I suffer from stereotype threat as much as the next person. After lighting the fuse of last week's column and weathering the social media firecrackers I touched off, I found that I'd become a hard act to follow. More specifically, I knew that more eyeballs than usual would be turned toward my next column, picking over my words with a dismissive should I make even the tiniest misstep.
It was fun for a few days to imagine what kind of poke-in-the-eye column I could write in response, to say yes, I am a feminist who pays attention to the lyrics – as opposed to reducing songs to their lyrics – and there I go already with the defensiveness and it's only paragraph two. So I nixed that idea. I could attempt to rise above and write about something totally unrelated as if I hadn't even noticed the controversy – except the tiny radio in my head was not cooperating.
Then, I woke up one morning with Hole's “Awful” in my head and I laughed at my wicked, wicked subconscious and how it refuses to do anything by halves.
[jump] The first thing any Hole fan has to do is separate the music from the artists who created it. Oh, who are we kidding? It's not the artists, plural – nobody wrestles with the personas of Melissa auf der Mar or Eric Erlandson or even Patty Schemel when rocking out to Hole. No, it's forever and always about Courtney Love.
People love to hate Courtney Love, and Love has made it really, really easy for them to do so. She has done some completely reprehensible things in her time on earth. Setting aside all the conspiracy theories about her late famous husband, setting aside oodles of bizarre social media outbursts, and setting aside mere public tantrums at airports and award ceremonies, Love has also certifiably:
* Punched fellow musician Kathleen Hanna in the face.
* Used “gay” in the insult way.
* Used heroin while pregnant.
* Killed her daughter's pets through neglect.
* Set her own apartment on fire.
And that's still just the tip of the iceberg. In short, Courtney Love is no hero of mine. But that doesn't stop her music from chiming in my head.
“Awful” was the third single off of Hole's second major-label release, Celebrity Skin. It is the band's Southern California album, sounding less grunge-inflected than before and more glossy, sun-drenched, and shimmery. It was released in 1998, made a big splash, got both good reviews and good sales, and then disappeared into the drama vortex of Courtney Love's offstage life. (Although, let's be fair, the drama was, and is often, more than present onstage, too.)
What's so awful about “Awful?” Perhaps: The music industry, “girl power” pop, rigid punk ethics around the concept of selling out, the cult of youth, celebrity gossip culture, poverty chic, and who knows what else? You can fit a lot into just one song.
There's also a not-so-subtle tribute to the Runaways embedded in the song's lyrics, both in the “sweet cherry” chorus (see: “Cherry Bomb”) and the bridge: “Let's run away tonight and steal the light of the world.” The Runaways being, of course, the teenage girl band assembled by producer/manager/rapist Kim Fowley and featuring prominently a young Joan Jett, was a band that made pretty good music amid great drama and hype. “Awful” is a song sung to young girls much like Love herself was and like the Runaways were, too – rock-and-roll fans looking to carve a space for their own voices amidst a gauntlet of daunting obstacles, from sexist double-standards to predatory record companies to sensitive boys that will break your heart. To state what might be a bit too obvious, I love this song despite everything surrounding it because it's a rock song being sung, quite explicitly, to girls like me, or at least like I might have been.