Courtney Love’s new record is called America’s Sweetheart. Take that. It’s a name that has been used facetiously by the press to describe her. By wearing it as a badge of pride, she seeks to assume the name and at the same time spit it back–the modern way of sapping all the power from a hurtful phrase.
This is just the type of aggressive solipsism we’ve come to expect from her.
It seems a little late for this sort of irony, however. The title is meant to provoke a reaction–the MO of Love’s career–a little controversy, some notice. Unlikely, since we’ve heard this kind of cry for attention from her time and again. In the event of a stir, however, it will be a reflexive one. Because the only real response to this title is to cringe.
The cover of America’s Sweetheart is designed to appeal to the same 14-year-old boys who like fantasy comic books, complete with the canonical “head trip, mixed-message” portrayal of the female body–hers, presumably, though with the same sort of paint job you’ll find in those “comic” books: black stockings, angel wings, hands tied, legs crossed and bound, boobs jutting forward. She’s an angel, she’s a whore; she’s a victim, she’s a man-killer. This is Courtney Love’s idea of complexity.
You may remember that she used to be in a band, Hole. She’s dropped that particular pretense–the band–and is now going solo, which is a relief, as she was never much of a team player where her celebrity was concerned. But the shedding of one pretense gives rise to another: that this is a solo album. The record is the product of collaboration, though you may have to search outside the album’s liner notes for support of this claim, as the credits and lyrics are printed in white on a pink background in letters so small they are almost impossible to make out.
With the help of a magnifying glass, however, one can discern the now-expected long list of impressive producers–including Josh Abraham (Staind, Korn) and James Barber (Ryan Adams)–as well as a number of of musicians, including Samantha Maloney and Patty Schemel (both formerly of Hole). Absent from the list of musicians is Courtney Love.
One can also make out this line: “All lyrics by Courtney Love except ‘Uncool,’ by Courtney Love and Bernie Taupin” (you may remember him as Elton John’s lyricist). There is no such straightforward admission about the origins of the music. In the notes, each song is listed above a parenthesis enclosing as many as five names. The name that occurs with the greatest frequency (that is, on all but three of twelve tracks) is “Perry.” It hasn’t been a secret in the music press, though it does seem to be one in the album’s own liner notes, that this refers to Linda Perry, formerly of the band 4 Non Blondes, who has recently written songs for pop divas Pink and Christina Aguilera. Hiring a songwriter is an unexceptional arrangement these days and makes listening to records the musical equivalent of patronizing Starbuck’s–you know what you’re getting.
The quiet, almost surreptitious acknowledgment of Perry is, of course, intentional, as Love has received much grief in the past over her collaborations–charges that are due for sorting out. Hole’s first record, Pretty on the Inside (1991), has been mostly cast aside as a bad-beginnings rant-a-thon, and there was no disputing who had written it. Their second, Live Through This (1994), was a breakthrough record for the group, though it suffered allegations that it had been written by Love’s husband, the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, despite the fact that the songs are credited to Hole. Their third record, Celebrity Skin (1998), was written by a constellation of people–most notably Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins–in various configurations laid out in the liner notes by a legend, each contributor matched to his/her corresponding symbol–a method that seemed code for Love’s embarrassment over the fact that she’d had help writing the record.
Some of the harassment she’s received is legitimate. When you discover how little of Courtney Love is actually contained in the package labeled Courtney Love, you can’t help but feel manipulated–it’s like reading the ingredients on a jar of peanut butter only to find that it’s mostly filler. At the same time, the rock-and-roll police, which have lurked behind every corner ever since women moved from backup singers and tambourine shakers to songwriters and guitar players, have brought out special forces in their zeal to find fault with Love. Sexism isn’t wholly to blame–after all, Love’s musical talent remains debatable. If she has any, its expression is certainly unreliable.The release of Hole’s Live Through This seemed to establish her as an interesting new voice in rock. But the album was followed by a four-year musical silence that, because rock years are akin to dog years, put her career dangerously close to the grave.
In the interim, she tried another, all-American approach to fame–the movies. In The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) she played the Hustler magnate’s emotionally unstable, drug-addicted wife, Althea, and in Man on the Moon (1999) she played comedian Andy Kaufman’s long-suffering girlfriend Lynne Marguiles. Love also tried tirelessly to disguise herself through plastic surgery–to surreal effect. It was a strange, streetwalker-in-a-gown phase of her career, and the transformation from the outside never completely took, because despite Pretty on the Inside‘s opposite allusion, Courtney Love seems, in fact, to be ugly on the inside. She’s too uncontrollable and transparent to manipulate our perception of her successfully. Her efforts at falseness fail–and that’s refreshing.
Her acting talent, however, was more generally agreed upon than her musical talent, and she even received a Golden Globe nomination in 1997 for her performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt. The part had the air of proper alignment, and, in fact, many of Love’s roles seem predicated on a close reading of her own tabloid personality, which is a function of her real genius–her talent for fame. Courtney Love has badly-behaved herself into our consciousness.
It has to be said: It is impossible to listen to America’s Sweetheart unbiased, to come to it clean, so to speak. Love’s concerns, over the course of four albums, haven’t shifted much: herself, money, exploitation, celebrity, revenge, jealousy. Add to these drugs and driving and you’ve got the idea. It’s not been a secret that America’s Sweetheart has had a troubled and lengthy genesis–the album’s been six years in the making–and listening to it, you can tell. It’s as though Love has been on ice or in a drug-induced oblivion all these years–oh, right, she has been. One lyric says, “They say rock is dead”–yeah, ten years ago they did. Another song lists 800 numbers, which were new and something to gawk at about as long ago. Which is to say there’s nothing fresh here–sonically or otherwise–but it’s a much better record than her last effort with Hole. Love’s voice is back, for one, though it sounds like it’s back just in time for it to go out again. It’s the more worn version of the voice on her first and second records–her voice–coarse and off-color, and it’s preferable to the ironed-out one on Celebrity Skin, a ludicrous attempt to make her more palatable and capitalize on her brief movie-star phase of the late 1990s. Also, the production on the new album is dirtier, which suits her.
America’s Sweetheart is a rock record, and that’s good, full of exorcism and bile, which is, sadly, Courtney Love’s one note. And though the record contains a couple of slower songs, they do little to balance the theme of the record, the theme of her career–her own ugly exhibitionism.
The songs on America’s Sweetheart are full of modulations, bridges and outros, and many of them go on too long. For instance, “All the Drugs”–a love song addressed to her lover, drugs. The song repeats the line “all the drugs in the world…” so many times it could only appeal to someone as wasted as the singer, and, in fact, that is the impression one gets from listening to this record–that Courtney Love was wasted during its recording. The length of many of the songs–which seem to be extended only so that we can hear her scream on–is a very bad omen: She doesn’t intend to go away.