty, sexuality and the virgin-whore dichotomies that raged inside her. And by the time their sophomore LP, Live Through This was released, it was as though Love’s most intimate songs had come to life, and played out the same way her public identity had formed — they would rip off her clothes and abuse her, both literally and figuratively. The songs Love wrote at the height of her fame posed a battleground where her own drive to self-destruct met the sexist vitriol of her detractors, and she was always one step ahead. From the opening guitar flutter of “Violet” to the final dissonance of “Rock Star” (originally titled “Olympia”), Live Through This is the sound of Love ripping herself to shreds.
Everything about the album feels as prophetic as that single line that bore the album’s title on “Asking for It” — but it was Cobain who forever rewrote Love’s story when he fatally shot himself in April of 1994. Just days after Cobain’s body was found in Seattle, Hole would release their highly-anticipated major label debut as scheduled. If not for their lead singer’s immensely public loss, however, the timing of Hole’s sophomore release would have been nothing short of perfect: Produced by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Pretty on the Inside was a critical success that promised a future of raw, unfettered punk rage, accented with surprise nods to Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell. In February of 1992, Hole signed a seven-album deal with Geffen’s hard rock subsidiary DGC Records, with what biographer Charles Cross wrote as “an advance of a million dollars and a royalty rate considerably higher than Nirvana’s.”
As predicted by anyone who had met Love during this time, she became one of the world’s most complex celebrities in the years that followed. Because she refused to be the quiet counterpart to the revered genius of her husband, many regarded her as a Yoko Ono figure, threatening the success of Nirvana. Still, many more would dub her a rebel goddess for the same reason. Love was outspoken and messy, with bright red lips and bleached, tousled hair that made her look like a twisted Marilyn Monroe; and she would become a massive cultural force that would upend American music forever. But in 1994, however, the public’s perception of her revolved closely around the tragedy of her husband and their relationship — a tabloid-primed tornado of drug addiction and rock ’n’ roll romance that seemed ready to self-immolate at any minute. And when it eventually did, in a way that was shocking yet sadly foreshadowed, it was as if the world had come to a grinding halt. But Love wouldn’t.
“I would like to think that I’m not getting the sympathy vote, and the only way to do that is to prove that what I’ve got is real,” Love told Rolling Stone later in 1994. By that time, Hole had finally set out on tour, where she was treading the many lows of being a celebrity widow. “That was the whole point of Live Through This.”
Live Through This was meant to be an act of redemption, proving that her talent outsized the extent of her controversies: and for those willing to pay attention, it did just that. The album is a roller-coaster reflection on co-dependency, motherhood and feminism that found the volcanic frontwoman making the case that she was, in fact, more than a grunge housewife in a tattered babydoll dress. The tumult and uncertainty of her relationship with Cobain, as well as his health, were confronted head-on across the LP, along with the many facets of her life and persona: She dangles her self-image like a carrot for her critics (“Plump,” “Miss World”); teases the Washington scene kids she came up with (“Rock Star”); tackles post-partum depression (“I Think That I Would Die”) and gets brutally honest about feeling like she could never measure up (“Doll Parts”). Carrying it all is Love’s colossal vocal range: Her voice jerks chaotically from soft, über-femme vulnerability to guttural, blood-curdling screams that feel like they’re being torn from the depths of her stomach.
Love has long lived her life the way she performs: though it may outwardly lack precision and grace, her unnerving rawness is intended to unsettle you. In the year following the release of Live Through This, Love grew into her identity as a widow and a single mother, who refused to grieve in silence; and followed by the sudden death of bassist Kristen Pfaff by heroin overdose, the band was on the brink of a downward spiral. While battling a severe drug addiction herself, Love turned Hole’s controversial 1994-1995 Live Through This tour into both a public wake and a statement of artistic intent, while repeatedly and very narrowly avoiding jail time for her violent, erratic behavior. The way she processed her grief evoked polarizing reactions from those watching her every move, ranging from genuine sympathy and conspiracy theory-fueled hatred. At times, Love found ways to feed into both those extremes — and make you regret reacting at all. Like each of her songs, Love could only stay quiet for so long before exploding into brash, unfiltered fury.
Knowing full well the lasting impact of Live Through This, Love learned to take the criticism in stride, and ultimately established herself as an icon in her own right with 1998’s Celebrity Skin — a thesis on having not only survived, but having become indestructible. Live Through This would inspire as many bands and songwriters as any of its male grunge predecessors; a whole generation of, more specifically, female and non-binary artists, who would see the guitar and the microphone as not just instruments, but as weapons of destruction thanks to Love. She turned the act of bleeding vulnerability into an art form, and in the process, made one of rock’s most potent and timeless albums.
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