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Monday, April 26, 2004
From the aforementioned Neil Strauss article on Courtney:

Theoretically, this should be a time to celebrate. After a six-year hiatus that included disbanding her longtime group Hole, Love has released a new CD, America's Sweetheart, an assault of overblown guitars and screaming lyrics that is as raw and open as her personality. But on this front, too, Love is upset. "People say, 'You made a great record,' " she says. "No, I made a good five songs. I had twelve songs, but they're not on the album. I had no creative control."

She says that the label released the CD before she was finished, selected the cover art without her and didn't get her approval on some of the final mixes or sequencing..."We're going to put out a press release saying that if Virgin doesn't give me enough money [to promote the CD], I'm going to quit."

Right now, Virgin is all she really has. She recently parted with her manager and business lawyer. If she pisses Virgin off, I tell her, she'll have nothing.

"Fuck it!" she leaps to her feet and yells.

This is one of the reasons I'm really loving Courtney these days. These are the kind of complaints artists make all the time: I lost creative control, the label isn't doing enough to promote it, etc. But you'd usually either make it in private, to friends, or make it in public, but quietly. Courtney does it in a Rolling Stone story while she's promoting the CD, and says she's going to follow it up with a press release. Now, don't get me wrong: this does happen. I've certainly been on the semi-receiving end of a few of these sorts of missives, but it was never quite in this context. There's something different about it, and what's different about it is everything else.

The charge has been made against punk rock that the choice it has is either to be unsuccessful or to sell out. What do you do when you're getting money and living the high life? How can you rage against the system when you depend on it for your continued success? Well, you can act like Courtney, getting right to the pinnacle and then fucking everything up, continually, then getting people to trust you again, and then fucking it up. This is not what you might call a spontaneous combustion model of self-destruction along the lines of the Sex Pistols; this is a slow smolder marked by flare-ups, a parasite that lets the host keep living to preserve its own life. Courtney Love has made immeasurably harder the lives of any number of worker bees in the eternally hated music business, and even as much as you can accuse her of hypocracy by continuing to profit from its mechanations, you can't deny that she brought more attention to the issue of artists' rights (for better or for worse) than anyone else. I'm not saying that her being mean to her manager or fellow touring acts or A&R people or photographers or anyone else is necessarily a good thing; it's just true to the spirit of punk rock. Her escapades are undeniably juvenile, but that doesn't make it un-punk, since punk's just a wee bit juvenile itself. I'm not necessarily approving of a certain subset of C-Lo's behaviors by associating them with the historically determined meaning of "punk," which is something I have a few issues with. Nevertheless, it's undeniable that she either doesn't give a fuck or doesn't give a fuck about certain things you're supposed to give a fuck about--unlike the current situation of a certain white rapper we might get to later.

The charge has been made against Courtney Love that she is a "fame whore," that she does things merely to get in the tabloids. Given what we know about Courtney at this point, I'm a little unclear how you can believe this to be true--that, in other words, Courtney would not be taking her shirt off at fast-food restaurants and hitting fans with mic stands if it were not getting printed in the Post. How can you believe this? Crazy is crazy--attention is sometimes a factor, but I don't think Courtney needs Page 6-level attention to justify her antics. At this point, Courtney's going to get covered no matter what; someone from X random hardcore band doing what she's doing would not make it into a major paper, but Courtney knows that she will.[1] And so what I think people who accuse her of being a fame whore mean is that, given that she knows her public indiscretions will get wide play, she should be responsible and not do these things, because...well, I'm a little sure why not. I think Frances Bean usually gets invoked. But I think what they miss is the implicit bargain Courtney has struck: realizing that she's going to be able to get people to print stories about her in the media, she basically uses this as a means of leveling the playing field between her and the people with more money and more connections and more power. She has become a master at media manipulation--so much so, I think, that the media doesn't even seem to realize, or care, that it's being manipulated.[2]

And so the above quote has to be regarded (indeed, it's probably only regarded) in the context of the rest of Courtney's public life. Saying this seems simultaneously a) crazy, given that there was some doubt that she'd be able to find another label big but cooperative/stupid enough to fund a new album, and given that it was somewhat of a miracle that it came out at all, and b) about as far from unexpected as you can possibly get, given that this is exactly what she's always done. You know both of these things because you know everything else, because Courtney has let you know it. But what's significant about all this is that Courtney is 100% aware that most people will think this, and she says it anyway. Sure, the fans'll get up in arms (recall my point about how Courtney's hardcore fans actually seem more insane than she herself is[3]) and maybe make some stink for the label--and sure, I'm a little intrigued too at the idea that there's more "authentically Courtney" versions of the songs somewhere, being a fan myself--but Courtney knows damn well that most people who care will think some combination of a&b, and even fans will at least have to acknowledge it if we're honest about the object of our regard at all. And this is something I love about Courtney: that she lives a significant portion of her life wholly in public, and she is completely honest in the way she portrays it.

Let's pause for a brief clarification here. I'm not saying Courtney always tells the truth. I'm just saying she tells the truth to the New York Post with the same frequency that she tells the truth to, say, Wendy Cobain, or Dave Grohl. I think that's true because I think she says exactly the same thing to those parties in public and in private. For everything Courtney's been accused of, she's not often portrayed of saying one thing in public and another in private. Even during the darkest hour of her shudderingly self-interested legal strategy in the Nirvana, LLC lawsuit, she would explain it on bulletin boards, and none of the principals ever contradicted her. The stances were wrong, but fairly portrayed. And that's what I'm saying she does: she honestly portrays her perspective. That's something you can't say of a lot of public figures.[4] That it is almost certainly a symptom of a mental disorder doesn't necessarily make it any less admirable.

The reason that Courtney seems so unstable, in part, is that she refuses to make a lot of the compromises you're expected to make to acheive a settled kind of fame, which I think we agree she could get if she tried. Her particular balancing act involves building up enough power to get the attention to get her message across, and then uncompromisingly delivering that message, which in turn strips her of much of that power, and then building it up again. It's a remarkably political process for someone who's mentally unbalanced. She doesn't just wreck things; she wrecks thing and then survives to wreck 'em again. At first it was the cultural capital of punk cred that she was building up and wrecking, and now it's marketability. And she knows this, but she really works with it well.

Moreover, I admire what she's been able to get across with this process. In addition to the great, positive feminist stuff, I think she's willingly given up something that's of immeasurable use to public figures: the aura of mystery. A lot of people need to do this trick where they can't tell you what they're really thinking, partially because people respond to things a lot better if they can pretend like it means exactly what they want it to mean[5], and partially because what they're really thinking is kind of boring, banal, and uncreative. Celebrities don't seem like celebrities if we know that they're doing their taxes and cleaning the toilet and having a hard time finding something to eat. Courtney is the rare celebrity that does everything she can to ensure that you don't see her that way, that you do see her as a flawed, graspable, real human being. She will tell you who her lawyer is and how their meetings go; she will tell you about her relationship problems; she will tell you about her custody battles and everything else. There are certainly parts of her life that remain hidden--but these are small and well-chosen. Just as what some people see as fame whoredom is actually a form of honesty, since Coutney's refusing to conform to what someone in the public eye is supposed to act like[6] is just her being her, so is her incessant (and, honestly, kind of annoying) name-dropping a similar aspect of this openness. She really does hang out with these people, and because she's a real person instead of a celebrity for whom hanging around with famous people is just run of the mill and nothing special, she's excited about it and wants to tell people about it. Ultimately, I think it's less her trying to make herself look better by associating herself with Nicole Kidman or whoever, and more just her being genuinely excited about doing this stuff. I don't think people want to acknowledge that genuine strain of excitement and wonder in Courtney, but there's no doubt in my mind that it's very much there.

So I really admire Courtney for all of this, for managing to be a celebrity without being a celebrity, for taking this negative of universal media attention and turning it into a half-positive, for being, above all, absurdly honest, self-destructively honest. I think--and I could certainly be wrong--that it actually does some good in the wider world.

[1] Witness the dressing-up episode in the Strauss piece that resulted in "the boobs conversation," as I will henceforth refer to it.
[2] In part, no doubt, because so much of the manipulation and even the surrounding justification seems antithetical to Courtney's interests.
[3] Which would be an interesting graph to plot--craziness of artist v. craziness of fans.
[4] Nor would you necessarily want to--Lord only knows what a whole media landscape of Courtneys would be like.
[5] And because they haven't internalized the death of the author, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
[6] What's that line from one of the Stooges? "What do you expect to happen when you pay a bunch of monkeys to act like monkeys?" Something to that effect.