Respect, adoration, lust, envy, hate, jealousy, contempt, amusement and a fair amount of bile: Courtney Love polarises opinion like no other modern icon. Playing in London's Shepherd's Bush Empire this weekend on May 11-12, we contemplate what's to love and what's to hate about Courtney?
There’s a faint silver line that separates Love and Hate and one woman straddles it defiantly. A musician, actor and rock seditionary, she stands perfectly poised across both camps, inspiring - no, inciting - every conceivable feeling. Love, respect, adoration, disgust, distrust, lust, envy, jealousy, amusement and a fair amount of bile. Every emotion, in fact, except pity... and who wants that? She polarises opinion like no other modern icon and vacillates in people’s minds almost as much as her own. Vain, vociferous and always on the attack, her actions and emotions seem above the usual laws of taste, tedium and morality, such is her bruising realness, her perfect imperfection. She pushes the idea of celebrity to the edge of destruction, pushes her own fans to the point of synaesthesia. “When I see a picture of Courtney, I can almost sniff her,” says Fraktured1, a chatroom groupie with a worrying sense of smell.
What’s to Love about Courtney? Where to begin. The history, the controversy, the glorious public battles? The unashamed, unrelenting will to power? Let’s start with something else instead. The Music. It’s time to forget about the headlines, brilliant as they are (‘Courtney Predicts World Trade Centre Attack.’ ‘Love Kicks Mime Artist.’ ‘Courtney And Christina, No Love Lost.’) Rather, focus on a long-forgotten fact: that Courtney is actually a musician. A singer with a razor-raw, gutter scream. A lyricist with a sharp, singular perception. Someone who writes bloody great tunes. Rifle through the Hole back catalogue for a few hours and hear for yourself. Play Celebrity Skin (an album that Courtney doesn’t even like) and be struck by the joyful, brash catchiness of the music, the brutal, hollow-eyed awfulness of her words. I made my bed, I’ll die in it. Go further back and discover, in amongst the visceral shrieks and grinding dirges, moments of hate-filled brilliance that still shine through, heartworn gestures that transcend grunge or any other label. Cheapness and trash, jealousy and fame, beauty and decay. Themes that Courtney always returns to. Themes that configure her life.
"Cheapness and trash, jealousy and fame, beauty and decay. Themes that Courtney always returns to. Themes that configure her life."
What’s to Love? Courtney’s ongoing quest for truth (or something like it). In her music, interviews, performances and public scraps, she boldly pursues her own (self-)righteous path: a well-documented route of poverty, riches, motherhood, drugs and death. And though her past threatens to engulf her on an almost regular basis, Courtney denies us the possibility of casting her as the victim. Fearless in this, she is forever on the attack, always anticipating (or, again, inciting) the next blow. “I was raised not to be scared. I was raised to believe that I can be whatever I want to,” she once explained.
And alongside this quest, her need for public revelation. For her life to be discussed, celebrated, even misconstrued. A refusal to filter out her version of reality for audience and fans, aided (or abetted) by a rather sizable gob. “Don’t go a day without a rumour,” she instructed i-D in June 2000 and rarely has she done so. It’s an ongoing story that is often fierce, always entertaining. Courtney Love versus... take your pick. Fred Durst and his corporate teen-punk machine. Her father and his bastardly ways. Record companies, money-makers, documentary makers, moon-eyed nannies, nasty journalists (gulp). Surviving members of her late husband’s rock group. Almost anyone who has ever uttered her name, it seems. Behind Courtney, a Fury-like thread of vitriol and vengeance to rival any fictional drama. Don’t mess.
And whilst no sane person would claim that she is always in the right, or even mostly right, with every new twist she does us a favour, stripping away another layer of fame, unearthing its attendant failures and duplicities. She de-bunks or ‘de-punks’, for instance, notions of the underground and the commercial, the supposed ‘real’ and the really fake. She shows how easy it is to switch between grunge queen and film starlet, how the roles are essentially the same. She is open and forthright in her ambition and spits contempt on anyone who perceives this as grotesque or ‘unseemly’ for a woman. And she singles out the hypocrisies of gender and sex within music; invoking them more caustically than a thousand Aguileras because she does so from experience...
“You will be a floozy and a slattern. He will be virile and a ladies’ man. You will be a freakshow, a retching drunk. He will be charismatic, vainglorious, a ferocious drunk and Dionysian. You will be indiscriminate and desperate. He will be generous, tortured and driven. You will be so frail you may break at a mere wisp of wind. He will be alienated and aggressive. You will be greedy and a control freak too... He will be in command, a cocksman, big-dicked, a genius... You will be ‘blonde ambition’ or a tiny little child or a whore,” she once famously said.
"Courtney behaves exactly how we would want her to and she has our collective blessing. She has exchanged privacy and dignity for fame, power and rock’n’roll."
What’s to Hate? Probably those exact same things to love, depending on your point of view.
The incredible will-to-power, if you’re a record company boss, nasty journalist, Fred Durst or a member of her late husband’s band. The honesty, when it’s interpreted as attention-seeking and plain old wheedling (which often it is). The shambling, wildly decadent behaviour, for those who want nice rock stars with clean, happy lives...
For the rest of us, there’s not a lot to loathe. Courtney behaves exactly how we would want her to and she has our collective blessing. She has exchanged privacy, dignity and the possibility of erasing her past, for fame, power and rock’n’roll. It seems a pretty fair trade-off.
What’s to love about Courtney, then? Pretty much everything. Even in her most extreme moments – muddled attempts to exert control over a life that seems simply uncontrollable – her motives seem pure, in a strange sort of way. In the public spotlight, there is no-one else to love-hate so much and this is a bad thing. No-one who uncovers their battered, uncomfortable self in such an extraordinary way and no-one that lays it bare so literally either.