hole

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Hole: Introduction

This week, I’m going to be talking about Hole. This is sort of to say that I am going to be talking about Courtney Love, but not really. I’m not going to be discussing her solo album, much as I would like to, and I won’t be discussing the most recent Hole album, Nobody’s Daughter, because it’s essentially a solo album anyway. The history of Hole is the history of collaboration between Courtney Love and other people, primarily Eric Erlandson, and issues with collaboration, authorship, and credit are extremely important to Hole’s history. I’m interpreting “One Week One Band” rather literally here, and focusing on the history of a creative unit of individuals rather than a single artist.

A pocket history of Hole goes like this: Courtney Love met Eric Erlandson through an ad listing her influences as “Big Black, Sonic Youth, and Fleetwood Mac.” After recruiting a full band, they made a noisy, slugdy punk album called Pretty on the Inside. Then, after being joined by Kristen Pfaff on bass and Patty Schemel on drums, they made Live Through This, a sort of power-grunge masterpiece released right after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Pfaff died of a heroin overdose, Schemel left, and they made their swan song, Celebrity Skin, sort of a Laurel Canyon album passed through the cynical filter of punk and indie. 

I came to Hole lately and weirdly. Though as a child of the 90s I was of course aware of their existence, I really got into them as a camp counselor when one of my kids asked me to play guitar for her as she sang “Malibu” in the talent show. And so my relationship with them is as an adult rather than a teenager, which is weird, but there you go. I’ve written about Courtney previously for The Awl, which will give you some feeling for what I’m planning here, but I’ll be focusing more on the musical aspects. That’s all for now; there’s much more coming. Enjoy!

What “pop” meant in the 90s

What you have to remember about pop music in the 90s was that it was much further from the underground than pop music in the 00s was. Rock music was still one of the major branches of pop then, and so underground rock bands were legitimately differentiated from pop-rock bands by the size of their recording budgets and their level of sales. In the 00s, pop shrank enough to become within reach of the underground without the underground changing anything, while at the same time the sound of pop-qua-pop moved far enough away from rock, while the technology to make such styles as dance-pop and rap became so accessible, that becoming “pop” just meant shifting your sound rather than shifting your approach to music-making.

For Hole, though, it was more difficult and more complicated. That’s why I highlighted that bossa nova beat and those rimshots on “Violet.” They couldn’t just throw a drum machine on it: they had to find some other way to signal “pop.”

What we have below is a Harper’s article by Thomas Frank from 1995 about his friend’s band, Yum Yum. Yum Yum fits into a larger trend in the post-grunge era of alternative bands embracing disreputable styles from earlier eras like lounge and swing. Yum Yum took this to an extreme by doing a full-orchestra kind of embrace of Bubblegum sounds while also insisting it was a commentary rather than a sincere embrace. As Frank puts it, “He would fake fake itself.” (Italics his.) The article isn’t otherwise available online, as far as I can tell, but it had a huge impact on my formative thoughts about music in general and pop music in particular, and it’s well worth a read.

Thomas Frank - Pop Music in the Shadow of Irony

Even back in 1995, two years before I would get angry at U2 for naming their album Pop (because ugh, pop, right?) I knew enough to see the flaws in Frank’s argument. We’re supposed to like Yum Yum without liking pop, which is to say we are supposed to like the band and the artist but not the music he’s making. The theory is that we trust Chris Holmes because he is a smart dude (he’s into aliens!) (oh, the 90s), and so we enjoy his band as an intellectual exercise, as an “art piece" about the banality of pop music and the commodification of blah blah etc. But that’s ultimately a cop-out, a way of getting around your guilty pleasure without facing it head-on. "Violet" works where Yum Yum doesn’t because it embraces and expresses the contradictions without attempting to resolve them, and in the process expresses something you can’t express otherwise. I guess that’s what art is for, to me: it finds a way of conveying the ineffable. Yum Yum, and Frank, want above all else to be right, to make sense, to not violate good taste but to explain how what it wants to do anyway is already tasteful. “Violet” is less concerned with that, and wants moreso to be powerful, effective, recognizable. It takes in the senseless contradictions you get with the teenage soul and just puts them all out there for us to nod at or laugh at or love. “Pop” becomes Popmart becomes POP, all-caps, no quotes, a full-throated embrace. Pop freed up space for the underground, and the underground came rushing in. Hole is the advance guard, and Courtney Love is the patron saint.

That beat

drumtumblr:

Not to downplay the rest of the post that follows this insightful introduction (which you should read), but I’ve also noticed this rhythmic tic on Live Through This and wonder about its compositional origin.  While “Violet” features the most obviously faux-bossa nova approach to this rhythm on the drums, complete with rim clicks, the groove that powers the song (accents on the 1 and the “and” of 2, optional on the 4) also pops up on the band’s cover of Young Marble Giants’ “Credit in the Straight World” and on their own “Jennifer’s Body.” 

While Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson share most of the songwriting credit for the album, it’s conceivable that the arrangements were hashed out with the rhythm section.  Perhaps Patty Schemel had an affinity for this particular beat and this dictated the band’s approach, but it seems even more likely that she was locked into it due to Love and Erlandson’s strumming patterns.  In fact, on “Jennifer’s Body,” Schemel deliberately plays around those accents, using a less jittery, more propulsive (and more straightforward) beat for most of the track. 

One thing to consider:  the Young Marble Giants’ original version of “Credit in the Straight World” has the same groove and even features a skeletal drum machine rhythm (again, accents on the 1 and the “and” of 2), which is a great deal less ornate than a cheap Casio bossa nova beat, but along those lines. 

So did Hole’s temporary affinity for this beat (which starts slightly before Schemel’s time in the band if we count the much slower version of the groove on b-side “Drown Soda”) come from an admiration for the YMG, or did their choice of that cover result from their affinity for the beat?  Hard to say. 

Whatever its origins, this recurring rhythm is one of the facets of Live Through This overlooked by anyone who ignorantly chooses to see the album as simply part of the Cobain songwriting legacy (whether through theft, collaboration, or overwhelming influence).  Nirvana never used this groove, but at least for a time, Love and Erlandson couldn’t seem to stay away from it.

Some great points from a drumming-centric Tumblr! Here’s the YMG original of “Credit in the Straight World,” which is fantastic:

Track

Asking For It

Artist

Hole

Album

Live Through This

Hole - Asking For It (from Live Through This, 1994)

If you know nothing about Hole, “Asking For It” may seem like a fairly straightforward anti-rape song. “Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice? If she asked you for it, did she ask you twice?” Courtney taunts the addressee of the song by breaking down the phrase “asking for it,” making “asking” literal rather than symbolic and requiring explicit verbal confirmation. Very riot grrl, very feminist, very 90s, and fantastic. But then here is how Courtney herself explains it:

We had just gotten off tour with Mudhoney, and I decided to stage-dive. I was wearing a dress and I didn’t realize what I was engendering in the audience. It was a huge audience and they were kind of going ape-shit. So I just dove off the stage, and suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn off of me, my underwear was being torn off of me, people were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like “pussy-whore-cunt”. When I got back onstage I was naked. I felt like Karen Finley. But the worst thing of all was that I saw a photograph of it later. Someone took a picture of me right when this was happening, and I had this big smile on my face like I was pretending it wasn’t happening. So later I wrote a song called “Asking For It” based on the whole experience. I can’t compare it to rape because it’s not the same. But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience, figuratively, literally, and yet, was I asking for it?

The stage dive was and is a major part of Courtney’s performance schtick. To use that word is not to imply that it’s planned, however. Every time she does it, it seems like a surprise to everyone involved. She sprints off stage and shoulder-blocks her way into the audience as the security guys scramble to get her back, as if they didn’t know it would happen, even though she does it every time. What does that act mean, exactly? On the one hand it’s an expression of liberatory freedom, the cosseted performer breaking the protected bounds of the stage to join the audience in a shared act. It’s such a lovely “fuck it” gesture, one you can see in the preceding slide show as Courtney dumps her guitar, bites her lip, and just goes for it. But it’s also an act of self-destruction, or at least self-negation, the performer giving up her carefully crafted identity to let it dissolve into the crowd, giving up control not only of her art but of her body to the heaving mass, ceding personal will to collective desire. The performer who stage-dives throws herself into the maw of the furies, daring we-the-crowd to tear her apart.

So the answer to the question “Is she asking for it?” depends on what we mean by she. If “she” is a rape victim, then dear sweet Christ of course not. But if by “she” we mean Courtney Love, stage-diving, well…that’s a little more complicated. As the incident in question is described, that’s awful, and no. But Courtney continued stage-diving long after the incident she describes, which must have been sometime around 1993. When I saw Courtney on her solo tour in at the Bowery Ballroom in New York in 2004, we got there reasonably early and waited around forever, since Courtney had just gotten out of jail, and while we did, we talked with the other folks there. One was a girl who had written her thesis on Hole, and as soon as Courtney started playing, any pretense to temporary friendship was gone: she just wanted to get as close to the stage as possible, pushing and shoving and shoulder-blocking her way to the front. When Courtney stage-dove for the first time, catapulting over the security barrier, boots akimbo, our former friend reached out to touch her body with an ecstatic look in her eye, like the “blond girl in Atlanta” grabbing Elvis in the photospread from The Aesthetics of Rock (scan TK) or the girl on the train in Hard Day’s Night, alternately clutching herself and swiping at George through the luggage cage as the band plays. It wasn’t rape, as Courtney says (at least before then immediately contradicting herself), but something more complicated. Taken outside of Courtney’s limited perspective, involving the crowd in the act, it becomes something more like a rite, an exchange of energy between two bodies, one small but important and the other large but meaningless.

The other complicating factor here is, well, the rest of the song, the bits that aren’t the chorus. Specifically, there’s the bridge, which gives the album its name: “If you live through this with me I swear that I would die for you.” In the aftermath of Kurt’s death it was powerful and heartbreaking, an expression of failed devotion, an unheeded plea. But the problem is that Courtney didn’t seem particularly aware of Kurt’s impending death at the time the song was written; indeed, she talks about not really being aware that his overdose (on pills and champagne) in Rome a few months before his death was a suicide attempt. Instead, it’s likely that the line is meant to be about the torment of being in the media spotlight, a likelihood enhanced by Kurt’s aborted turn doing backing vocals on the track. “This” is not the existential pain of major depression, but the inconvenience of being a celebrity. And that is, obviously, a lot harder to feel sorry for her about, especially when Courtney pursued fame so aggressively.

What do we do with all this, then? I guess just experience it as a contradiction, and come to terms with the fact that its very ambivalence, its shifting meanings, are what make it a great song. Even Courtney doesn’t know what it’s about - “I can’t compare it to rape because it’s not the same. But in a way it was” - so why should we? Courtney’s value as a vessel for cultural meanings is that she’s either honest enough or unselfaware enough to not ask for issues to be closed-off. In the real world, things worth making art about are messy and complicated and contradictory. And so that’s how Courtney expresses them: as we experience them, and as an attempt to corral them all into one place so we can get a good look at how they interact. Courtney Love songs are always unfinished (she revised a number of the tracks on America’s Sweetheart between the promo release and the commercial, and the last track on Live Through This was switched out at the last moment), and maybe that’s the most honest way of understanding them. They are what Courtney Love thinks at a particular moment. They’re not the truth, exactly. They’re more like an aspect of the truth, rendered in such a fine grain that it comes to have an unexpected value. They are a step on the road toward enlightenment. The step just happens to feel like a collapse.

"Hi, Courtney!"

Here is the notorious/famous/memey video of Courtney Love throwing her compact at Madonna (followed by a joint Kurt Loder interview, though calling it an “interview” is perhaps overly generous) during the preshow of the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, and it’s a great encapsulation of the problem with being a Courtney Love fan. It was during one of Madonna’s periodic career troughs, post-Bedroom Stories, and a time when she could have used a good compact-throwing. She was in the midst of trying to be a Serious Actress with Evita and like that, and you can just tell from her demeanor that her whole approach, slowly ossifying into control and losing some of the looseness - or at least playfulness - of her previous work, would eventually end with the awful faux-British Madonna that’s we’ve been subjected to lately. Courtney showing up was almost like an intervention from Madonna’s id, the 90s version of pop-music feminism taunting the 80s version of pop-music feminism for being too square. Courtney was in the midst of her post-Live Through This publicity tour/personal rampage, and is Madonna’s opposite in almost every way here despite taking up roughly the same position that Madonna does (or did, anyway). It’s invigorating, bratty - and even better once Madonna starts engaging and shows she can keep up perfectly well with Courtney, just chooses not to. She loosens up, breaks character, queen-bitches her opponent, and moves on. Courtney makes meaning happen.

But then there’s everything else. Just the way Courtney enters, post-heave, is kind of a problem: she stumbles in and just sorta talks at people without actually doing so into a microphone. There’s no differentiation between on-camera and off-camera, and while that can be nice, Courtney’s continual inability to differentiate between public and private is what makes her so infuriating. She alludes to long-standing feuds or the possibility thereof, shouts at people off-shot, and generally behaves as if everyone there is caught up in her narrative, whereas from our perspective it’s clear that she’s wandered into Madonna’s story and isn’t entirely welcome. Then, too, there’s all the other stuff, the stuff that became so problematic for her later: the contradictions between her proudly feminist songs and her nausea-inducing swivels between self-righteous condemnations of sexism and gleeful enactment of sexist archetypes. She talks about finding a husband in almost Stepfordian terms, compares shoes, talks about clothes. The whole thing breaks down into a chattering henhouse of banalities. What do we do with that?

There’s an important consideration here: fame, which is to say that Courtney wants above all else to be famous, and to be more famous than she currently is, and the only way to become famous in pop culture is to embody some sort of archetype. She is angry but thinks it should be forgiven if she has the right costume. Courtney’s stream-of-consciousness public statements seem above all else to be an attempt to figure out the secret, the magic formula that will make everything work for her, the perfect combination of people and clothes and roles and songs that can make her more famous than anyone else. Because in her mind that’s the only thing that can make her OK. Fame becomes salvation. And that means that grace is unattainable. Madonna represents a Christian god, an inclusive god that lowers the bar for admittance to heaven. Courtney is the judgmental god, the Old Testament deity of eternally shifting rules and civilization-destroying punishment. In Courtney’s cosmology of culture, there is no heaven. There’s just waiting for the resurrection.