My friend Katy Goodwin-Bates and I discuss a lot of things—books, music…
well, okay, we mostly just discuss books and music. But in this retrospective conversation about Hole’s gut-wrenching 1994 album Live Through This, we also discuss scones! Enjoy.
Katy Goodwin-Bates: Live Through This came out in 1994. I was 11 and just emerging from the inevitable boyband phase that all girls must experience during their formative years. What this means is that I wasn’t aware of Hole at the point of the album’s release. I definitely knew who Kurt Cobain was because I remember exactly where I was when the news broke (in my dad’s car, on the way home from visiting a high school), but Hole didn’t come to my attention till 1998, with the release of Celebrity Skin. The title track was widely played on UK radio and on MTV, and I was a lot (ok, a bit) cooler by then, so I became a fan.
Strangely, my love of Live Through This is a relatively recent development. Since having my daughter, I realised that male voices dominated not just what I heard on the radio, but also what we heard through my iPod, and I made a conscious decision to expose my little girl to more female voices. Hence Live Through This’ near constant rotation in the last few years.
How did you come to experience Live Through This? If you tell me you were cool enough to be into it in ’94 I might be too intimidated to talk to you…
David Nilsen: Don’t worry. I too came to it later.
KGB: Phew. I didn’t even have any flannel shirts till I was about 25.
DN: Ah, see, I did beat you on flannel. In fact, I still have one of my flannel shirts from junior high, and I realize now I was not cool enough to be wearing it at the time. I, too, came to Hole well after the fact. I was 12 when Live Through This came out, and as an adolescent in an evangelical household, I had to sneak in any “secular” music I wanted to listen to. I was aware of who Courtney Love was in a vague sense, and by vague I mean “scary lady in rock band and somehow that Kurt Cobain guy is involved.” I remember hearing about Cobain’s death, and my first real exposure to Love was watching an MTV special a year later in which she was reading part of his suicide note and crying and telling him off in response to it. No one I knew liked Hole, and they were called Hole, which we Christians assumed meant something bad. As an adult in the early aughts, I finally got around to listening to their catalog, and fell pretty hard for Live Through This. It’s one of the most guttural, desperate rock albums I’ve ever listened to.
KGB: I feel genuinely distressed not to have had Live Through This in my life in the mid-90s. In my angsty spells, it was Alanis Morrisette, Tori Amos, and No Doubt who provided the soundtrack and I feel like me screaming “go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to” from behind the slammed door of my bedroom would have been a really strong statement of my general misery and rage. It’s all very well discovering, as you put it, “one of the most guttural, desperate rock albums” when you’re in your 30s, but it generally just means my 4-year-old daughter asks for the Frozen soundtrack instead or, more commonly, I’ll be listening to Hole in my classroom before school and my class of 16-year-olds just know to tread carefully. It’s quite a handy tool, actually.
DN: There’s also that glorious “Fuck You!” on I Think That I Would Die. My anger albums in my teens were Rage Against the Machine and, by late high school, some Nirvana, some Smashing Pumpkins. Maybe the quieter rage of Fiona Apple. the misery of Morrissey and Robert Smith and Martin Gore. I would have enjoyed this album too if I’d had it at the time. Alas.
KGB: I think one of the most appealing things to me about Live Through This is Courtney Love’s voice. Generally speaking, women sing nicely and it’s men who get away with not actually being very strong vocally. It seems like such a revelation to hear her just yelling, with no attempt to make it sound pretty. It adds to the “fuck it all” attitude of much of Hole’s music and I love it. It’s evident in the later Hole stuff, as well as Love’s solo material, but that unique style is most notable on Live Through This, I think. She’s actually profoundly hard to sing along to, weirdly.
I know I’ve made a sweeping generalisation about men and women and the response to their voices there, but I have been testing this theory for about 15 years and it’s definitely true.
DN: No, I think you’re dead on. And that vocal quality matches Love’s entire persona. She refuses to be pretty, gentle, sanitary, likable. She’s furious, and she’s broken, and it all shoots out in really uncouth ways, and fuck you if you tell her that’s not okay. It reaches its most perfect distillation on Live Through This.
KGB: I am applauding everything you just said.
DN: I have never made a British person clap before. I feel like I’ve earned a cookie, because that is what they should be called. Biscuits are something else.
KGB: That’s a whole other conversation. One which, incidentally, once caused me a lot of confusion in Memphis.
DN: I bet. They take their biscuits seriously in the South. I only recently found out y’all don’t actually have an equivalent to our biscuits. I read a zine by two British women traveling by train through the South, and they were marveling about biscuits, and how strange they were, and trying to compare them to scones, which we also have and are quite different.
KGB: Wait. What’s a scone over there? I am passionately devoted to scones. The proper ones.
DN: I think they are actually the same, though I’m sure there is a discussion to be had about relative quality between English and American scones.
KGB: More importantly, does Courtney Love like scones? And does she say it to rhyme with ‘gone’ or ‘stone’?
DN: Well, we uniformly rhyme it with “stone,” so I would lean that way. Though I’m sorry to say I’ve never discussed scones with Courtney Love.
KGB: We should write to her.
DN: How do you say scone?
KGB: To rhyme with ‘gone’. I’m not sure what the source of the difference in pronunciation is; usually these things are a result of the north/south divide in the UK but I think it’s actually to do with how posh you are. And I think posh people say it to rhyme with ‘stone.’ Also, there’s a big dispute about whether you put jam or clotted cream on first. That’s a divisive issue.
Why are we talking about scones?
I am listening to Live Through This and Rock Star just came on. It is my favourite and my best.
DN: What makes Rock Star your favorite?
KGB: I’m glad you asked. I am going to listen to it again while replying to fully explore my deep and emotional response to this song.
- The false start and when Courtney Love says “oh” and then giggles. It’s weird.
- The way her voice cracks when she screams “revolution” as the guitars start.
- The quiet-loud-quiet thing. I love it when Frank Black does it too.
- All the ‘Olympia-ah-ah-ah’ bits.
- Ooh, it’s just got to the fast bit when she keeps saying “do it for the kids.” I like this bit too.
- And then you think it’s finished and it comes back! With loads of feedback! It’s a wondrous thing.
DN: From a sonic standpoint, I love the song, and for most of the same reasons you do. She does some stuff—like the false starts and the ah-ah stuff—that sometimes annoys me, but it totally works here. I feel split though on what’s behind the song. It’s all making fun of riot grrrl and shit, and…I like riot grrrl.
KGB: I see this. But, given that we have just praised Courtney for her general ‘up-yours’ attitude, I wonder whether it’s then a bit churlish to take issue with her taking aim at a scene which, if I am correctly interpreting events which happened very far away from me when I was 11, accused her of being a sell-out.
KGB: Why, thanks.
DN: Also, good use of “churlish.”
KGB: I use that word all the time. It’s probably what I’ll call my memoir. Which will be mainly focused on scones now.
DN: I can’t even think of something witty to respond to that.
My favorite song on here is probably Doll Parts. I mean, obviously we’re discussing the album because we both love it top to bottom, but I think that’s the song that has stuck with me the longest. It’s devastating. I can’t think of many other songs where you can just hear a singer’s soul bleeding out quite like this. “Someday you will ache like I ache” is one of the saddest lines in music, I think. And when you gather the context behind the song, well…
“I love him so much it just turns to hate.”
Quick: name a songwriter who is more honest and unvarnished and unapologetic than Courtney Love.
KGB: Tori Amos.
DN: More so, though? Actually more than Love? I adore Tori Amos. We both have her on our list. But I don’t know she’s more willing to be hideous and shattered than this.
KGB: In fairness, you didn’t give me time for deep lyrical analysis.
DN: True. My point is merely, damn.
KGB: Is that because Amos’ songs, while often painful, generally sound a bit more pretty? Not always, obviously. But part of the expression of pain in Courtney Love’s work is the delivery, isn’t it?
DN: Yeah, for sure. I’m not even saying she’s a great lyricist from any poetic standpoint. Just brutally, shamelessly honest.
What are your feeling on Doll Parts?
KGB: I like every song on this album. This will sound ridiculous given that I’ve just said Rock Star is my favourite, but Doll Parts isn’t shouty enough for me. As I type, Violet has come on (again) and the raw rage of that really grabs me; Doll Parts, while obviously brilliant, doesn’t grab me by the ears and spit venom in them in quite the same way. And, clearly, having venom spat in my ears is something I actively seek out.
DN: As one does. Violet is fantastic, for sure. Maybe my second favorite, though ranking these is probably pointless. I hear you about the angry songs. That’s her bread and butter. I think in some ways that’s why Doll Parts hits me so hard. She throws anger so much and so well, and right in the middle is this song she’s just…broken. Small. Barely breathing. And she doesn’t hide, and she doesn’t use anger falsely to protect herself. She just shows us the wounds, just like she shows us the venom on the other songs.
KGB: I love Violet. My daughter’s middle name, entirely coincidentally, is Violet, but I tell people it was inspired by the song. It’s not technically true but hopefully it will imbue her with a little of Courtney Love’s attitude.
A little. Like, 6%. I have to live with her, after all.
DN: Right. And you don’t want her writing about you in a song with all that pent up teenage angst.
Let’s talk about the thread throughout the album addressing consent. That wasn’t a thing people were talking about nearly as much in 1994 as today.
KGB: Yes. Obviously on a track like Asking For It, that’s really overt, particularly in a period when, as you say, consent wasn’t being widely discussed.
DN: Asking for It is definitely where it’s most overt, and the song is well ahead of its time, though the riot grrrl acts Courtney had such a problem with were also beginning to talk about it.
There are other songs that address it here and there though. Violet hits on it in the very first verse. Jennifer’s Body is entirely about a real-life story of a woman who was kidnapped and kept as a sex slave for years. That’s quite a bit of the album that deals with consent.
On another note, I love the cheap shot on Kim Gordon in Plump. I love Kim Gordon, but Courtney Love going after her feels like a very Courtney Love thing to do. The sections in Gordon’s Girl in a Band that discussed Love were pretty entertaining.
KGB: What I find interesting is that, while the album obviously addresses these issues of consent and is filled throughout with a kind of visceral rage, it’s never struck me as a record about victimhood. Perhaps it’s the almost total lack of delicacy present, but the overall message seems, to me at least, to be one of strength. As you said before, it’s a massive ‘screw you’ to aggressors of any kind, physical or those critical of her music or life. It’s eerily prescient; Love’s life has been raked over so unflinchingly basically since the minute Live Through This came out (and before).
Reading the lyrics was a weird experience as I noticed glaring parallels with another heroine of mine, Sylvia Plath, and I’ve spent the 24 hours since constructing a complex thesis comparing them. The “celebrity” marriages, obviously, but the differing responses to them interest me. I may force my all-girl class to do some linguistic comparison of Live Through This and Ariel.
DN: One line I love from this album is from Gutless: “I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus.”
Because I totally get that. As you know from my other writing, I grew up hella religious, and then left that in my twenties. I don’t want to go back to that life, but I do miss the comfort and hope of believing in the impossible as a kid.
KGB: I spend a lot of time perfecting my Courtney Love howl.
DN: I have never even attempted it. How is yours coming along?
KGB: It’s pretty good but quite painful. And scary to anyone around me.
I have always liked the line “I want to be the girl with the most cake.” I like the metaphor of excessive yearning and, more importantly, I really like cake.
DN: I love that line too, especially together with the next line: “I love him so much it just turns to hate.”
KGB: What’s your stance on how well Live Through This has aged? I’m guessing we’ll agree that it hasn’t dated.
DN: Oh, it feels as fresh as ever, I think. There are albums I love from the 80s or 90s that I can definitely say are of their era and show it in some ways, but I love them anyway. This one feels like it could have come out last year and been just as fresh as 1994.