Courtney Love Waves the Red Flag

Disliking Courtney Love's America's Sweetheart is a tricky business—it's so easy to hate it for the wrong reasons. The easiest and wrongest is the ad hominem attack: Courtney is America's favorite train wreck, rivaled in the pop world only by Ol' Dirty Bastard for embarrassing oneself in public. (Not in the genuinely horrible sense of, say, R. Kelly; more in an "oof, please stop" sort of way.) Of course, playing on her bad reputation as a person is sort of the idea behind her art—hence the title of her album, and most of its lyrics. Manipulating public opinion like a bullfighter with a bull is part of her act, and the best example of it to date is part of what she's done with America's Sweetheart. The preview copies sent to reviewers were significantly different from the version that ended up in stores; you have to admit it's a neat trick that the lyric reviewers have quoted most (that would be "I got pills for my coochie/Coz baby I'm sore") isn't actually on the album.

Then there's a whole catalog of uncomfortably familiar potential arguments against America's Sweetheart—ways to say that if the wrong person has made art, it doesn't count (and for "the wrong person," read "a woman"). Joanna Russ runs them down in a book called How to Suppress Women's Writing, published in 1983. There's denial of agency, aka "she didn't write it" or "she needed help to write it." (Love's only credited with writing one song on America's Sweetheart by herself, and she has that 4 Non Blondes woman and Elton John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, propping her up—how can she come off like a rock and roll auteur when she's really just Pink Sr.?)

Ever since Live Through This came out, people have been muttering that Kurt Cobain must have written its good parts, Love being the wife of a genius and all. Her ripostes to that on the new album are "I'll Do Anything," whose main riff is blatantly "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and "Hello," whose chorus goes "hello, hello, hello," waving the red flag again. And the rock vs. pop objection (rock musicians are expected to be the master creators of their work; pop stars are expected to be interpreters at best, puppets at worst) plays right into Love's bear trap, too. Hole—that was a rock band. Love's ostensibly a solo artist, whose accompanists are credited only in a line beginning, "The musicians who played on this album include. . . . " Forty seconds into her album, she sings, "They say that rock is dead, and they're probably right"; the chorus of its centerpiece begins, "Rock star, pop star, everybody dies." Try to trap her in a definition, and she'll neutralize it.

Russ also suggests the "double standard of content" as a common method of suppressing women's artwork—"but look what she wrote about." For literature and visual art, this usually means "women's world": the family, other women. For Love, it means herself, and specifically her place in the pop-music landscape. Egocentric, yes, but if we're going to discount the adoration of the self or documentation of professional rivalries as a subject for lyrics, on principle, we're going to have to throw out a whole lot of good stuff, from Jay-Z on down. America's Sweetheart betrays very little sense of the world outside the Sunset Strip snow globe of limousines and pricey drugs and press releases and recycled riffs. But that is not itself a problem.

The trump card among Russ' tools against art by women is "false categorization": "She isn't really an artist, and this isn't really art." Which comes back to the ad hominem arguments against Love: She's a professional widow, a drama queen, a loose cannon. Right, she's all of those things. That doesn't mean she's not an artist, and it doesn't mean she couldn't be a great one. She is, indisputably, the prime mover behind America's Sweetheart and labored over it for years—its details, its games, its multimillion-dollar shine. As I've said before, this is art. Bad art.

America's Sweetheart may be the loudest demand for silence ever recorded. The phrase that keeps recurring in song after song is "shut up," as in, "With all the drugs in the world/You can't shut up that girl," or, "Oh God the Zeplin song/Shut up!" She's made an album that's nearly impervious to criticism—a self-defense system that anticipates most of the objections she knew would be aimed at it and shoots them down before they can connect. But, crucially, that does not actually mean America's Sweetheart is any good or at all easy to enjoy. The songs are under developed, the arrangements are over­produced eighth-hand grunge, Love's singing is mono­chromatic and irritating—the whole package is no fun at all.

There's one genuinely terrific song on America's Sweetheart: "But Julian, I'm a Little Bit Older Than You," whose frantic mood is enhanced by Love's breathless delivery and two basic vocal modes, "on the verge of screaming" and "screaming." ("You would never sell out/Just like I did Playboy/That was art, it didn't count!"—well, if art doesn't count, so much for this objection, too.) But Love insists on having her art evaluated on exactly the same platform as the classic rock records it alludes to constantly. It's not unfair to say that it loses those comparisons virtually every time. There aren't many other fair complaints about it left to make.

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