Truth, beautiful, innocence, stars, summer, rain, love, candy, heaven, sleep, dying, frozen, cold, cynical, angels, petals, wilted: These are the key words, some expected, some not, that punctuate the long poem of Celebrity Skin. Despite the silly static “glamour” of the cover, which does Courtney Love's real charisma and originality a disservice, despite the strings that make me cringe on a few numbers, and even despite Billy Corgan, it is an artistic event. Not that Hole breaks new ground musically, not that the lyrics by themselves stand up any more consistently than you'd expect from even the best rock songwriters. But sung, melded into the peaks and sloughs of the often too lush music, Courtney Love's words have the thrill and provocation of good poetry on the page.
Hole's last album, 1994's Live Through This, was a cultural event, though maybe you didn't notice unless you were female, whitish and middle-class. Mouthy, slutty, drug-addicted, covetous of fame, Courtney Love said what other women dared not, what even Patti Smith and Madonna, with their enlistment in the cults of femininity and maternity, dared not. The personas she created confessed their dark hearts, evil desires, irresponsibility: “I don't do the dishes/I throw them in the crib” (“Plump”). She embraced the madness that got her and Kurt's idol Frances Farmer committed, that made the witches burn.
Still more important, Love sang from the position of unquestioned universality of experience that men have used since written literature began. “When I wake up/in my makeup/It's too early for that dress” assumes a knowledge that comes with being female. It may have been self-absorption that allowed her to make this leap, but what do you think fuels authoritative male writing? Yet while my woman friends put snippets from Hole's Live Through This on their answering machines, men muttered about Kurt writing all the music. Now that Courtney has plasticized herself, lots of women are saying that, too.
The venom in these friends' voices makes me wonder why no one cares how many songs Elvis wrote, or Howlin' Wolf. This venom reminds me of an essay called “A Room of One's Own.” Here, in 1928, Virginia Woolf addressed the issue of why there had been so few woman fiction writers of note. “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size . . . If they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge.” And so the books unwritten. “My name is might have been/My name is never was/My name's forgotten,” sings the “hooker/waitress/model/actress” of “Celebrity Skin.”
Let Kurt have those supposed music credits. At the remove of four years, the songs on Live Through This dissolve in the hearing. Scattered melodies (“Violet,” “Rock Star”) and hooks survive, but mainly Love's lyrics, striking and richly multivalent. Celebrity Skin's songs are stronger, or maybe just more formulaic, but it's the grain of the voice, and what that voice is saying, that lifts the album above craftsmanlike pop.
A few songs, mainly Eric Erlandson's – the confectionary “Heaven Tonight” and the dirge “Northern Star” – are so strong they'd get over sung in Serbian. But most need the lyrics to complete the pleasure. (Or distract from the displeasure: It's a close call whether it's worth waiting through the ersatz-Metallica chorus of “Petals” to get to the wonderful verses.) Bouncy, bright and mainly major-key, Celebrity Skin can grate on the ears. I'm not sure whether the aural fatigue comes from the songs' relying on a few keys or from Michael Beinhorn's glossy production, which still buries many of Love's words.
Never, however, does it bury her voice, now more flexible but still edging into punk shouts, and still suggesting Marianne Faithfull and, especially, Axl Rose, with whom she shares a predilection for falloffs and melisma. Another singer Courtney may have learned from is Tina Turner. Both have coarse-grained instruments of relentless power that will not allow weakness. Courtney's vulnerability or submissiveness (“Hit So Hard,” “Dying”) is about as convincing as Hillary Clinton's. Only once she nearly persuades me, her voice catching on Kurt's memory: “Hey honey mine/I was there all of the time/And I weep at your feet/And it rains and rains” (“Reasons To Be Beautiful”).
Like any good writer, and unlike many good singers, Love is essentially an observer, even of herself. The coldness that comes with the ability to turn the corner on yourself works against her voice's fury, which may signify nothing. When she drops to a whisper it's because she was told to vary the dynamics; if it were up to Courtney, she'd shout all the time. This, like her world-weariness, may have something to do with Love's comparative youth. People whose demographics place them in greater proximity to death speak of it less.
Still, she knows stuff now that she didn't know on Pretty on the Inside and Live Through This. I can't help hearing a slur in the “boys” in “Boys on the Radio,” the precise slur “girls” used to convey. Courtney is a woman now, but Kurt died as a boy. It's better, Love has decided, “to rise [I also heard 'write'] than to fade away.” Love – I mean the singer – has left bohemia, and who can blame her? In “Awful,” she addresses “girls like you”: “If the world/is so wrong/yeah you can break them all/with one song.” But later, in “Petals,” she suggests that corruption, like death, is inescapable: “She's too pure for the likes of this world/This world is a whore.” And continues: “All the lilies bloomed and blossomed/Wilted and they're shivering/I can't stop their withering/Oh, this world is a war.” The internal rhymes and repetitions descend through Sylvia Plath from the great tradition of English lyric poetry, her rue recalls the Psalms, but the censorious gravity echoes Cotton Mather (witch trials again) or the Sex Pistols.
The punk Love elegizes on Celebrity Skin demanded transparency and purity to create a community, for community begins from a shared language, and punk imagined language as a vehicle for its ardor. Often it was intolerant of ambiguities, and of the way language has of escaping utilitarian aims into a life of its own. Punk rarely had room for the indolent beauties of phrase Courtney pulls out of her witch's hat. “Here comes a kiss that I never had” (“Heaven Tonight”) and “All dressed in red, always the bride/Off with her head, all dressed in white” (“Use Once & Destroy”) aren't punk lyrics.
But the way punk stripped rock bare to its skeleton of gestures could be as revelatory as a sonnet. Often punk's most eloquent gestures were physical. When Courtney let herself fall into the audience at the show I caught from her 1995 tour, she was making good on the punk performer's S/M covenant with the audience: I will let you do anything to me, if only you will love me. This took courage: She was already wearing Anna Sui, and she had new tits, and the hands that rose to greet her as she fell were not all friendly. Courtney re-emerged a longish moment later missing a shoe, but she stood there onstage like a woman who could lead armies.
It is still true, as Woolf observed, that “the most transient visitor to this planet” could see from the front page of a newspaper that we live in a patriarchy, but it would be harder to tell from a spin of the radio dial. You might say she didn't reckon with America. Maybe rock gave women the “new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her”; to borrow Woolf's phrase about the way women took to the English novel, it was “young enough to be warm in her hands.”
As American speech is warm in Love's voice. But we Americans are not satisfied with Woolf's conviction that “Good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings.” We want Courtney to keep faith with the integrity of punk, or at least not betray her own best self and the nascent community of “girls like you” whose possibility she suggested in her last album, and in her Internet postings. We want her, in short, to be better than us. But every age gets the poets it deserves.