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Love, Courtney (1964—)

Love, Courtney (1964—)

One of the most interesting and controversial figures of the 1990s, male or female, Courtney Love has defiantly challenged assumptions about what is considered acceptable behavior for a woman, always blazing her own trail in the process. Wearing torn baby doll dresses, unkempt knotted hair, and a guitar strapped around her shoulders, Love caught the attention of middle America, even becoming the subject of parody on Saturday Night Live —the ultimate litmus test of mainstream recognition. As the lead singer/guitarist for the rock band Hole, as an actress, and as the wife of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Love has garnered both critical acclaim and vicious personal attacks on her character in becoming among the most-discussed women of the late 1990s.

Love's life has been filled with all the drama of a big budget Hollywood movie. Beginning as an actress who had small parts in a handful of films during the 1980s, she went on to form Hole, a noise-rock band that released one acclaimed record in underground music circles. Love gained a much higher profile when she married Kurt Cobain, the leader of the archetypal grunge band Nirvana, in 1992. During their brief, stormy marriage, she was portrayed in the press alternately as a drug-addicted mother or as a talentless leech, riding the coat tails of her husband's fame. After Kurt Cobain's suicide, which took place days before the release of Hole's second album (aptly titled Live Through This), she did her grieving in public, exposing her rage and tears for all the world to see. Constantly the subject of sensational tabloid and mainstream news stories, by 1997 Love had done an about face, resurfacing as a Golden Globe-nominated movie star in 1997. In the five years from Cobain's death to her own emergence as a respected Hollywood actress, Courtney Love lived through more than most people do in a lifetime.

Born into a hippie family with minor connections to the Grateful Dead, Love's first mass media exposure occurred when she was five years old, appearing in a group photo on the back of the Grateful Dead's 1969 Aoxomoxoa album. Love had a slightly troubled childhood, getting caught shoplifting at age 12 and being sent to a reform school. After dropping in and out of school and eventually moving all over the world, occasionally earning money as a stripper, Love finally moved back to Los Angeles, where she found her way into two Alex Cox films, Sid & Nancy (1986) and Straight to Hell (1987).

While in Los Angeles, she formed Hole with guitarist Eric Erlandson and, after a couple 7" single releases, they quickly gained recognition with the band's 1991 release, Pretty on the Inside, produced by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Hole quickly became darlings of the British mainstream music press and American independent music magazines. After her courtship and subsequent marriage to Kurt Cobain on February 24, 1992, she reluctantly became associated with another famous female scapegoat, Yoko Ono. Like Ono, who also had a successful career before she met and married rock star icon John Lennon, Love endured sexist and unfounded media speculation that her relationship to Cobain was a scam to further her own career. The fact that Hole signed to the same major label Nirvana belonged to didn't help negate those assumptions.

After a Vanity Fair article implied that Love had taken heroin while pregnant with her daughter, Francis Bean Cobain, she and her husband battled child services for the custody of their child, which they won. Interestingly, a similar situation happened to Yoko Ono and John Lennon, who very briefly lost custody of Sean Ono Lennon after Yoko tested positive for drug use after giving birth to her son. (The case against them was dropped after it turned out that the drugs were painkillers given by doctors during childbirth.) In 1993, Love began recording Hole's follow-up album, even as she was dealing with a troubled marriage. The weekend before Hole was to release their second album, prophetically titled Live Through This, Kurt Cobain was found dead, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In a rare instance of public mourning by a celebrity, Love read parts of Cobain's suicide note during a tape-recorded message to Cobain's fans, interjecting comments about her guilt, her anger, and her sadness over her husband's death. A defiantly abrasive, angry, and aggressive album, Live Through This was universally praised, winning year-end critics polls at Spin, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. The sales of the album slowly built steam, and despite the setback of another tragedy, the heroin overdose death of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff two months after Cobain's death, Love pushed on and began touring to promote her album. Live Through This eventually went multi-platinum.

That tour and subsequent tours provided fodder for tabloid and mainstream press, as she drunkenly shouted obscenities from the stage, dove into the audience, and got into scuffles with airline flight attendants, pushy reporters, and other female punk rock singers. During a live televised MTV Awards aftershow party, a visibly drunken Love hurled a shoe at Madonna's head, disrupting an interview with the superstar.

But during 1997, Love began to clean up her media image, replacing the tangled hair and torn baby doll dresses with a thinner body, designer dresses, and stylishly cut hair. She had been hard at work on her acting career, appearing in minor roles before landing a starring role in The People Vs. Larry Flint. Her powerful performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination and led to further serious movie offers. In 1998, Hole released another aptly titled album, Celebrity Skin, to largely favorable critical response.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Brite, Poppy. Courtney Love. New York, S&S Trade, 1997.

Rossi, Melissa. Courtney Love: Queen of Noise. New York, Pocket Books, 1996.

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