There are few people more divisive and contradictory in popular music culture than Courtney Love.
She exists in the struggle between conformity and rebellion. She is a rock star in a male dominated genre of music, yet is rejected by her female peers for not subscribing to their particular brand of feminism. Even in a subculture based around the celebration of being an outsider, she does not belong. Furthermore, she will always be referenced as a footnote to Seattle rock's most famous export, Kurt Cobain. This sexist assumption that a female rock star can not exist authentically within these paradoxes, has shaped her career and her life. A constant choir of disapproval has fed into her appetite for self-destruction and made her persona forever one of a struggling and insane addict. There is much more to her, but it is safer for the status quo if she is seen this way.

Courtney Love will forever be defined by her relationship to Kurt Cobain. She is easier to understand as a grieving, raging widow than a musician with an independent muse. As cited in Murphy's article, Courtney Love's band, Hole, released their debut before she met Kurt Cobain and it in fact, outsold Nirvana's debut (140). She was a self defined artist that happened to fall in love with someone that would be the biggest rock star in the world for a time. The media painted Love as riding Cobain's coattails and credited him with her subsequent success.

The reason Love remains part of the feminist history is that she is able to manipulate her role in public consciousness despite her associations with Cobain. Despite accusations to the contrary, she is in charge of her own career. No one is telling her what to do. She is an ambitious woman that wanted to be famous and became famous. This is, however, fighting a losing battle because, “it would appear that women are only allowed success if it is bequeathed to them by a higher power, like a husband” (Murphy 158). Love is allowed to be famous, but only by association with Kurt Cobain, not in her own right. All the arguments against this suggest that fame should not be the goal, but artistry should. There is not room for commercial artistry within our expectations of the contemporary woman.

Even some audience's admit that their interest in Courtney Love is amplified by her marital association with Kurt Cobain. In the context of “Grieving and heartbroken [widow], Love was frighteningly tragic, amazingly artistic, and relentlessly self-destructive” (Jackson 155) and it was acceptable. Love was all those things previous to even meeting her husband. However, If she states she was angry for reasons related directly to her experiences as a woman, she is told those are not to be dealt with publicly. A wife not able to function without her husband is a digestible role for a woman to inhabit, but a woman dealing with her own problems is apparently not.

This is another one of Love's contradictions. She is chastised and ridiculed in the media for being “a talentless, bloodthirsty, media-hungry bitch” (Jackson 155), because critics are mistaking ambition for those things. If she wants fame that bad, they can't see how she could possibly actually deserve it and assume it is a con. Maybe there is a subversive and positively feminist purpose to her desire to achieve mainstream popularity.
Love emerged as a star from the Riot Grrrl subculture, which was not supposed to have a star. She herself said she was not “ allowed to be grunge... was never allowed to be Riot Grrrl... Those girls hated [her]..because [her] feminism came in a weird brand according to them” (Love, YouTube). Her subsequent career decisions were based on “[Riot Grrrl's] refusal to accept her and other rock women’s success” (Murphy 149). If she could not join them, she would beat them. Only after the Riot Grrrl movement had been incorporated, did artists emerge that were pseudo subversive. These new women presented themselves as angry, “and stereotypically feminine [in] appearance, [allowing] them to be angry without being threatening” (Schlit 11). Therefore this new music was limited in its artistic purpose. Hole's music lies somewhere in between the rough indie aesthetic and a mainstream pop one.

Love wanted to write pop songs in an attempt to be subversive. However, the movement was built on “feminist cultural capital [and that is what] allows it to emerge as a genre (Murphy, 144). It is essentially a punk derivative as far as aesthetics. In a genre that espouses “a rejection of corporate production” (Murphy 144), Courtney Love realizing her major label corporate pop rock sound is frowned upon. The role of women in music is either purely melodic and safe or eschewing those very sounds. Her choice was to conform to either ideal and in the punkest fashion, she ignored those choices and decided to make music that is both melodic and rough around the edges.

She wrote an entire song about it called “Rock Star” in which she “rejects the orthodoxy that permeates the... Riot Grrrl scene (Murphy 148). It talks about how the scene had by that point become another set of restrictions. It was not progressive, but hindering to artistic development. Riot Grrrl, by this point had become a media joke and lost much of its power. It had essentially become classified as a number of girl bands throwing a tantrum. She had rejected being part of the stifling movement and wanted to be as big as a male driven band, which of course led to more commercial music being envisioned.

Love was a student of music history and wanted to be like the big rock bands she had grown up with. She did not subscribe to the school of thought that paired commercial success with a notion of “selling out.” Riot Grrrls conversely thought that if a band made “a song that had the potential to be a commercial success was to compromise [the band’s] artistic integrity” (Murphy 148). This is rightfully considered to be absurd by Love, whose second album, Live Through This, “was the product of a much more proficient and tighter band” (Murphy 148). There is no way that an artistic growth can compromise integrity. By Riot Grrrl logic, the band should pretend they can not play their instruments to preserve their authenticity. This is an absurd statement and to do such a thing would play into feminine stereotypes that suggest women are incapable.
When the music did get melodic, it did not reflect the earlier, harder edged work she had produced. The immediate reaction was that her husband, Cobain, must have written it. It was not a tangible thought that she would be influenced by and simultaneously influence her husbands work. In the eyes of the media, it was a chance to demean Love's ability and claim, yet again, the genius of Cobain.

The media also likes to place female musicians, as it does all public female figures as being in direct competition with their female peers. They paint an ugly picture that involves them in feuds with each other. If women can be shown to be in “fights [it is] in order to ridicule and dismiss the opinions of the women involved” (Murphy 151). It is not that women always agree, but that any disagreement is blown out of proportion in order to discredit women. How it discredits them is not clear, because male musicians have been carrying on public feuds in the press for decades. Their credibility is not based on being nice though. It just shows how inherent the sexism is in popular music. We do not readily accept strong women with opinions and an impolite nature. Love has been quite outspoken throughout the course of her career and it has led to her being written off as insane or unintelligent. There should be room for both disagreement and support. It is the nature of art to conflict with other artistic views but it must be recognized if we value feminism at all that all artistic views are equal and valid.

There is a need in our culture for women to be contradictory in ways that are safe. Love is expected to be beautiful in order to have her message heard. This is because “[t]here is a dominant assumption that only the attractive are worthy of attention, and a simultaneous refusal to admit that a beautiful woman can” (Murphy 154), be feminist. Courtney Love proves that you can care about how you look and be a feminist. Her appearance is merely a tool to show her ideals to her audience. Cultivating an appearance rather than letting one organically exist, remains feminist when the motivations come from within rather than from external sources.

She may have been driven to her perpetually unstable state by a constant questioning of her right to even be making music. Love has no formal training as a musician and does not write every note of her songs. Male musicians do the same, but most retain their credentials. Not every musician is a virtuoso, but women get more criticism for the same artistic shortcomings.

Courtney Love had her credibility questioned even further when she left music for a time to be a Hollywood actress. People could not see the relevance of rock songs, which are meant to be the voice of the working class, written by someone that was buying in to the fakeness that is Hollywood. For Love, it was a “refusal to be contained by her infamy as the punk pin-up girl” (Murphy 152). She was still writing from an outsider’s perspective. She admitted that she never felt like she belonged in the crowd. In this sense, she was more subversive than she is given credit for. She was commenting no longer from the outside, but from a privileged platform. Finally, she was an outsider on the inside.
She is taking power of her image by doing what looks to the Riot Grrrls like conforming. Her “physical transformation demonstrates a disciplined mobilization of bodily surfaces. She is knowingly altering her appearance so as to provide herself with more economic power” (Murphy 153). It was not a surrender, but a disguise in order to increase her audience. Her message about transformation and rebirth was personified and now she felt she could reach young teen girls and actually make a difference. The decision to make increasingly commercial music was not an arbitrary choice at all.

Unlike her peers, Love saw the hegemonic power of being a commercial success, not in terms of conforming but in coercing others to follow her lead. Instead of existing as a subculture in opposition to the mainstream, she wanted to take over the mainstream with Hole. She wanted to take beauty and examine it as someone who was artificially made beautiful, through the use of various cosmetic surgeries. Her hope seems to be that the meanings created by the majority “can be fractured, challenged, over-ruled, and resistance to the groups in dominance cannot always be lightly dismissed or automatically incorporated” (Hebdige 16-17). She hoped that she could change what the perception of rock and what a female rock star is.

This version of incorporating Love's brand of feminism and punk rock does not serve to make her less threatening. It merely makes the threat she poses more covert. She is now working within the system to change that very system. Her popularity will allow her to promote other causes and career aspirations that she may not otherwise be able to. Women are more likely to be called negatively opportunistic than men, when their goals are often the same.

Kurt Cobain is commonly regarded as a genius, even though his band, Nirvana, was one of the most popular bands in the world at one point. The key to his success as a mainstream artist was his outward rejection of it. Although his band was immensely popular, and “Kurt knew [corporate rock] sucked, knew he'd been sucked in and hated himself for being there” (Coyle and Dolan 21). Courtney Love does not have the same luxury because she is a woman and she is aware of the power of mainstream. She will not pretend that she doesn't want success and all the perks it brings.

To promote the release of Hole's album Nobody's Daughter in 2010, Love “made an appearance at the Oxford union, where she apparently wowed the assembled undergraduates with her knowledge of Shakespeare and Mozart” (Petridis). Love does not get any credit for intelligence, because she is more than left of centre. The problem with her is not a lack of ideas, but far too many all trying to escape her mind at once. We are quite comfortable with the idea of a male mad genius, but we like our intelligent females to be easily digestible, demure and composed. Courtney Love is not.

Maybe it is in relation to her sexuality, but more likely it is in relation to her life that she makes the decision to keep chasing the mainstream. An obsession with authenticity arguably helped to end her husband's life and provoked the “self-destruction of Nirvana” (Coyle and Dolan 19). She saw first hand what an insignificant thing debating “what commercial music has to do with authenticity” (Coyle and Dolan 19) is, especially in terms of taking one's own life. She saw, albeit after a bout of self-destruction, that the fame headed her way was worth embracing. It would benefit herself and had the potential to serve a greater social purpose. She could influence young girls in a way that she wished she had been helped.

In order to sell that commercial friendly music, she had to look the part. People that want to listen to mainstream music, want to also be mainstream. The ugly girls are not allowed to be mainstream. Love essentially believes that the medium is the message and she is the medium. She is a vessel for the message her music brings and “places plastic surgery within the realm of commercial necessity” (Murphy 157). It is merely a job requirement, much like a uniform, but on a grander and more permanent scale.

The media would have everyone believe that Love will ultimately fail and be a footnote in pop culture history. This is not the case though as she continues to evolve and face her demons, sometimes very publicly. Most notably, “her appearance on Letterman [in 2004] makes clear, Love...will continue to fall again and again” (Jackson 157) as we all do from time to time. No one is debating that she has her demons, many of which we are collectively responsible for. We forced impossible patriarchal roles upon her which she could not fill. However, she continually has that “comeback moment we can always count on, which proves the star has not imploded, but.. continues to radiate sheer brilliance (Jackson 157). She is what we have created. At times fragile and at other times strong.
It is telling that after the emergence and end of the Riot Grrrl movement and whatever time in the mainstream spotlight Courtney Love had, a safer version of female rock emerged. Alanis Morisette hailed a new era of female rock and with her peers “formed a friendly tie to the media, which allowed [them] to be angry but still well reviewed” (Schlit 10). Courtney Love is not a personality that likes to make anything easy for herself. Due to a variety of reasons, Love “lost legal custody of her daughter” (Petridis) and she has an array of lingering financial problems lingering from her drug haze days, but who among us is perfect?

Love is a dynamic human being and an array of paradox, therefore she is a fully realized human being, flaws and all. We have taken part in fuelling her self-destruction by making her a social pariah for being ambitious and loud. She states that “ I don't like not being liked. I've always been a popular gal. I've got good social skills. Sometimes I'm a little bit weird, ...[but] being a scapegoat was new for me” (Petridis). She wants to be included in the description of femininity and what a woman can be, but she does not want to be quiet, nor should she have to. All she wants is for women to be accepted on their own terms, however imperfect they are. Nothing sounds more feminist than that.


Works Cited
Coyle, Michael and Dolan, Jon. “Modelling Authenticity, Authenticating Commercial Models.” Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics.1999. Retrieved from SFU CMNS 321 wiki. July 25, 2011.

Hebdige, Dick. “Introduction: Subculture and Style.” Retrieved from SFU CMNS 321 wiki. July 25, 2011.

Jackson, Chuck. “Star Hole (For Courtney Love).” Camera Obscura. 65.22, no.2: 154-157.
2007. Web. Accessed July 25, 2011.

Love, Courtney. “Courtney Love's 'Strange Brand of Feminism' on Sirius XM.” Radio Clip. YouTube. May 5, 2010. Web. Accessed July 26, 2011.

Murphy, Kylie. “I'm Sorry. I'm Not Really Sorry. Courtney Love and Notions of Authenticity.” Hecate. 27.1: 139 – 164. 2001.Web. Accessed July 25, 2011.

Petridis, Alexis. “Courtney Love: 'Sometimes I'm a little bit weird...but never unpopular.” Gaurdian.co.uk. 25 March. 2010. Web. Accessed July 27, 2011.

Schilt, Kristen. '"A Little Too Ironic": The Appropriation and Packaging
of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians.” Popular Music and Society. 26.1: 5- 16. 2003. Retrieved from SFU CMNS 321 wiki. July 25, 2011.
2

View comments

    Loading