If you don’t commonly associate Courtney Love with the more cultured world of classic literature, don’t worry. The equally legendary and infamous Hole leader has quite a bit of equally notorious songs with wild subject matter, whether it’s the band’s debut single ‘Retard Girl’ or the Kurt Cobain-influenced words to ‘Doll Parts’. Never one to shy away from the topics she takes on, Love often throws is references and phrases that take on separate lives all their own.
Such is the case with the title song to the band’s third album, 1998’s Celebrity Skin. Initially based on the stark drama of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, ‘Celebrity Skin’ evolved into an analysis of the way too famous, way too glamorous life of fame and recognition.
Part incisive self-portrait, part send up of her established reputation, and part dig at the legions of imitators and wannabes who followed in her wake, Love was in “take no prisoners” mode belting out ‘Celebrity Skin’. You can see her as a demon or a fame chaser all you want, but everyone has to pay their pound of flesh if they want to make it.
That specific reference comes from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, where it’s a gory and shocking bit of guarantee for a loan. Even though The Merchant of Venice doesn’t quite reach the top list of Shakespeare’s most prominent and acclaimed works of the modern day, plenty of cultural references are still made to the play, mostly revolving around the pound of flesh bargain.
‘Celebrity Skin’ is an amalgamation of different references, from the “oh look at my face / My name is might-have been” lines that were directly lifted from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘A Superscription’ to the allusions made to Cinderella and Double Indemnity. Love was working overtime to stuff the song with notable cracks.
But the most potent reference in the song actually ties back to another Hole track: Live Through This‘s ‘Asking For It’. In that song, Love explains in the opening line: “Every time that I sell myself to you / I get a little bit cheaper than I mean to”. But in ‘Celebrity Skin’, she’s reclaimed her value by the end, directly challenging the listener with “You want a part of me / Well I’m not selling cheap.”