Illustration by Andrea Tsurumi
I recently overheard a media colleague say, “I don’t get Lena Dunham. She’s no Courtney Love.” My ears perked up because I’m nosy, but also, huh? “When Courtney Love was 26 and you talked to her,” my colleague went on to explain, “she had this captivating spark. You could tell she was crazy but a genius. Lena, well, she’s just regular.”
My first thought: What a random comparison. Why not say, “She’s no Diablo Cody,” or “She’s no Carrie Brownstein,” referring to women who write and produce their own work? And if you’re going to compare Dunham to a musician, why not name-check barrier-breaking ladies closer to her own age, like Janelle Monáe or St. Vincent? But the more I considered the Dunham-Love correlation, the more it made sense. These are two of the most polarizing women in all of pop culture. They use their bodies and voices in ways that are “unflattering,” unladylike; your older brother probably doesn’t have a crush on them, even if he’s into quirky chicks. But at very young ages, both Dunham and Love thrust upon the world a creativity that was so unabashed, so in-your-face that their potential seemed exciting and especially rare for women. You might not have agreed with what they had made, but you had to at least check it out—and you couldn’t help but be interested in seeing what they would do next.
For those reasons alone, I disagree with my colleague that Dunham is simply “regular.” But I will say that yes, she and Love are remarkably different women, most notably in the way they make work and how that process affects the way the rest of us experience it. In one corner, you have Dunham, the sober-minded control freak behind the HBO show Girls: “When you say something on a show and a lot of people analyze it, you definitely want to consider what you’re saying.” And then you have Love, the chaos-driven, loose cannon who enthuses, “You’ve gotta be able to play topless and feel like a fuckin’ Amazon!” And what my colleague was offering was simply her preference, which happens to be mine, too. As someone who leans toward overthinking in her own work, I can’t help but romanticize the unfiltered oddball that is Courtney Love.
It’s unfortunate that Love has spent the past decade-plus garnering more attention for her loony-tunes rants, wackadoo behavior, and tumultuous relationship with her daughter than for her talent. But I’m looking forward to whatever she keeps promising to put out this year—a memoir, a solo album, even the Hole record she teased on Instagram—because we’ve forgotten that her shamelessness is much more interesting when it’s used in her work, not when it’s in gossip magazines or cryptic tweets. There’s a part of every outsider girl—even the more-controlled outsider types like myself (and perhaps Dunham)—that can’t help but admire how Love doesn’t stop her emotions from bleeding before taking pen to paper or body to stage.
Put on Pretty on the Inside or Live Through This. Many of the lyrics are stark (“Slit me open and suck my scars”) and blunt (“Where the fuck were you when my lights went out?”) and honest about the ugliness inside her (“I am the girl you know/ So sick I cannot try”). YouTube any performance of “Doll Parts” from the 1990s and you can feel the agony in her pleading chorus of “Someday you will ache like I ache,” sung over and over and over again. She is a woman splayed open for all of us to gander at.
Now pop in an episode of Girls. This is a quieter, anxious hum of an affair—a casual, $4-bottle-of-wine dinner party in a vintage-hued Brooklyn apartment, full of coded conversations and flawed, emotionally stunted twentysomethings: Hannah, self-righteous and self-delusional in equal measure; Jessa, flippant and cold; Shoshanna, too naive to survive modern living. And while it’s great to see so many thoroughly fucked-up characters who aren’t middle-aged men on non-reality TV, their flaws are their personalities. I wish these women had not more likability, but more complexity. In the second season, when Hannah spews out her formerly inner dialogue to an older stranger with whom she’s just spent the last 48 hours having sex, she rambles in the very straightforward way that she always does. But even when she realizes she’s turning him off, her pitch doesn’t waver, her eyes don’t shift; she remains tempered, controlled. The only time we see Hannah defenseless is later in the season, when she is suddenly slipping down an OCD rabbit hole and struggling to embrace instability. As an actor, director, and writer, Dunham seems not quite fluent in the nuances of human emotion, which is possibly a by-product of all that consideration she’s too busy doing.
Courtney Love, on the other hand, may be the most openly vulnerable artist of our time. People love to watch and reread old interviews with her for this reason. She’ll go from funny and snarky one moment to blaming herself for her husband’s suicide the next. Even when she speaks in her trademark no-nonsense tone—“What, do I sit here and play Betty Crocker and pretend I don’t write music?”—when asked about her behavior after Kurt Cobain’s death, her gray-blue eyes fill with tears, her hands fidget with tissues. While some may see her openness as off-putting, over the top, or manipulative—why can’t she just act refined and media trained like the rest?—it is also what makes her presence and work so stirring. She cuts into the crevices of our hearts and brains that we’re often embarrassed by, and that cutting doesn’t seem like it’s only for show.
I was first mesmerized by Love when I was 16 and Hole’s Live Through This came out. Her juxtaposed fuck-you toughness and emotional rawness caught the ear of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, who loved her honest songs about abortion, teenage prostitution, and depression. Love was a woman in a genre where women were both rare and had commanding presences—Bikini Kill, L7, Kims Gordon and Deal, Babes in Toyland (which Love was briefly in), and she also happened to be the wife and muse of a bona fide rock icon. She started shit with other women musicians, openly accusing them of hitting on Cobain; the music media, taken aback by her outspokenness, responded with barbs, jabs, and references to her being the Yoko Ono to Nirvana’s Beatles. But she was nobody’s bitch. “If you treat a girl like a dog, she’s going to piss on you,” she once said. It was clear no one told her what to do. These were the things that 16-year-old me admired.
Growing up in Hawaii, where my classmates liked slow-jam R&B and Jawaiian (a sleepy hybrid of Hawaiian music and reggae), and where the most alternative anyone got was Sugar Ray and 311, I didn’t fit in or know where to put my frustrations. So I did what most teenagers do—expressed my oddball feelings through clothes and loud music and a car with “No cherries allowed” spray-painted across the trunk. When Courtney popped up on my tv screen, all hoarse and snarly and beaten rag-doll–looking, she gave me permission to take it one step further: She made me feel like it was okay to scream.
“Violet” may be an ode to the beauty of anger, and “Doll Parts” the saddest love song I never realized was a love song, but anyone who was ever frustrated with the forced participation of high school knew the escalating wails of “Rock Star” by heart: “When I went to school in Olympia/ Everyone’s the same/ And so are you/ In Olympiayayaya/ Everyone’s the same/ We look the same/ We talk the same/ We even fuck the same.” I’m willing to bet that 99 percent of girls who owned that album sang that song at the top of their lungs in their bedrooms, like I did.
Like punk before it, grunge—the music, the movement—didn’t sugarcoat teenage angst; but unlike punk, you could access grunge on the radio and MTV, which was vital for middle-of-nowhere kids like me. Nothing as tempestuous and seething has hit the mainstream since—just five years after Live Through This, MTV would swing in the opposite direction, with Britney Spears leading an onslaught of cookie-cutter teenyboppers. But for that short time in the ’90s, Courtney & Co. shouted all the fuck-yous that young people felt burning in their esophagus, rising from their core. “Rock Star” is an angst classic; I dare any current high-school kid to put it on and not find release. I dare Love to come back with her new album and inspire today’s teenagers to get angry, question shit, and grab a foothold in their own individuality.
But a lot has changed since the 1990s, and perhaps we’re just living in a different time, a time less accommodating to arty weirdos, introspection, and transgressive self-deprecation. The sudden rise of the underground in the ’90s, and its attendant spotlight on outspoken, emotionally complicated female artists and characters—Kathleen Hanna, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, My So-Called Life’s Rayanne, Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer—made many of us think that we were at the beginning of a paradigm shift. Fat chance: Fast-forward 20 years, and our current decade, in many ways, feels much more politically fraught for women; a time and place where we’re more apprehensive about showing our softer side out of fear of not being taken seriously. Millennials are often categorized as disaffected and self-absorbed, disinterested in the overemoting of the Gen X-ers who came before. I’d argue that young people of all generations often feel discouraged by peers, teachers, employers, family, and media from giving into our less-attractive emotions. But it’s human and healthy to do so.
I never had the privilege of seeing Courtney Love perform live, but I remember seeing her splashed regularly across MTV in the summer of 1994, whether in videos, news clips, or festival footage. Live Through This was released four days after Cobain’s suicide, and despite false rumors that he had penned the album and that their intense, addiction-fueled relationship was to blame for his death, Love loudly, often volatilely, mourned her husband onstage. Touring in the year after his suicide, she would float between dedicating songs to him and cursing at him for dying, scream-crying, “Kurt, Kurt, Kurt.” She would play her broken heart out, her grief and anger and guitar parts scattered across festival stages, throwing herself into the crowds to be lifted, touched, and grabbed at—both to be tortured for surviving her husband and to remind herself she was still alive.
I have never seen someone grieve this way before or since, and having lost a loved one when I, too, was a young adult, Love’s candid, public display felt not just refreshing, but validating. When my mother died, I tried my best to bound my sadness between my therapist, a few pals, and my own anxiety-racked brain. And looking back at this footage of Love now, even a more recent clip where she lets loose on a fan for holding up a photo of Kurt (“I’m not Kurt, I have to live with his shit, his ghost, his kid every day!” she tells him), I am envious she can let herself go like that, even when that letting go is extreme and misdirected. Grief may be lonely and personal, but it’s too searing and erratic to be ignored and tucked away.
My love for Love became less intense once I graduated from high school, when she had likewise moved on to a new phase some called “selling out.” Hole’s next album, 1998’s Celebrity Skin, was intentionally made to be more commercially viable than Live Through This by dispensing with much of the latter’s edge. And Hollywood had come for Love as well—she accepted roles, and later, critical kudos, in The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, losing weight, wearing couture gowns, and donning unsmudged makeup for movie premieres and Vanity Fair shoots. But as anti-anti as this seemed for Love, it was hardly out of character. Love has never flinched at showing her insecurities. She spent a lifetime and a career struggling to feel loved and beautiful without being defined by those notions, and her entrée into the mainstream on the mainstream’s terms showed that, like the rest of us, she enjoyed acceptance. She might not have cared if you accepted her—but if you did, she ate it up. As she said on her 2010 Behind the Music special, “I didn’t ask to be hated. I just don’t mind being a bitch.”
In some ways, I grew up alongside Courtney Love. In college, I didn’t have to scream as loud to be noticed, nor did I have a desire to provoke just for the hell of it anymore. I found peers with whom I fit in, and they were far from fringe outcasts; they were just regular creative people—musicians, writers, artists, budding Lena Dunhams. But this was my path. Love, sober or not, could never be “regular.” And I think that by not embracing her irregularity, the Courtney we all loved took a wrong turn. She got caught up in playing celebrity instead of exploring those struggles in her songwriting like she once had. In the 16 years since Celebrity Skin, she’d put out just one solo album and one Hole album, her online beefs and rambling asides eclipsing her music.
Two years ago, I went to a solo art show of Love’s work in New York titled, of course, “And She’s Not Even Pretty.” Having read the same stories about her in the past dozen years as everyone else, I expected to find a hot mess (though I hoped I wouldn’t)—a few cobbled-together paintings and found-art pieces she did to fulfill some obligation. Instead, I was treated to glorious drawings of women—the way a young girl draws a beautiful woman, all doe eyed and long haired and red lipped—in dark frustration and emotional turmoil. The sleeping beauty on the casting couch. The mascara-streaked femme with her heart roots on her chest and the words “the staggering light did wax and wane…till there came a snap of a heavy brain” swimming above her. And what could seem cliché because it was Courtney Love somehow also worked because it was Courtney Love—a wedding dress with “Not my cunt on my dime mister” in blood-colored scrawl. Each and every work was dripping with autobiography, recognizable because we know so much about her because she’s never held back; all of which made the room feel heavy and heart stirring and, yes, even a touch pretty. If I was 16, I’d definitely want to hang one of these pieces in my bedroom.
This is the Courtney Love I want to see more of. The Love who speaks to our conflicted coming-of-age selves, a stage in which Love herself seems eternally trapped. The original, more self-possessed version of Dunham’s Hannah who flopped around in the girliest of dresses, her boobs uneven, her voice screeching, her guitar hung low. Love epitomizes what is awesome about being a woman: You can dress pretty, or pretty distorted, but you don’t have to act pretty unless you want to. You can act hard and soft, without worrying about being less bad-ass or too feminine. But she demonstrates what sucks about being a woman, as well: If you give in to your emotions too freely, fall apart too many times, people will call you crazy. People forget that you can create excellent, arresting work because you are more than a single dimension.
I will continue to root for Love because her exhibition showed me that she can still tap into her genius. Her memoir will probably be equal parts poetic and soundbite heavy; her album will have at least one song that hurts. But all of it will still stand out among the polished pop cache that’s currently out there because Love can’t help but be vulnerable, and vulnerability is a necessity that many artists forget: It lets people in. You can hear it in the gravel of her voice. You can sense it in her perpetual need for catharsis. I trust her to give us dark, honest feelings in an age when superproducers would normally gloss over that rawness with dance beats and repeated one-liners to make a hit. I count on Love to deliver what Love wants to deliver (and apparently when she wants to deliver it, too).
In the meantime, while we wait, we still have Love’s old catalog to keep us sated. Today’s young women may not be familiar with the Love who wrote, “Every time that I sell myself to you/ I feel a little bit cheaper than I need to,” but Love is familiar with their tortured conformist-nonconformist desires and fragile heartstrings. She is there for them, for all outsider-girl generations, dissecting her crazy, so we all feel okay for being a little crazy, too.
Jessica Machado is an associate editor at Rolling Stone. She writes about what kind of grown-up she is at baggageclaimed.tumblr.com.