Nick Broomfield's controversial 1998 documentary Kurt and Courtney works very hard to paint a negative portrait of Courtney Love. So hard, in fact, that by the end of it you almost find yourself feeling sorry for her. Everyone from Love's father to her ex-boyfriend to her former nanny fires verbal slingshots in her direction, with the general consensus being that she's a name-dropping, attention-seeking manipulator--a "harpy," as one Seattle drug acquaintance puts it. You start to get the perverse feeling that anyone who's so universally hated can't be all bad.
As much attention as Broomfield focuses on Love (and Cobain is almost forgotten, except as evidence in various murder scenarios), he never really comes close to explaining her contradictory nature. But there is one moment in the film--a brief piece of secondhand footage--where Courtney's elusive soul seems to reveal itself. Love is being interviewed on The Today Show in conjunction with the release of The People vs. Larry Flynt. When her interviewer points out the fact that both Love and Althea Flynt, the character she played in the film, had been strippers and heroin addicts, Love gets visibly agitated and threatens to walk off the show.
The interviewer rightly notes that Love has discussed these same subjects with many other journalists. "Not on TV," Love responds curtly. When the interviewer asks what difference the medium makes, Love blurts out, "I'm not gonna talk about it on The Today Show. It's not a demographic that I feel like talking about that to."
Demographics. It's a term that you tend to associate more with advertising executives than brash alt-rockers, but Love has never been a typical alt-rocker. She was not offended by the thought of discussing stripping or drug use, per se, but simply aware that these topics would make a middle-American, morning TV audience view her as a freak. It would be nothing but harmful to her movie career.
On the other hand, she's used these same topics to enhance her indie credibility when she was working her rock demographic. In 1994, Love practically bragged to Spin magazine about being a stripper, saying, "Stripping's all right. It's better than prostitution. I was lucky, because I was fat. So nobody paid attention to me."
What gives? Well, any assessment of Love has to take into account that, more than any rock star, she's ultrasavvy about the context of everything she communicates. Sure, she got burned in the infamous 1992 Vanity Fair story by Lynn Hirschberg, but that was a rare slip, where she let her ego impair her native shrewdness. But Love is generally amazingly conscious of what audience she's working at any given time, and how much she can get away with.
By comparison, Madonna--frequently branded a model of calculation--seems almost naive when it comes to working the media. Just compare Madonna's notorious 1994 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman with Love's guest spot on the same show last week. Madonna chose the occasion to get confrontational with Letterman and utter as many profanities as could possibly be squeezed into her segment of the show. Even though her tough-talking, cigar-chomping act was meant to be playful, she completely miscalculated what would fly on network TV. The fallout was so harsh that within days she had to go on The Tonight Show to do damage control.
In contrast, Love's recent appearance with Letterman was a model of show-biz civility. She joked about her breast-revealing stunt at an Australian show a few months ago (calling it "a feminist statement") and chatted about the "different energies" required for the rock and film worlds she inhabits, and how she adjusts her behavior accordingly.
Interestingly, although her age is well documented in the rock press as 33, when Letterman asked how old she was, Love played coy, initially saying "22," then when asked again, half-heartedly offering, "23." Finally, she good-naturedly refused to answer the question. As on The Today Show, she seemed to recognize that a piece of information takes on a different life when broadcast to a national TV audience.
Love's the ultimate product of a postmodern, media-saturated culture. She learned the power of media outrage from the early British punks, but also honed a deeper understanding of the differences between print and broadcast, and the audience for each. Who can forget her 1995 appearance with Barbara Walters, as part of Walters' 10-most-intriguing-people-of-the-year show. Only months after wreaking all kind of havoc at Lollapalooza (clocking Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna, publicly dissing tourmates Cypress Hill), Love was demure and slick, looking more like a high-powered Fortune 500 CEO than the disheveled, heroin-damaged baby doll she'd been playing up to that point. When Walters asked her if she was still doing drugs, Love seemed shocked, as if the very thought of such a foul subject matter might make her faint.
The Walters interview planted the seeds of a Love backlash. Courtney's manner on the show was so affected, so completely out of line with her history, it was utterly laughable. Up to that point, she'd been accused of many things: ruthless ambition, exhibitionism, crassness, bad judgment and a volatile temper. But after the show, all these character flaws paled next to the least forgivable of all sins: phoniness.
In fairness, Love's personality makeover is pretty consistent with rock's history of reinvention. Bob Dylan transformed himself from a Woody Guthrie clone into an existential rock poet and then a country squire, all within the space of about six years. And The Beatles willingly discarded their black leather for matching suits when it meant the possibility of a wider audience.
If anything, the evidence suggests that the raw Love heard on early Hole records like 1990's The First Session and 1991's Pretty on the Inside was the fake, and the polished Go-Go's wanna-be heard on the recent Celebrity Skin is actually much closer to Love's true impulses. It's a sellout story in reverse. Love always liked pretty, well-crafted music, but her demographic smarts told her that to make it in the late-'80s indie-rock scene, she had to come on all scabrous and messy. She admitted as much in her 1994 Spin interview, when she talked about Pretty on the Inside.
"That record was me posing in a lot of ways," she said. "It was the truth, but it was also me catching up with all my hip peers who'd gone all indie on me, and who made fun of me for liking R.E.M. and the Smiths." She went on to say that she'd experienced the scuzzy punk-rock lifestyle when she was 17, adding, "I hated it."
Her greatest inspirations were not punks, but more romantic types like Ian McCulloch (Echo and the Bunnymen) and Stevie Nicks. Although she kept her Nicks fixation pretty well hidden until 1996, when Hole covered "Gold Dust Woman," it does sneak into Pretty on the Inside's "Starbelly," in which a snippet of Nicks' "Rhiannon" briefly cuts into the mix.
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Celebrity Skin isn't a complete triumph, probably because Love was still too close to her new Hollywood lifestyle to know exactly what she wanted to say about it. In fact, she struggled with extreme writer's block for at least a couple of years, until Billy Corgan came aboard and jump-started the band's creative process.
But if the record is too much bland craftsmanship and not enough clear expression, when it works, it works like gangbusters. The shimmering "Malibu" was the hit single that should have been, a lustrous mix of electric and acoustic guitars (thanks to the underrated Eric Erlandson) and a Love lyric that strikes the right note between sunny optimism and world-weariness. At moments like that, Love fulfills all those old California-rock fantasies she's carried on since her reform-school days. And at moments like that, you can almost believe that Love, for once, isn't thinking about the demographic implications of her actions.
Hole is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, June 2, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with Queens of the Stone Age. Showtime is 7 p.m.