Hole’s Celebrity Skin at 20
For all of the bad blood, burned bridges, and general lack of goodwill towards Courtney Love, no one seems to disagree that Live Through This was a masterpiece. Most dissenting men are in such agreement of its quality that they believe her late husband fed her the whole thing. Nevertheless, there is actual consensus that something with her name on it was a great album, and that’s more unanimity than any of Yoko’s music ever got. Its follow-up, which just turned 20, is more of a question mark. I’ve never heard of anyone hating Celebrity Skin, except for those so blinded by their disdain for Love that they can’t distinguish between works, but no one considers it a serious challenger to Live Through This. There’s that odd thing again, consensus.
Celebrity Skin was ostensibly the moment that Courtney Love became Miss World, though it wasn’t much of an upgrade. Not for one moment in the spotlight has Love been able to control her own narrative. Her year of Live Through This topping critics’ polls (even ahead of her dead husband, something Beyoncé’s instantly legendary Lemonade couldn’t do to Bowie’s surprisingly liked swan song) and going double platinum was marred by grief, for not just the man she loved but her bassist a few months later, and if the public turned on her rather quickly, it’s not like they had her back before. In 1996 she was close to accepted, though, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for her first major acting role in The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Celebrity Skin didn’t quite undo the accolades, as Rolling Stone awarded it four stars and the title track became Hole’s biggest radio hit by far. But it was a reminder of Love’s main calling as a thorn in pop’s side. During this time she bragged about her famous sexual conquests in interviews (including, memorably, calling one multiplatinum peer “more like three-inch nails”), drunkenly threw her compact at Madonna on live television and picked a physical fight with fellow feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna, none of which did her any favors with haters, and likely made new ones.
The music itself didn’t necessarily reflect this behavior but did expound on Love’s abject cynicism towards her chosen career in lines like “You want a part of me? Well, I’m not selling cheap.” The title “Celebrity Skin” is never sung, but the equation of pornography with fame is all over the tune, even beyond the lyrics: Love claimed that no woman would write something as cheesy as the its central riff, those three brick-to-the-head block chords that Billy Corgan contributed. But she still happily sang it, just as she knew she was trolling an alt-rock world that believed her late husband ghostwrote everything by openly letting Corgan co-write five songs on Celebrity Skin. Everything with Courtney Love is a dare, whether she’s grafting her poppiest arrangements yet onto songs like “Awful,” a gorgeous, Rickenbacker-strewn ditty about royalty-rating and incorporating “little girls,” or folding such uncomfortable industry exposés into her most aggressively marketed album ever. And with the glossy video for the title tune, she unapologetically painted grunge pink.
Here’s what that looked like in practice: power-pop. The R.E.M.-style jangle of “Boys on the Radio” and “Petals” made bedfellows with the rousing acoustic Slade of “Heaven Tonight,” whose title is nicked without coincidence from Cheap Trick, lightly subversive heroes of Love’s who also played this game of are-we-or-aren’t-we as double agents working in pop.
Love’s arena-rock dreams by this point were real enough that “Playing Your Song” made a “Kashmir” move with electric sitar. The stuttering drum buildup in “Petals” easily could’ve been Jimmy Chamberlain; it’s the only one of Corgan’s contributions that you can truly hear in his voice. (Love has expressed regret for allowing overseer Michael Beinhorn to cut Patty Schemel’s drumming out of the proceedings completely, even calling him sexist for driving that wedge into her band.) Emulating his post-Melon Collie success would make sense, but it’s also more likely that guitarist Eric Erlandson was spoofing Corgan when he gave the sparse, strummy “Northern Star” a nearly identical arrangement to the Smashing Pumpkins’ smash “Disarm.”
The band was reasonably chuffed about these outside wankers, with Corgan’s name primarily affixed to the album’s stronger half; the classic California ballad “Malibu,” literally starry-eyed “Hit So Hard,” and sparse and utterly beautiful “Dying” all bear his credit. But “Awful” is the strongest song on the record and was created entirely by the band, serving as a vision of where they could’ve gone if the grudges and regrettable decisions didn’t collapse this lineup for nearly 20 years following. “I was punk, now I’m just stupid” is a jarring (and melodramatic) confession whether Love was simply responding to her detractors or taking herself to task for buying into the machine swallowing her whole. It is a fitting epitaph, though, even if “It was perfect, now it’s awful” is a lie. Hole was never perfect, and that’s one of the reasons we loved them.