I can already hear all of the angry keyboard clicking. Hello, Internet. Hello, Twitter. Yes, today, I volunteer to be your villain. Not unlike a certain frontwoman of a certain band who has taken a lot of undue punches throughout the years. And yes, a lot of them have been rooted in sexism.
Aside from the actual music that Hole has produced – which, don’t worry, we’ll obviously get there – Courtney Love’s relationship with Kurt Cobain formed her reputation in the eyes of the public, based mostly on speculation and everyone’s latest hot take. When it comes to Hole and Courtney Love herself, most of the hate that gets flung in her direction is relatively shallow. Ask someone why they hate the woman or the band, and the aggression will be there, but it backs phrases like, “they suck!” and “she’s a bitch!” But very few really have concrete examples as to why.
Although it’s easy to point in the direction of Cobain’s untimely death as the unfortunate cause of the vitriol, there’s plenty of evidence to prove that it was hardly a catalyst for much. Long before the “Courtney killed Kurt” truthers came along, people heralded Cobain as an angelic, artistic genius, and baseless or not, she became his foil in the eyes of the public.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd describes this phenomenon perfectly, when she wrote: “The persistent misogyny that comes with devoted fans who believe a single woman is responsible for sullying the legacy of their precious man-god (just look at Beatles fans’ feelings toward Yoko Ono). It’s a weird confluence of ownership, sexism, loner-hero-worship and, I guess, a disbelief that their idol could express such a human emotion as love, to the point where some fans seem to fetishize monasticism. (Everybody knows saints don’t bone!)”.
Just take a look at the scene from Montage of Heck in which Love reads hate mail while Cobain mouths the words along with her. The hate mail calls Cobain a “God of love in human form”, while Love is called “nasty” and “dirty” and is said to be “running her big fat mouth”. All of this happened sans (unfounded, dramatic) murder accusations.
Don’t get me twisted: Courtney Love is not a perfect person. She’s prone to causing petty drama, and she’s done harmful things, like when she admitted to shooting up when she was pregnant. Her actions have spanned from messy to reprehensible. But here’s the kicker: the same can be said for nearly every male celebrity and counterpart that comes to mind, especially within the grunge movement. When men are messy, maybe it’s human. Maybe it even flies under the radar. When women are just as messy, it’s unforgivable.
Messy. Loud. Crass. Memorable. Sound like familiar qualities? Because these words could all be applied to the music of Hole just the same. In fact, if we remove Courtney Love and Hole from our periphery for just a moment, they sound simply like the qualifiers of grunge.
While people often like to paint Hole as grunge’s bratty little sister, they actually didn’t lag too far behind the other power players in terms of chronology. Their first album, Pretty On the Inside, came out the same year as Nirvana’s Nevermind and only marginally following their first album, Bleach. Maybe it’s because people see everything a woman does as a tag-along to her male romantic counterpart, but their artistic relationship is often seen as one in which she lived off the scraps of his genius. But how would that even be possible with the way their careers moved verifiably in tandem?
Although Live Through This is often considered to be Hole’s paramount effort, their contribution to grunge is heavily rooted in Pretty On the Inside. On this album, their sound is at its grittiest, with weighty melodies and clawing vocals that plenty of music acts – male or female – just didn’t have the guts to reach. The opening track ‘Teenage Whore’ is enough to show this. When people talk about the origins of grunge, especially about women in grunge, songs like ‘Good Sister/Bad Sister’ and the title track ‘Pretty On the Inside’ have that essential depth and musical complexity to make them memorable in this conversation—but not so much as to abandon any sense of accessibility and wildness.
The way Hole evolved into their later sound is just as impressive, just take a listen to ‘Celebrity Skin’ as the perfect example. No, it isn’t early-1990s grunge, because it built upon the progression of Live Through This to create an early example of that grunge-tinted melodic rock that defined the late-90s and early 2000s. The specific pivot they made was one that could have only originated from a grunge band. The whole album lent itself to the polished alt-rock that was just starting to bloom, proving Hole to be yet again ahead of the curve.
Look, I get it (or, OK, I’m trying to). There are people out there for whom admitting that Hole is not just good, but important and influential, well, that would feel like a failure. But it needs to be mentioned that Nirvana‘s fame and glory does not automatically make them the objective best. As many are aware by now, there are a lot of moving parts that go into industry decisions of which bands to promote, and they are naturally going to be at the whim of the people put in place to make those choices.
We have to face the facts. If you didn’t know anything about Courtney Love and took a listen to Hole for the first time, you might have a different opinion about them. What’s more, the technical quality, the musicianship, the vocals all add up (and go beyond the sum of their parts) to make something really amazing. Something important. Innovative. Perhaps something just as good as Nirvana.