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Hole’s Live Through This Endures as a Document of Survival and Empowerment

Marissa Nadler, Jessie Clavin, Mish Way, and Suzy Exposito discuss the record's impact and legacy

Courtney Love, photo by Alan Levenson
Courtney Love, photo by Alan Levenson
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Editor’s Note: Hole’s classic record Live Through This came out April 12th, 1994. As we celebrate another anniversary of Courtney Love’s most enduring, powerful album and feminist statement, we revisit Paula Mejia’s piece, which originally ran in 2014 and asked several women in rock music to talk about the album’s themes and impact. It’s a discussion that remains relevant to this day.

I didn’t go to school in Olympia. I went to school in Texas, and in grade school I would often (unknowingly) end my sentences with the pronoun “this.” Every time, teachers crossed it out with red Xs, urging me to replace it with a more specific term. Roughly around the same time that I struggled to understand grammar and style, Hole released what would be their definitive record: Live Through This.

There’s that pronoun again. Live through what, exactly? Well, just about everything you can imagine: being ripped into doll parts, resisting kill me pills, struggling with abandonment, breaking, burning, being walked on, disrespected, taunted, threatened, and coping with suicide. Death (and life) particularly reverberates from every growled syllable on Live Through This, which turns 20 this week.

“If you live through this with me, I swear that I will die for you,” promises frontwoman Courtney Love in the riveting track “Asking for It”, a sacred oath binding the listener and singer together. Love wrote the track after her experience of being physically and psychologically abused by a crowd that ripped her apart after a stage dive. To those who don’t know the story, or perhaps do, the line also resonates as a tongue-in-cheek reversal of the unforgivable, pathetic excuse criminals have utilized to justify assault: “She, or he, was asking for it.” A punk record with a pop heart, Live Through This is very much a document of survival that managed to pierce through the confines of mainstream radio. The phrase “live through this” is itself a phrase of empowerment for survivors and activists, especially those working to de-stigmatize issues of suicide and rape as social constructs.

Released on April 12th, 1994, Hole’s Live Through This was colored by a great tragedy just four days prior: the untimely death of Love’s husband, fallen rock idol Kurt Cobain, whom many still swear resides all across the record. Cobain is inevitably immortalized here, his spirit echoing all over; with his weight in Love’s life, how could he not be? Yet, the systematic vilification of Courtney Love is still rampant, from Instagram comments to the echelons of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame speeches. This isn’t simply misplaced disbelief over the incomprehensible life snatched from around the same time. It digs at a bigger problem that songwriter Marissa Nadler mentions when speaking about Love’s musical credibility, unfortunately tarnished by her intense nature.

“People don’t like outspoken women,” says Nadler. “She’s very outspoken, and was my first hardcore female, and for many women of my generation. I think that’s why many women adore her.” And it’s true. A woman’s vulnerability won’t incite anger, but her exhibiting confidence sure as hell will. “I don’t think she always gets treated as a person, but as a character,” adds White Lungs Mish Way.

Still, the voice on this record is clearly Love’s, and she is fighting for her credibility in the most self-aware and triumphant ways. The inclusion of a searing cover of Young Marble Giants’ “Credit in the Straight World” is a pointed jab at skeptics and haters. “What she did performance-wise… that was so genius, the way she constructed herself. She looked like the perfect, beautiful, bombshell Barbie, and she acted the complete opposite way a woman is supposed to act,” asserts Way. “That was intentional, and that was supposed to be a message about the constraints of our gender.”

Courtney Love

Courtney Love, photo by Alan Levenson

Thematically and conceptually, Live Through This is the natural extension of Hole’s first record, Pretty on the Inside. Musically, the band evolved and matured, becoming a taut rock outfit, largely extracting many of the same concepts about objectification, insecurity, and subverting gender constructs. “[On Live Through This], she emerged like a bedraggled, haggard-as-hell phoenix rising from the ashes, echoing my own righteous teenage indignation with her cutting words and powerful pipes,” shares Suzy Exposito, lead singer of feminist Brooklyn punk band Shady Hawkins.

Even with the contemporary ability to incite and promote global discourses, as well as the increasing accessibility of resources as a culture, we are predisposed to insecurity about approaching challenging social issues — notably suicide, race, misogyny, and rape. Often, efforts at addressing these uncomfortable issues result in silence. Love subverts the cowardice on Live Through This, forcing the listener to swallow these issues whole, but in a way that brilliantly injects them into tight hooks and thrashing drum lines that make you move.

“The bridge that is hit between accessibility and being a hard, challenging punk record is perfect,” says Way. “It’s scary and assertive, and comes in many forms: Kristen Pfaff singing in the background, her bass lines are super effective. Patty [Schemel] was such a badass drummer. Eric [Erlandson]’s guitar was always beautiful.” Lyrically antagonistic, vitriolic instrumentally, and yet still managing to extract a curious beauty at the core, Live Through This is one of the most fearless, feminist-surged rock records recorded in the ’90s, up there with PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me and Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville.

“Courtney is a huge Stevie Nicks fan, and that makes sense. There’s an edge to her work, but it’s still pretty,” adds Nadler. “I think Live Through This has some beautiful melodies and great hooks, but it has that edge that she was all about.” The weight of Love’s lyrics, gripping, personal, intense, and relatable, cause this record to resonate intimately, perhaps more than Nirvana ever did.

“What interested me was how often I’d hear Nirvana on commercial radio, but how I actually never once heard Hole,” recalls Exposito. “Kurt Cobain was actually a very outspoken feminist, but as a dude, of course, he was more permissible in the cock rock echelons. Yet, Live Through This actually spoke to me a lot harder than Nevermind did, in that it conveyed conditions of injustice more straightforwardly. I finally heard ‘Violet’ for the first time on a late night indie rock radio show when I was 12 years old and already a survivor of sexual abuse.”

Much like Hole’s previous record (the scuzzy, Kim Gordon-produced Pretty on the Inside), female objectification and being scrutinized is thematically prevalent. “It’s not yours,” she challenges in “I Think That I Would Die”, pausing between each word before she erupts into that volcanic scream: “Fuck you!” Here’s another currency undervalued on Live Through This: a smart, feminist questioning of economics itself. What does it mean to sell out? Is it about buying, or what you’re selling — a concept made notorious by Fugazi? Or is Hole the product of what consumption dictates? “Every time that I sell myself to you,” she croons on “Asking for It”, “I feel a little cheaper than I need to.”

10th Annual MTV Video Music Awards

Photo by Terry McInnis/WIRE IMAGES

But here she’s not just fighting back at the lingering male gaze, social constructs, or jilted past lovers; she also addresses her female bullies, notably in “She Walks on Me”, the most aggressive number on the record. “Geeks do not have pedigrees/ Or perfect punk rock resumes/ Or anorexic magazines,” Love confides. “I was a tomboy as a kid, and most of my bullies were girls,” Exposito shares. “I could really identify with feeling totally empty inside [as depicted in the “Miss World” video] when my family dressed me up and cut my hair whichever way they wanted. I felt as though people liked me so much better as anyone but myself.”

But if Live Through This proves anything, it’s that there’s hope if you keep moving onward, far beyond the bullshit. Jessie Clavin, of L.A.’s Bleached, mentions how hearing Hole is synonymous with her discovery of music as a young girl, and her decision to pick up a bass was influenced by Hole playing on Los Angeles rock station KROQ. Nadler speaks of Courtney Love as a muse, instrumental in beginning her own career: “When I first started playing music, I started on electric guitar and was very heavily emulating her vocal style, which might be very hard to believe if people are following what I do now and think about me screaming!” Love’s yowls and vowel-piercing lyrical style also resonates as a defining part of this record, and certainly of Hole as a band. “What do you do with a revolution?” she reels on “Rock Star”, then croons gently, almost lullaby-esque, on “Softer, Softest”. Exposito writes, “I loved the deep hoarseness of her voice. Both the searing pain and imminent danger with which she sang reminded me of how a rattlesnake crackles its tail to warn you the fuck away from it.”

A generous portion of Love’s personal life has been dictated by custody, her pregnancy even a high-profile tabloid headline. It’s said that she herself bounced around in foster care as a child, which seemingly adds a tragic element to the gruesome custody battles she has endured for the better part of her daughter Frances Bean’s life. Motherhood and milk are constant themes on this record; it’s apparent from songs like “I Think That I Would Die” that Love was concerned with being the best mother she could possibly be.

While Live Through This is about many things, it resounds largely as a document questioning ownership and agency — who has it, who doesn’t, what it means to lose it, and gain it back again. “Now I’ve stumbled here, failed to make it mine,” she admits on “Plump”. The record’s opener, “Violet”, allegedly written about Billy Corgan, bites as she says, “When they get what they want, and they never want it again.”

hole live through this back Holes Live Through This Endures as a Document of Survival and Empowerment

“Asking for It” has a particularly heart-snatching lyric that has always resonated with me: “I will tear the petals off of you,” which reminds me of one of my favorite Susan Minot short stories, entitled “Lust”. In the story, she writes of girls and sex: “For a girl,  it’s as though a petal gets plucked each time.” I hear Love courageously and consciously reversing this notion and social construct, firing back with a dare of her own. Here, she’s directly speaking to other women, parsing through experiences of trauma and a hopeless future. “I thought of her as a voice of reason in a world stacked up against me. She had her problems and yet she spoke to so many of my feelings of disempowerment and rage,” explains Exposito.

These are but a few examples of how Live Through This is a work that effectively reclaims ownership of one’s own body and questions the depth of what’s being taken away when someone wants a piece of you. “Plump” — which alludes to Love’s past as a stripper, in which she described herself as heavyset — listens like pages ripped from her own diary. Here she grasps the mean word and screams it right back at her bullies, becoming something more powerful than the confines of a body might suggest.

Every musician I spoke with for this piece described, at length, the unfortunate and prevalent belief that women are incapable of creating something astonishing alone. “We get attitude from guys,” shares Clavin. “I’m sure the band had to put their feet down more than a guy would have to do, working with other male musicians and sound guys, maybe it’s an ego thing, but they don’t want to believe a girl can get up there and thrash on bass, and drums, and guitar.” Echoing Clavin’s statement, Way adds: “If you’re a beautiful, intelligent, powerful woman, she must have had help with it. Whereas, if you’re a guy, then you’re the total package.”

Mythologies and conspiracy theories be damned: Hole’s talent is indisputable, particularly on Live Through This. Possessing an especially taut rhythm section led by standout Kristen Pfaff and the sharp lyrics needed to penetrate the rock and roll boys club, Live Through This discarded the notion that one, as a woman, was required to adhere to pop music’s formula of palatability in order to be successful or have artistic merit. And Hole’s piece de resistance is at once a swift kick to the gut and a dagger through a once-beating heart.

While the Internet has been effective in carving out non-physical spaces for women in rock music, women are still privy to the same injustices. “The Internet has created this great space. It doesn’t have to be physical, and that’s still a form of activism. But I get harassed all the time. It’s just stupid. But it’s really sad, honestly. You’re going to call me a whore again? Get creative! It’s so pathetic,” Way confides. But Clavin believes it’s getting better: “There’s always been girls in the music industry, but not that many. Slowly, it’s progressing and becoming more acceptable,” she says.

To me personally, one of the most enlightening moments on Live Through This happens right at the end, on “Rock Star”. The music fades and the lyrics slow, then Love says firmly: “No, we’re not done.” Presumably, she’s using that as a cue for her bandmates to continue, but I think this exchange gestures towards just how pivotal Live Through This remains now and will continue to be as long as people are still spurred to thrash on guitars and make noise, inciting cultural change. “Maybe something was going wrong or right, but this record is still really important,” says Way. “The celebrity, the mystique, their love story, and all of that, musically and lyrically, it’s a very intelligent rock record.”

So, no, Courtney Love won’t shut up, and we won’t shut up — not until misogyny and sexism are firmly dis-entrenched from our society’s collective consciousness. She did it for you, for the kids, for me, as we continue to live through shit, love through this, and ultimately live through this.

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