Love Her or Hate Her
Love Her or Hate Her: The Feminism of Courtney Love
By Kathleen Ginder-Vogel, Contributing Writer
In April 1992, Sassy magazine’s cover article by Christina Kelly, titled “Kurt and Courtney Sitting in a Tree,” began, “The lead singer of NIRVANA and the lead singer of HOLE are getting married. They’re buying a Victorian house in Seattle and want to have a BABY. It is so nice to see a multiplatinum rock star in LOVE with an opinionated, feminist, ambitious ROCKER, not some supermodel in a BOOB TRAY.” Two years later, Cobain and Love had married and had a child, Nirvana was famous, and Hole launched their first album to achieve mainstream popularity a week after Kurt Cobain shot himself in the head. Courtney Love continued her career and continued to be controversial, consistently asserting her feminism in song lyrics and standing out as one of the few successful female rock musicians in the world.
Born to Linda Carroll and Hank Harrison in 1964, Love had four different father figures and seven siblings, moved eight times, switched schools eleven times, and was sent away to Hillcrest Correctional Facility at sixteen, after which she lived with friends and worked as a stripper. She learned guitar, wrote songs, sang with Faith No More, founded Babes in Toyland with Kat Bjelland in 1985, acted in Straight to Hell and Sid and Nancy, and and formed Hole in the late 1980’s, around the time she met Kurt Cobain. Hole released Pretty on the Inside to positive reviews in 1991, and Love and Cobain began dating. After their marriage, Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair published Love’s comment that she had used heroin at the beginning of her pregnancy, which resulted in Frances Bean Cobain being removed from her parents for three months after her birth. Just after this upheaval, Hole recorded Live Through This, released on April 11, 1994, weeks after Cobain’s suicide at the height of Nirvana’s fame.
“Violet,” the first track on Live Through This, features Love’s powerful voice and aggressive lyrics. The song begins tunefully and takes a turn when Love sings, “You should learn when to go / you should learn how to say no.” The music gets more aggressive as Love continues, “when they get what they want / they never want it again,” and the chorus roars, “Go on, take everything, take everything, / I want you to, / go on take everything, take everything, / I dare you to.” The song asserts that women often feel used, objectified, and vulnerable, a theme not often tackled by male rock musicians. The video combines images of female innocence and corruption with empowering footage of Love playing guitar and singing with her band, three of whose members are respected female rock musicians.
“Awful,” on Hole’s 1998 album Celebrity Skin, again addresses female objectification, focusing this time on the record industry’s marketing of female pop stars, marketing to girls, and control over musicians: “And they royalty rate all the girls like you / And they sell it out to the girls like you / To incorporate little girls.” Love’s lyrics also refer to male bullying and manipulation: “They know how to break all the girls like you / and they rob the souls of the girls like you / and they break the souls of the girls.” The song ends on a note of strength, however: “If the world is so wrong / Yeah you can break them all / with one song / If the world is so wrong / Yeah you can take it all / with one song / Swing low sweet cherry / Make it awful / They bought it all, just build a new one / Make it beautiful…yeah.”
Love continued to act and make music, but her drug use and controversial public behavior cost her custody of her daughter twice more. Hole disbanded, and Love’s solo album, America’s Sweetheart, was not a huge hit. However, its single, “Mono,” an anthem to female rock musicians, is yet another example of Love’s feminist lyrics. Love snarls, “Well they say that rock is dead / And they’re probably right / 99 girls in the pit / Did it have to come to this,” suggesting that women bring something unique to rock and reminding us how few women play rock instruments or even attend rock shows. Love continues, “Oh God you owe me one more song / so I can prove to you that / I’m so much better than him.” Recorded with an all-female band, “Mono” is an inspiring reminder that women can rock, producing a unique sound that is a contribution to the world of rock music.
Courtney Love is one of the few women of her generation to play her own feminist rock songs on electric guitar. Her lyrical focus on women’s issues and her outspoken feminism are all too rare in the rock world. Say what you will about Love’s personality, her inappropriate behavior, or even the quality of her singing voice. She is worthy of respect among those committed to women’s issues, because her lyrics assert a rarely-expressed rock and roll feminism that is aggressive, unapologetic, and inspiring to feminist musicians like me.
Kathleen Ginder-Vogel owns the freelance writing business Poppy Communications and plays drums and electric bass.