Hole - “Violet” (from Live Through This, 1994)
Here’s a fun fact: did you ever realize that “Violet” has a bossa nova beat? I don’t mean an actual bossa nova beat, but one like you’d get on a cheap Casio or a home organ: one…AND…four/one…AND…four etc. There’s also the matter of the rimshots on the verse, which you also get on the album’s other big single, “Miss World.” It’s like they decided to take the quietLOUDquiet structure and make it as literal as possible, not just playing softer but making instrumentation and rhythm choices associated with “soft” music. (You can hear American and British musicians incorporating Latin-jazz influences in the 60s, as on the early Beatles records, and as resuscitated by Jonathan Richman with his Spanish-language tunes.) They didn’t actually change from a string quartet to a full metal ensemble or anything, but they seemed to be coming as close to that as possible without going over the line, doing “pop” in almost a literal, world-historical sense.
I mention this as prelude because there’s no question in my mind that “Violet” is one of the most elementally brutal rock songs ever written, a three-minute convulsion of howling rage that’s like standing in front of a jet engine in the dark while strobe lights go off, the noise subsiding just long enough to give you time to recover for the next blast. It’s even more remarkable when you consider their SNL performance of the song, immediately in the wake of the suicide of Courtney’s husband, when she changes the lyric “I’m the one with no soul/one above and one below” to “one above and two below” and then makes this noise like “hurgh,” like she’s about to actually vomit on stage.* The song doesn’t really mean anything per se - the commentariat on Songmeanings want to make it about Kurt or make it a beef song paired with Babes in Toyland’s “Bruise Violet,” and there seems to be some legitimate reason for detecting Billy Corgan’s (personal) influence on the lyrics, but that’s not really the point. “Violet” is a great song because it’s so open and because you can assign so many meanings to it. There are hardly any lyrics, but the ones we have are like Nietzschean aphorisms** - “WHEN THEY GET WHAT THEY WANT THEY NEVER WANT IT AGAIN” “GO ON TAKE EVERYTHING I WANT YOU TO” “YOU SHOULD LEARN HOW TO SAY NO” - that are perfect for being yelled and express the kind of diffuse frustration that’s endemic to adolescence and which, embarrassingly, sometimes persists into adulthood. It doesn’t matter what you’re pissed at, it just matters that you’re pissed. “Violet” is a good way to fill up your emotional gas tank with rage.
We used to use this as the psych-up song for our electroclash band, me and the lead singer did, which is sorta weird in retrospect since that was more about cool detachment than the messy all-over-the-placeness of Hole in general and “Violet” in particular. But there you go. We’d put it on before concerts and use it to get excited about being in front of an audience. Someone once said that you can’t appear in front of an audience without having a certain amount of contempt for them, and “Violet” does nothing if not encourage contempt. But that feeling is almost impossible to ignore when you’re playing electric guitar, especially if you incorporate noise or feedback into your sound. The whole point of feedback is that it’s your sound getting away from you, noise cycling from output to input in such a way that it builds upon itself, becoming massive and formless. It’s the auditory equivalent of a nuclear reactor once the control rods are removed, a meltdown of sound. You’re trying to let out that energy but still control it, and often it feels like the only true way to do that is to throw yourself into the sound, bodily and emotionally. You twitch and hurl yourself against the noise, hoping for it to become a monster, but unprepared for what will happen if it does. “Violet” is that. Specifically, the moment at 1:43 in “Violet” is like that, when Courtney screams “forever” in her upper register, and it just overwhelms everything else, hitting this resonant frequency that temporarily dissolves the rest of the track, taking over the waveform and making it entirely hers. This is the noise you let out without knowing where it came from or how to make it again, but you hope someone heard it, and you hope someone understands it.
* Has anyone ever vomited on stage? You’d think it would be more common. Maybe something about performing keeps it in.
** Nietzsche is said to have started writing the aphorisms because his syphilis made it too painful for him to write the longer works he had been known for. This is probably a metaphor for Courtney Love’s songwriting process, somehow.