Is there a celebrity more reviled than Courtney Love? In the decade since the suicide of her husband, Kurt Cobain, whose body was found in a garage apartment at his Seattle home on April 8, 1994, we have watched her swear, drug, punch, threaten, litigate, and generally terrorize her way to fame. The spectacle has been alternately riveting and repellant. Along the way, in spite of her bad behavior or because of it, Love has made some undeniably powerful music: raw, defiant, so full of anguish that listening to it is a physically demanding experience. Yet these days, when you hear her name, it's not the music you think of; it's her drug overdoses, her People vs. Larry Flynt-era makeover, her recent breast-baring for David Letterman. Courtney Love the professional celebrity has eclipsed Courtney Love the professional musician.
The blame for this cannot be laid solely on her outré antics. The public loves to vilify a celebrity widow, and Love has been complicit in her crucifixion at the hands of Nirvana fans who view her as a shameless opportunist. She has publicly worn the coat in which Cobain died, read his suicide note aloud for fans, and carried Frances Bean, her then-2-year-old daughter, onstage while she sang "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" a song Nirvana performed on MTV's Unplugged. "I'll Do Anything," from her recent solo album, America's Sweetheart, blatantly recycles the memorable chord progressionfrom Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Some plausibly attack her as an enabler of Cobain's descent into drugs and depression; others less plausibly call her a cold-blooded murderess who paid to have him killed. And the anger has not abated: Last week saw the publication of Love & Death, an investigation into Cobain's death by journalists Max Wallace and Ian Halperin, who claim to have "conducted a ten-year crusade for the truth"; it is the most recent sensationalist text to "explode the myths" of Cobain's suicide and perhaps the most comprehensive.
But it's worth tearing our eyes from the train wreck of Love's life to remember just how intense and important some of her early music is. To date, Love has released four albums — three of them with her band Hole (Pretty on the Inside, Live Through This, Celebrity Skin) and the solo album, which came out in February. The first two are her best: Pretty on the Inside, her debut, was called "the most compelling album of the year" by The New Yorker in 1991 and was recorded with Hole before she met Cobain — a fact worth noting since it is often said that he masterminded her music. But while Pretty on the Inside is a good album, Live Through This, which was released four days after Cobain's suicide, is a seminal work in alternative music made by women.
Thematically complex and lyrically spare, Live Through This explores the limiting stereotypes and loaded transactions of femininity: the oppressive uniformity of teenage girls ("Rock Star"), the bodily discomfort experienced by a new mother ("Plump"), what it means to give yourself over to sex even when you know the man's not going to stick around for a relationship ("Violet"), or how it feels to look in the mirror and be simultaneously pleased and repelled ("Doll Parts"). Love roots her lyrics in ambivalence, in those dissonant moments where conflicting urges meet and fail to resolve, like oil and water (or, as Cobain once characterized the chemistry between Love and himself: "like Evian water and battery acid"). "When they get what they want/ They never want it again," she sings in "Violet," before she hollers her assent: "Go on take everything/ Take everything/ I want you to." But just when it seems she has settled into the predictable men-take-and-women-give dichotomy, she blurs the distinction with the subtle switch of a pronoun that leaves it unclear whether Love or a male, Cobain-like figure is speaking: "I told you from the start/ Just how this would end/ When I get what I want/ When I never want it again," she intones spookily.
The genius of Love's lyrics lies in their deceptive simplicity. Love strips her songs of anchoring referents like proper nouns, names of places, concrete things. This quality facilitates slippery verbal—and psychological—transformations, as in "Plump," when Love sings the creepy "My baby's in her arms/ Crawling up her legs." She also keeps her verse constructions uncomplicated: For the most part, her songs consist of two or three phrases repeated several times over, around which the rest of the lyrics organize themselves like bits of metal drawn to a magnetic force. "Someday you will ache like I ache," she chants no less than 11 times at the end of "Doll Parts." It may sound like your standard adolescent solipsism, but as Love sings, her increasingly emphatic, guttural vowels ("SoUHmeday"), accentuated consonants ("aKUH"), and crescendoing voice transfigure a soft, self-involved complaint into an impersonal, violent imperative.
Her voice is ferociously strong, embodying an access to rage that seems almost primal or feral. She croons seductively one moment, breaks into a razor-sharp scream the next. This is the fearsome capriciousness of a lover or a friend who flies off the handle at the slightest provocation. But it is also thrilling. There have been female singers with impressive growls, and female singers with intimidating snarls — Tina Turner, PJ Harvey — but Love's scream is a breed apart. (Her closest kin may be Janis Joplin.) Simply hearing her yell is a visceral (and sometimes cathartic) experience, like sticking your head out of the window of a moving car. It's a blessing, then, that Love's songs are generally short, mirroring the unsustainable intensity of feeling in many of the songs. "I love him so much it just turns to hate," she sings in "Doll Parks."Love knows such a feeling can't last, but rather than lament this, she's the type who, before it ebbs, will smash, sour, poison, destroy it.
This gets to the point at hand. If the savage undercurrent in Love's music remained only in her music, Love would presumably be thought of as one of our most original female rock stars — a clever provocateur with a sui generis voice. But she rages on airplanes, lifts her shirt to allow a stranger to suck her breast, shows up at a posh British benefit dressed as Donald Duck. In short, she behaves like a rock star historically has — drug use, casual sex, and the trashing of hotel rooms were once considered an essential part of the machismo of rock 'n' roll. The Who's drummer Keith Moon (who died of a prescription drug overdose in 1978) instigated drug-induced brawls, drove a car into a swimming pool, and got into a food fight with police. Jimi Hendrix was jailed in Stockholm for destroying his hotel room. Iggy Pop and Jim Morrison both exposed themselves to their audiences. But these days, it seems, we want our rock stars to perform the role of rock star, not actually be one — and when they do behave badly, we want them to apologize for it. We're comfortable with the scripted, controlled behavior of, say, Britney and Madonna's staged kiss, but much less so with Love's outsized, erratic behavior.
Last week, Love appeared on The View in what seemed a bizarre joust for respectability. Looking radiantly healthy — in contrast to her wan mien of recent months — Love lucidly defended herself as the women of The View tried to extract an apology from her. She explained that throwing a microphone stand is a punk-rock gesture like guitar-tossing or crowd-surfing and that male rock stars (she cited Marilyn Manson) often expose themselves in public. Of lifting her shirt for Letterman, she said: "I was being a rock star! I was commenting on the Janet Jackson situation. I was selling rock!" She was, and she wasn't; you get the sense, watching Love, that she's not always in control. But there's a funny irony tangled up in all of this. Where once this kind of authenticity was crucial to rock — and female rock stars understood that the muddy boundary between art and life could lend them a mysterious allure — it's now clear that if you reveal too much, you've become disappointingly unprofessional. Janis Joplin once commented on the public's unwillingness to separate her life and art: "People seem to have a high sense of drama about me. Maybe they think they can enjoy my music more if they think I'm destroying myself." For Love, the inverse seems true.
Amanda Fortini is a Slate associate editor.