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.