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Thursday, February 05, 2004
Alerting me to a brewing critical, uh, brouhaha, Rob has pointed me to the Rolling Stone review of the new Courtney Love album, America's Sweetheart. And indeed it is stupid, and indeed I need to comment on that, given my embarrassing failure to rip into Schreiber on his WATW post on "Mono."

The main problem with the review, as I see it, is that if, in contrast to the more abstract/poetic and character-based stuff on previous discs, the lyrics on AS are mostly about Courtney--and in this regard the negative RS review agree with Jim DeRogatis' glowing, five-bunny Playboy review (note: pops up a window that's not work-safe), so it seems a reasonable assumption--then the key error made by Rob Sheffield, the RS review, is that maybe only half of Courtney's public persona is the drug-addled, crazy, aging starfucker. It's like, as in the case of Liz Phair (more on her later, I hope), everyone actually took her seriously, and everyone forgot her past songs. (In the case of Liz, if you're wondering, those two things would be the liner note pictures for Liz Phair and the title of her first album--but honestly, she's for later.) Courtney is either crazy or playing crazy very convincingly, there's no denying, but the whole image seems an elaborate conceptual gag: she becomes a celebrity and does all the things celebrities aren't supposed to do until it's no longer interesting and she can sort of go about her business. That this gag has failed does not change the fact that it's a gag. And the drugs were never just drugs--since the beginning, they've been a metaphor for emotion as much as anything else.

But honestly, has everyone forgotten Celebrity Skin? More specifically, has everyone forgotten "Awful" already? Look, people--and more important, lazy rock critics--the keys are all there. Just read the damn lyrics: "they royalty rate all the girls like you," for one, and "I was punk! Now I'm just stupid! I'm so awful" for another. It's all there, guys. She's done the work for you.

Because, as much as some people who are uncomfortable with her recent musical output might want her to be, she's not just about getting fucked up and making a fool of herself. She has, for instance, done a whole lot of work to bring attention to the issue of musicians' rights. The fact that there's a 35% chance she did this for purely self-serving reasons--she was heavily involved in a dispute with her label at the time, UMG, and a lot of the arguments she made did a lot to bolster the particular legal argument she was making about the California 7-year exemption--doesn't actually matter, because the fact is that even I, someone pretty heavily involved in the issue at the time and still today, feel comfortable saying that she did more to bring the issue to the attention of the music community than anyone else. True, the FOMC and the Dixie Chicks and Don Henley and some others may well have done more on-the-ground work to lay the foundation for a real movement (which in America, unlike in England, hasn't taken off very much), but Courtney really got the issue out there, really explained it in remarkably clear terms, and really got people to care about it. It's a major part of her persona, the music-biz insider who's itching to reveal its secrets, and just judging from "Mono," it seems a clear theme here ("99 girls in the pit / Did it have to come to this??").

There's also, of course, the issue of the Nirvana lawsuit. This was big stuff at the time, and, again, there's no reason to suspect this won't come through. I mean, aside from all the weird who-are-you-loyal-to nostalgia this raised from the cultural battles of the early and mid 90's, it was also an odd morass of music-law-nerd issues that I, for one, found endlessly fascinating. And, again, it did a lot to bring arcane music biz issues to light, in a bit of public performance with a half-ironic point and a half-selfish one.

So all this is why I have any number of reasons to just not believe Sheffield when he says the album's all about drugs. Sure it is, if you're a shallow, lazy literalist who can't get over the fact that it doesn't sound like Pretty On The Inside. We can take these one at a time if you want:

  • "I got no desires no more" - Clearly not true; Courtney's nothing but desires, really, a big ol' ball of wanting stuff and ADD. So is this about her? Probably not. It's probably a parody of what she hears in music.
  • "All my love's in vain/Cannot find a vein." - Alright, granted, a kind of stupid line--the vain/vein thing's done to death. Nevertheless, I think this is a clear instance of drugs-as-metaphor, where she's talking more about being unable to access emotions rather than having too many trackmarks. (It's hard to be functional if you're actually at the point where you can't find a vein, seems to me.)
  • "I got pills for my coochie 'cause, baby, I'm sore" - This is just hilarious, and swaggering, and great. I mean, c'mon Sheffield, lighten up a bit. If you want to literalize it, it's a brush-off to a subpar lover.

    And there you go. Granted, one of the songs is called "All The Drugs," and I'm willing to grant that this is, in fact, about drugs, but what about titles like "But Julian, I'm a Little Older Than You" and "Uncool"? Aren't these likely to be about the same kind of cultural capital and economics-as-culture issues that she's always reveled in? We already know "Mono" isn't about drugs and is, in fact, a pretty great rock song. So what gives, Sheffield? Did you just miss it all? Or were you not letting yourself see it?

    The fact is, as much as Courtney might seem to be losing it in public, the point of an album is that you spend time with it, and you are careful with it, and you think it out, and you edit it, and you think about it. In contrast to her impulsive public persona, this is, by definition, a carefully considered statement, and for that reason it's likely to include all the same substantive messages that Courtney's been writing about her whole career. That's why you work with all those horrible, poppy collaborators: because they allow you to consider what you're doing and get the final product you want to get, despite all the distractions you might experience.

    And what about those collaborators, anyway? Oh shit: one of them worked with Matchbox 20! One of them worked with Xtina! (Oh yeah, and, uh, was in 4 Non Blondes.) One of them worked with Elton John! As usual, the perception weirdly persists that Courtney's albums are only good because of her collaborators, a charge that seems especially stupid now: OK, granted, you could maybe manipulate Eric when they were small-time, and a smack-addled husband should be easy to get some tunes out of, but at this point, you aren't going to scam Linda Perry out of anything. She's gonna have to want to work with you, and you're gonna have to put some shit into it. And Courtney does, as she always has. She put it into "Mono," lots of it. Implying that by working with a bunch of pros who want to make her sound good that I should be suspicious of the record is ludicrous; I'd be way more suspicious if she worked with some no-talent first timer in Oregon.

    Sheffield is just wrong when he writes: "Courtney Love used to have something to say, voicing her female audience's fantasies of freedom and power. On Hole's 1994 masterpiece, Live Through This, she inhabited teenage misfits, bored housewives and beauty queens with total conviction. But on America's Sweetheart, she can't find the emotional intensity that made her a star. So she settles for the role of a hapless circus act staggering down the red carpet -- and Paris Hilton does it better."

    Please. You don't have to spend a lot of time at the message boards to know that this just ain't true. She's still quite an inspiration to quite a rabid group of girls, and in part that's because she's not interested in being a star: she's still interested in speaking to those girls, and to anyone else who will listen. It's clear that Courtney really does care about communication, not just about getting in the gossip pages, as Schreiber so annoying implies; she thinks what she has to say is important, and there's nothing wrong with that. She's mostly right.

    I think DeRogatis gets it the most right: "for the first time, Love adds her banshee howl of a voice via lyrics that capture her shotgun conversational style." Damn straight, and that sounds fabulous. I love reading C-Lo's posts; at first, like the songs, they seem ridiculous and self-parodic, but they slowly reveal themselves, once you learn to parse them, as very interesting little things. She seems to have developed it since Celebrity Skin, and that this has made it onto the record intrigues the hell out of me.

    It's too bad that we might again be facing a backlash against a good album because of surface signifiers; I thought the whole idea of being a rock critic was to go beyond that, to show us what we're missing. But maybe I'm wrong.