Okay, this topic is a little bit of a landmine, but you may have noticed that Courtney Love has been floating around in the news lately. We here at WKNC aren’t usually much for covering straight-up celebrity gossip, but the history of Love’s public image is personally fascinating to me, and the topic seems to be floating back into relevance for the first time in decades. We’ll try to keep things mostly above board.
Let’s start with the story that got this article rolling. Olivia Rodrigo, pop princess extraordinaire, has a concert film coming up, and for the promotional image, she recreated Love’s classic “Live Through This,” album art. That is a pretty cool callback, Rodrigo’s music is a teeny-bopper version of Love’s in a lot of ways, especially “Good 4 U,” and it’s nice to see her promoting a classic album by a pioneer of female-led rock.
Courtney Love did not agree with that assessment.
Yes, Love took to Instagram, remarking that it was rude for her and the photographer to not be consulted, and despite Rodrigo vocally stanning her, was generally dismissive and unhappy with her. This is, at least arguably, defensible, at least in the abstract, but reading what Love actually wrote left me confused. In fact, everything on Love’s social media left me kinda confused and put off. So, let’s talk about Courtney Love, and the past, present and future of her public image.
Love’s career was effectively started by Kim Gordan of the Sonic Youth, who produced her first album. This was a time when the Sonic Youth were introducing new alternative bands to record executives for signing. Gordan promoted Love’s band Hole, and her husband, Thurston Moore, promoted an even more obscure band, Nirvana. If you aren’t familiar with the next several years of pop culture history, long story short is that Love and Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain got married and had a child before both bands, but especially Nirvana, saw an unprecedented and meteoric rise in fame. By 1994 they were the most famous celebrity power couple alive, drugs and tabloid incursions resulted in their child being taken into custody based on unsubstantiated rumors that Love used heroin while pregnant. After two more years of this lifestyle, Cobain committed suicide tragically at the age of 27.
Now, at the time of Cobain’s suicide, Love was perhaps the most unpopular woman on earth. Partially because of a seriously misogynistic hate cult among Nirvana fans that culminated in the entirely bogus conspiracy theory that she killed her husband. Also, an issue for this contingent is the fact that Courtney Love has, by her own and everyone else’s account, slept with every man in alt-rock twice, a fact that did not bother her husband, and should not bother anyone, but that has nonetheless become a real sticking point. This incredibly vocal and unfortunately influential group tanked Love’s public perception for decades, but over the years there has been a growing feminist backlash to this centered around Love’s obvious mistreatment by the press and the often overlooked fact that Hole’s music is utterly fantastic and easily some of the best rock music of the nineties.
This reevaluation is, in my opinion, great. Love is a musical icon, and she deserves to be celebrated for her accomplishments as much as any other flawed person. However, this redemption narrative has been hindered by one very prominent person seemingly dedicated to destroying Love’s reputation. That person is none other than rock music superstar Courtney Love. Yes, any critical defense of Love must take into account the fact that Love is uh… seemingly not a great person, or at least extremely volatile. This is not unique among rock stars, in fact, were it not for his tragic death some of this same reputation might still follow Cobain, but Love is unique for just how unsympathetically she manages to play the villain.
The first problem is that Love’s ire is mostly directed towards other women. She has had public altercations with basically every blonde woman in rock. She vocally distracted and allegedly assaulted Bikini Kill at a time when she was infinitely more powerful than them. She aggressively confronted Debbie Harry of Blondie for no discernable reason. Not to mention multiple incidents with unfamous women, including an arrest for assaulting a stewardess on an airplane. In recent years she’s mostly dialed this back to Twitter comments, and it’s been years since her last public incident. I also should mention the numerous times she’s decided to start screaming racial and gay slurs on stage at concerts apropos of literally nothing.
I don’t bring this up to drag Love, but to suggest that her redemption arc may be very short-lived. She’s getting a lot of traction on Tiktok, news magazines are publishing retrospectives on her music, the biggest pop star on earth seems to like her. However, we are still in a cultural moment that is very hostile to messily flawed people, and Courtney Love is the posterchild for the messy, flawed white feminist. Social media, Twitter and Tiktok especially, have a very binary relationship to women, viewing them as either progressive saviors or devils with absolutely no middle ground. Love is currently hovering just over the line of progressive savior, but even as someone who sees a lot of value in her work, I have very little faith that she can avoid putting her foot in her mouth for any more than thirty seconds.
So, that covers the past, the present, and the future of Courtney Love’s public perception. I worry I’ve been a little too hard on her, so I do want to just point something out. By any account, even that of the most unsympathetic, Courtney Love has not had an okay time. I won’t get into all the details, but the alt-rock scene in the 80s was extremely unkind to women, as was the mainstream press in the 90s, and Love has experienced some truly horrifying things in her time. She’s very publicly battled addiction, mental health issues, and it’s worth noting that Love was diagnosed with severe autism at a young age. None of these excuse some of her more negative behavior, but if Courtney Love does become the next on the chopping block, I think it’s important to at least have empathy with this woman. I hope you have enough information from this article to make your own decision of whether you want to engage with her work.