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How Hole shaped what I know about rock & roll and sexuality

A page from my high school-era scrapbook.
A page from my high school-era scrapbook.

Everyone loves "Doll Parts." At least that's the song the comes up any time I speak about Hole to a non-Hole fan. I'm not complaining. "Doll Parts" is arguably a better point of reference for the band than the other common conversation piece regarding Hole, which is the comment that Courtney Love is insane. She might be insane; I don't know. I can't really wrap my head around who she is because I've never met her. But what I can speak to what is the unmitigated effect that Hole and Live Through This -- released twenty years ago this past week -- had on me as a human being.

See also: I lived through this: My life in a Hole cover band

The makeshift label on this album reminds me that Live Through This was one of the first ten CDs I ever owned.
The makeshift label on this album reminds me that Live Through This was one of the first ten CDs I ever owned.

Again, I don't know Courtney Love, but what I do know is that she created an album that made me want to be a rock star. She carried around an image and persona that I wanted to replicate exactly. The desire to emulate Love's likeness was partially because I liked the way she looked, but it was also because it was a way for me to visually rebel. It became my own method of defiance and reaction; I simply wanted to fuck with some of my fellow students in 1994 at George Washington High School who spent an inordinate amount of time fucking with me.

I wanted to fuck with the dudes who would walk up to me in the hall and ask me if I was a virgin; I wanted to fuck with the dudes who called me a whore, but would also ask me out when no one was looking; I wanted to fuck with the girls who taunted me by calling me a "lesbian," when it was clear to me that their own sexual preference was what was really bothering them, not my garter belts and baby doll dresses that, for whatever reason, looked "gay," if that was such a way to look.

This past week, Live Through This turned twenty years old. I could hammer out the details of what was going on in the world of Hole and the inextricably linked Nirvana in 1994, but plenty of other people/writers/musicians have already done that and done it well: See Patty Schemel's insanely good documentary, Hit So Hard, or this collection of essays from the likes of Maura Johnston and members of the Coathangers, or this fantastic piece by Jessica Hopper, which goes straight to the source and interviews the surviving members of Hole, as well as producers, engineers and A&R people associated with the release.

I understand what an insurmountable cliche it is for me to say that Live Through This "changed my life" -- but I don't have another way to describe it. Live Through This and Hole's existence from 1993 to 1997 shaped how I play music, how I view music, how I write music, how I write about music and how I outwardly reflect the defining ways music has shaped me.

Aesthetically speaking, Live Through This was my very short but fully complete image guidebook -- at 14, I wanted to look like the model on the album's cover, Leilani Bishop, runny mascara and all. But even more than that, I wanted to look like Courtney. It was my freshman year of high school, but I bought a very pimp-like pastel pink fake fur coat because it was the closest I could find to the one Courtney wore in a Polaroid band photo on the inside sleeve of the record.

I joined the cult of Courtney and never looked back, my hair bleached and stuck together with Goody barrettes or wrapped around a tiara, baby doll dresses as my uniform with black patent leather heels, garter belts, thick red lipstick and powder white face make-up to accent. Courtney was a master at looking strategically fucked up and I wanted to look that way, too. I carried a lunch box for a purse and a backpack with the words "harlot," "teenage whore" and "buckle bunny" scratched across it in marker. I smoked cigarettes behind the Dunkin' Donuts at lunch in these get-ups and went to shows in the same.

 

Thanks to MTV, I was able to take stage presence lessons from Courtney Love.
Thanks to MTV, I was able to take stage presence lessons from Courtney Love.

Love's image was attractive to me as a teenager because it was disrupting, dramatic, sexually charged and powerful. At 13 or 14 when I discovered her, I had no clue who I was. All I knew was if I saw something worn in a music video (i.e. Kim Deal's tube socks or D'arcy Wretzky's sunglasses choices) on 120 Minutes or pictured on the sleeve of an album I liked, I would wear it. Courtney understood this power -- she knew how to market herself and her band to attract the kind of fans every band dreams of having: teenagers and more specifically, teenage girls.

But what was most important about Live Through This and its resonation witth me was ultimately the music. It was like nothing I had ever heard before -- growing up in a home where the Rolling Stones' misogynistic, dehumanizing anthems (which I still very much love) were played often and the weirdest music ever got was Devo, Hole sounded like they were made for me. At 14, I didn't have to look any further than MTV (seriously, the programming between 1992 and 1999-ish on the channel was really, really good) to find out what else I should like. But up until that time, Hole was the best thing I had ever seen and heard and was able to call my own. This was active listenership.

I feel compelled to mention the Riot Grrrl movement, which was going on simultaneously but didn't reach me until long after the fact -- it wasn't until I started listening to Le Tigre in my mid-twnetiess that I figured out who Kathleen Hanna was and all of the work she had done for women like me. Prior to that, her appearance in Sonic Youth's video for "Bull In The Heather" and that one time MTV News sensationalized Love punching Hanna for no reason in 1995 at a Lollapalooza date were all I knew of her. Part of me wishes I had further investigated Hanna and Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl lot when I first saw her, but as a denouncer of feminism until I was 28. I clearly wasn't ready.

Instead of the Riot Grrrl movement, I got the Rolling Stone, Spin and MTV versions, places where bands like Hole -- and L7, The Breeders, Elastica, that dog., Lush, Belly, etc. -- were heavily featured. I would say that 1994 was a great year to be a 14 year old girl in America for this reason -- my first official concert was the pre-festival mania-era Lollapalooza 1994 and my first show at a venue was Hole at Mammoth Events Center in Denver (which is now The Fillmore, if you're wondering.) I had unadulterated access to seeing and hearing women play music, and it was life changing.

I feel like I should note that The Breeders had the most profound effect on me as a musician; I learned how to play bass by teaching myself Last Splash. The bass lines were clear and sat at the front of the recordings, often providing the melody much more than the rhythm. I didn't set out to emulate that method, but because it was how I learned to play, it is pretty much how I play today.

While Last Splash would be the record I would reference when I got older as the album that got me into playing, Live Through This was the record I ultimately dreamed of making myself. It was the kind of record packed with lyrics like "Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice? Did she ask you for it? Did she ask you twice?" These were the kind of lyrics worthy of being written on my backpack in Sharpie, on the inside of my locker and composition notebook, on my arms. Live Through This was my teenage lifestyle.

 

Though I was slowly learning to play bass when Live Through This came out, I still did a lot of bedroom posing with my left-handed Fender in front of my full-length mirror, one foot up on the cardboard box that held the mirror steady like it was a stage monitor. I didn't even know what a stage monitor was, but I saw Courtney do it in the zillions of seconds of Hole footage MTV happily displayed when covering all things Courtney. So I did it, too.

Again, I remember thinking "Doll Parts" wasn't the best song and the video was pretty boring too, but the video for "Miss World" -- the album's first and best single -- was like a three-minute dream, complete with a mosh pit of cool girls and cool music from cool girls on stage (including an appearance from my then idol, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who passed away in 1994.)

Live Through This wasn't just the soundtrack to my imaginary stage-diving world, it was the soundtrack to my everyday life -- at that moment in time, my home life wasn't the greatest. But it was at about the level of fucked-up enough that screaming Love's iconic lyrics "I made my bed I'll die in it" from "Miss World" into the air as I circled my parents block late on school nights smoking cigarettes felt like a rebellion.

As I got older, Live Through This grew with me. I started to pay attention to the feminist themes in songs like "Gutless" and the power struggles and social commentary and conversations around body image issues in "She Walks On Me" and "Plump." I discovered what many people already knew, which was that "Credit In The Straight World" was just a really great cover, originally by the short-lived but very impactful band Young Marble Giants. I think this is another sign of a great album: when -- after hearing it hundreds of times over -- you can still discover or learn something you didn't know before.

I imagine that most people's "top albums of all time" list is a lot like mine, in that it is pretty idicitive of their age and specifically, the era when personal music discovery was first happening for them. Among records by Smashing Pumpkins, The Breeders, Possum Dixon, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Liz Phair and Nirvana sits Live Through This. It's an album I will always have at least one copy of in multiple forms in my possession. It's an album I still listen to dozens of times each year, two decades after the fact. It's a record that I want to share with other people as both a reference to a historic moment in musical time for women and as a way to understand who I am as a person. I don't care if people think Courtney Love is nuts -- she was part of a musical entity that made the perfect record.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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