Hole - Celebrity Skin

THE FIRST THING YOU THINK when 'Celebrity Skin' smacks you in the nose is that you may never need to hear a rock'n'roll record ever again. It feels that good as soon as Courtney sneers the word "demonology" across a monster riff revived from somewhere in LA in the late-'70s. And that's just the title track, the opener. Then it gets even better. The second track's called 'Awful' and it's an elegy for riot grrrl dressed up like Fleetwood Mac, Courtney boasting, "I was punk/Now I'm just stupid". Then it gets better again. 'Hit So Hard' is a blatant shocker, a rewrite of The Crystals' infamous 'He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)'.

And then you remember this: nobody understands the mechanics of pop stardom better than Courtney Love. Nobody knows when to kiss and tell, when to hide and seek, when to bleed and when to bite back like Courtney. She was born to it, birthed into it, totally bought all the shallow, constant make-overs as metaphor for our deepest, unsolvable anxieties. She's an actor. Always has been. We're being manipulated.

Courtney understands that the rock'n'roll lifestyle is what we all desire and she knows us all for fools. She's been there and she's trying to get out. Courtney knows when it's real, it's hell. She makes you believe one thing: you wouldn't ever want to be Courtney Love. And when cornered she can even make herself believe that she's doing it all for us, just so she can turn around and spit, "Fuck you, I'm not gonna be your martyr." It's her way of surviving. Ruining our fantasy. Selfish bitch.

Courtney thinks we want her dead and she's probably right. After all that Kurt business, she found her impetus to survive not in the natural human reaction of shock or remorse or fear or regret but in sheer bloody-minded revenge. After all that fucking mess, the instinct for revenge put her in the psychological place she needed to be to continue. Oh no, she wasn't the vampire that sucked the blood from Kurt's career, she was the lioness protecting her cub, Frances Bean, from the hovering vultures. From us.

It's fantastic how Courtney has turned around a life entirely and tirelessly dedicated to gaining our attention into a haughty scream for dignity. Which, of course, when you peel back all the bruised layers, is yet another demand for attention. It goes on and on. That list of things interviewers aren't allowed to ask: what it boils down to is Kurt. He's our hang-up, not hers. She's moved on, into the movies, and just because she didn't die around him doesn't mean she's about to let us sacrifice her career and her new film and her new album on the altar of someone else's ghost.

She's had the audacity to claim in interviews that 'Celebrity Skin' isn't autobiographical. As if! She's a soap opera, she's a drama queen. She can't help it. That's who she is. She is one of the the few pampered egotists in the business who have earned the right to use the metaphor most frequently used on 'Celebrity Skin': the drug/love one of getting under someone's skin ('Dying') or being hit so hard you see God ('Hit So Hard') as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as if love and smack are both equal addictions. She's about the only person alive who could record something as gloriously inane and hopelessly escapist as 'Malibu' ("Don't lay down and die/Hey hey/You know what to do/Oh baby drive away to Malibu") and not be in the least ironic. She's about the only person left alive who can record something as miserable as the wailing lament 'Northern Star' and get away with it because... well, because we know where she's been and it could have been so much worse.

Much of 'Celebrity Skin' seeks to sound bright, to con us that she's clear of the darkness. But the lyrics drag her back in. Even with 'Heaven Tonight', written for her daughter, she can find within her no positive images beyond the dreadful cliché of galloping horses and the surely unintentional morbidity of equating joy with being taken to heaven.

The brightness becomes her but Courtney can't accede. She's just too bitter. You can take the girl outta the trailer park but you can't take the trailer park outta the girl. After all she's been through, it's amazing that what comes out of 'Celebrity Skin' is not that death is the biggest betrayal of all, but that selling yourself cheap is. According to his awful suicide note, that's the reason Kurt killed himself. And that's still the core credo that Courtney clings to, viciously berating those she feels have let themselves down on 'Playing Your Song'. Still punk, then, but dressed up smarter.

Which is what the much vaunted, commercialised Fleetwood Mac sound is all about. It's her greatest revenge on the world for making her the way she is, for making her crave success so much. She thinks that in becoming the world's biggest pop star, she will finally escape the treadmill to fame she's been on since birth. She thinks she's sucker-punched us into buying this record and that, when it deservedly gets to Number One, she will finally be free to live a dull old life like all the rest of us.

This Courtney Love, the Courtney of 'Celebrity Skin' and 'Awful' and 'Hit So Hard' (among the greatest opening trio of songs on an album ever), is both monstrous and marvellous. She's the most pure, self-obsessed, perfect, honest, ugly, shameless, hypocritical, beautiful and transparent pop star on the planet. Even granted that the impetus behind most records is to reach as many people as possible, the naked agenda behind every note of 'Celebrity Skin' is transparently to sell, sell, sell. It needs to be massive. Courtney craves the success. This is a person, remember, who reputedly spent many of those hours that Kurt was missing calling a radio station, pretending to be listeners requesting songs from her albums. Albums that, until now, were too damn harsh for the radio.

So 'Celebrity Skin' is built for success because Courtney thinks that success is the answer. But it's not. It's respect. And there are millions out there who will never grant her that. Because of her gender. Because of her past. Just because... Courtney Love should forget about us. We're not worth it. It's the cross she bears and the source of her genius that she can't.

'Celebrity Skin' should be her, "Fuck you, goodbye." She should swan off to Hollywood now and make millions in movies because she will never make a better record than this. Hardly anyone will. She should quit but she won't. Welcome back.


Steve Sutherland