Happy 20th Anniversary to Hole’s third studio album Celebrity Skin, originally released September 8, 1998.
“Don’t hate Courtney because she’s beautiful.”
This was my introduction to Courtney Love, a typewritten note from my former English professor near the end of a pink-paper track list for a mix he had made me. The song was “Awful.” I was 22, living in New York and that song saved my life. I am not the first angry heartbroken girl to feel that way about Courtney.
Celebrity Skin has it all—band drama, drug addiction, a scheming producer, T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare, social critique—all wrapped up in chainsaw guitars and Love’s own gutter brand of poetry.
In the world of 1998, could Courtney and her crew have even imagined the glitter-and-filter hellscape of reality TV and social media wasteland that was just over the horizon? The Kardashians, Instagram “Influencers,” Lindsey Lohan and any number of LA’s chewed-up women, hawking diet pills and drama. “Hooker/waitress/model/actress/oh just go nameless,” she insists on the title track. The language of “Oh Cinderella / they aren’t sluts like you” may seem outdated in its perceived slut-shaming, but Love knows better than anyone what it’s like to be spit out, to have her talent overshadowed, to be blamed for a man’s problems and shunned in favor of a romanticized ghost. “It better be worth it,” she cautions. “So much to die for.”
But she’s not just a cautionary tale. Following up with “Awful,” Courtney hovers like a grunge fairy godmother over her listeners. “You’ve got your youth / don’t waste your money” she advises. “If the world is so wrong / yeah you can break the mold with one song.” It was what I needed to hear at 22, a reminder that yeah, you grow up and things suck but pick yourself up, buttercup, and fight another day, because the world needs you. It’s a powerful message laid bare, too raw, perhaps, to be written in a fancy font on a teacup or sold back as self-care. There’s no soap or candle or framed print that can save you—it has to come from within, and it’s there if you just reach for it.
(When I know I’m being melodramatic about a situation that does not call for melodrama, I hear Goddess Courtney whisper in my ear, Oh just shut up, you’re only 16 even though I am 35.)
Love’s rose-petal growl is at its sweetest on “Heaven Tonight,” a tragic tale of a girl killed on the California highways en route to lose her virginity. It’s just one piece of the death that hovers over the album, recorded four years after her husband Kurt Cobain’s suicide. There is the slow death of youthful vibrancy in the maw of an unforgiving world (“She’s the grace of this world / she’s too pure” from “Petals”). There is the death of relationships (“And now I know that love is dead / you’ve come to bury me” from “Dying”).
The album itself is dedicated to Cobain, which is also felt on “Malibu” and “Boys on the Radio.” “They crash and burn / they fold away so slow,” she sings, paralleling the “Crash and burn / all the stars explode tonight” lyrics that open “Malibu.” But it’s hardly romantic. If anything, it’s the angry and ugly part of grief, the bargaining before the acceptance. She’s tired of being a punching bag for Kurt’s fans who blame her for his suicide. “Do what you want / 'Cause I'll do anything / And I'll take the blame” she sings wearily in “Boys on the Radio.” It’s the end of a relationship, when you are exhausted from arguing, when you have seen the unflattering parts of someone you love but that love is still there, somehow. Even if it poisons you. Even if it hurts.
(Love has alternately said “Malibu” was written about Cobain’s stay in rehab and her boyfriend Jeff Mann, who lived in the city.)
And the drama! Oh, the drama of this album’s birth. The band struggled to write. Courtney described herself as “in a rut” and Michael Beinhorn famously screwed with drummer Patty Schemel, forcing her to play eight hours a day for two weeks, only to dim the sound and play Love the worst tracks in order to convince her to replace Schemel with session drummer Deen Castronovo (and, on tour, former Shift drummer Samantha Maloney.) Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan was brought in to co-write several songs and played bass on “Hit So Hard” and “Petals.”
But from that darkness came commercial success, Grammy nominations and spots on several “Greatest Albums” lists, including NME magazine and the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. And yes, 20 years later, some of it sounds a little clichéd, a little like high school poetry, and Eric Erlandson’s guitars have an unmistakably ‘90s sound that exists only within that time period and cannot be replicated.
I think about Courtney Love a lot. I consider her one of my Goddesses, alongside Siouxsie Sioux and Tori Amos and Mother Goddess Patti Smith. She has a reputation as a feral, wild woman, alternately lovelorn and savage, Hollywood glamour and boulevard trash, and she uses all of it on Celebrity Skin.
She is an original, unvarnished and unafraid, and she encourages her listeners to be too, be they in 1998 or 2018, because society has not improved much with respect to how it treats women. There will always be wolves hungry to feast on the innocent. There will always be a way to tell a girl she is hideous in order to sell her beauty back to her. Courtney knows, maybe better than anyone.
“You want a part of me?” she growls. “Well I’m not sellin’ cheap.”
And neither should we.