This album is indestructible. It wouldn’t be allowed to fail even though everyone and their cat had already written off Courtney Love as a hasbeen widow who had her finest work subcreated by Kurt Cobain. You can’t imagine how much Courtney was disdained in the years before Celebrity Skin was released. The letters page of Channel 4’s much-missed Planet Sound always seemed to be against Courtney, who somehow managed to be redrawn as a grotesque parody, a shameless money-grubber who somehow stumbled into infamy, forever strung-out in a druggy stupor. She’d always been derided in some corners. Not in my house. Live Through This was too significant for anything other than complete slavish devotion. There’s very little in the world that boosts me with a feeling of invincibility quite like the opening five seconds of Violet. Courtney’s reputation was one thing, but her legacy was also in danger. And then…
Things started to change. Suddenly Courtney was turning up at movie premieres looking oh so refined, her aesthetic suddenly classic Hollywood. She even scored herself a Golden Globe nomination for The People Vs Larry Flint. I gasped, I really did. Not because I didn’t believe she had it in her, but because it seemed so unexpected. I loved watching Courtney overturn expectations, using her power and talent to make headlines that weren’t related to her addiction or husband.
Thankfully, Courtney decided to do what all great artists do when they get to peek behind the Hollywood curtain. She wrote an album all about fame. Trust me, no one at the time thought Courtney could follow up Live Through This with anything half as good. But to underestimate Courtney Love would be a grave error. Her talent as a writer, the ability she has to look at herself, the centre of her universe, and sum it up perfectly gave us one of the best, most scabrous attacks on fame ever committed to record. When it comes to summing up ‘fame’, you can’t do much better than, “Oh, make me over/I’m all I want to be/A walking in study/In demonology,” – goodness knows many have tried. Their fame, however, is not on the same level as Courtney Love. Only later, when Britney released Piece of Me, would a comparable song do so much to describe the horror of celebrity lived (and survived) by those in the devastation of it.
The whole album was created to be perfect. Every song sounds like a potential single. The producer, a drummer despising studio despot named Michael Bienhorn, had a reputation for big licks and bigger hits. There are no b-sides, deep cuts, or experimentation. It’s all burnished for deployment. Melissa Auf der Maur, the brilliant bassist (and later Pumpkins contributor) cringed at the time how she thought the songs would sound so polished, so anal. Yes, they were polished, but the bubblegum is mixed with broken glass.
Awful, the second song on the album, prescribes music as the medicine, a cure against the falseness of Hollywood fuckery. “If the world is so wrong / yeah you can break the mold with one song.” The title alone is a good indicator of how Courtney felt once she was inside the machine.
Malibu, one of the best songs on the album, is haunted by Kurt’s ghost. “Crash and burn / all the stars explode tonight” has a hint of the Neil Young line in Kurt’s suicide note, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” – but the song is not by any means a hop, skip, and trip down a morbid path. It sounds beautiful, the glossiness of the backing track an unexpectedly good fit for Courtney’s snarl. The video too is stylish and chic. Hole look amazing in it, like they might be approaching an imperial phase.
The album benefits from a stack of talent. You don’t have Melissa, Eric, Courtney, and Patty (who has her own story to tell about this period, so watch Hit So Hard on Amazon) together and not get great songs. Billy Corgan also contributed to the songwriting sessions, which meant even more brilliant songs. Oh, I heard at the time that Billy wrote the whole album. It was Live Through This all over again, except no one could use Kurt to bash Courtney.
I bought Celebrity Skin at Virgin Megastore in Glesga, walking into the multi-leveled superstructure with my jaw agape at the posters of Hole on the walls. How unlikely this would have been a few years earlier. But through talent and tenacity, a band and singer written off managed to come back and make their critics eat shit. Yes, it sounds very ’90s in places, and critics will mostly go for Live Through This as the best Hole album, and I’d agree – except Celebrity Skin makes it less obvious a choice, a debate with yourself. Not many bands get to do that with their albums, especially bands with small discographies. The power of music can ruin or repair reputations. It only takes one song to make everything work again. One great song. Celebrity Skin has twelve of them.