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‘Celebrity Skin’ at 20: Hole, Hollywood and the Reinvention of Courtney Love

By the time Hole‘s third album Celebrity Skin had been released in the fall of 1998, the world had already met two different Courtney Loves. The first was a vitriolic weapon of self-destruction: a brash bottle blonde with smeared red lipstick, ripped tights and coquettish babydoll dresses, who growled and sneered with the best of them. The word “troubled” became synonymous with her name and bled into her music: the Pacific Northwest-bred alt-rock band married riot grrrl ethos with the heaviness of the grunge scene her husband Kurt Cobain became the wearied face of. Hole’s debut album, Pretty on the Inside, was already an underground phenomenon, but tragedy catapulted Love through the rock elite stratosphere in 1994 with Hole’s sophomore album Live Through This.

At that time, and still, quite frankly, the way of our early Nineties rock icons either headed towards commercial failure as radio’s interests shifted — or to be drowned by their own demons. The same year Live Through This debuted, both Cobain and Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff succumbed to heroin addictions and mental illness within months of each other. Love’s own battles with drugs, as well as unfettered rage, were public knowledge as well — she often showed up to award shows and concerts intoxicated, taking out her aggression on peers (Kathleen Hanna), heroes (Madonna), or even her fans. As Love’s reputation dipped to an all-time low — amid rumors that Cobain wrote her songs, or that she’d even plotted his death — Love re-emerged from its ashes, ready to debut Courtney 2.0.

In the two years that followed Live Through This, Love decidedly became clean and sober. Her new bill of health wasn’t a decoy to help her maintain her career; it was visible in everything, from her more cogent public appearances to an eventual Golden Globe nomination for her role in Milos Forman’s 1996 film The People Vs. Larry Flynt. Forman served as the catalyst for Love to seek help; worried about her aforementioned reputation, the director refused to cast Love as Althea Flynt alongside Woody Harrelson as Larry Flynt if she didn’t rehabilitate herself.

Acting had been a deep-seated passion of Love’s, long before Hole took off. Excelling at the role, she became something many had prematurely deemed unthinkable: a potential member of Hollywood royalty. She appeared on red carpets donning couture gowns fresh off the runway and a new actor beau, Edward Norton. Love successfully shed tabloid-y descriptors that qualified her Celebrity status only by the loss of her husband, or her addiction. By the power of her own immense talent, she reclaimed her narrative.

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Celebrity Skin was a perfect title for the album that would arise from this period of glamour and sobriety. Through the gowns, healthy glow and diet of “movie-star food” — as she described it in a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone — she was beginning to embody what it meant to be an A-lister. As with everything Love has done, the music, lyrics and themes of Celebrity Skin deconstructed the concept, picking off the healing scab of her public reinvention to rehash the wounds of her past. Fittingly, the title track and album overall begins with a manifesto-like verse: “Oh, make me over/I’m all I want to be/A walking in study/In demonology.”

Fittingly, the album came packaged in a glossy pop sheen, a whole month before the world was introduced to Britney Spears — a seemingly anti-Courtney Love persona who later turned out to have more in common with Love than anyone could have imagined. (When it came to a contentious relationship with fame and the tabloids, Spears’ “Piece of Me” has an almost obscene number of parallels to the narrative arc of “Celebrity Skin.”)

For Hole’s power pop turn, she looked to her number one frenemy, Billy Corgan, as co-writer and producer. Within her new life, she needed a bit of manic tension to inspire and motivate. “It is fun to have a rival,” She told Rolling Stone. “When I sit down with Billy Corgan, and I bring him an arrangement and he makes it better, and I leave and feel shitty because he’s made it better, and so I take apart everything he’s done because there’s no way I’m going to let him win — that’s a great feeling. That’s just a great tension to have and to hold.”

Meanwhile, bassist Melissa Auf der Maur professed to Rolling Stone in 1998: “[I thought,] ‘God, this is going to be so polished, so anal.’”

The tension Love craved had abounded in other respects: during the recording of Celebrity Skin, the studio became a battleground for the band. Producer Michael Beinhorn — who’d previously worked with acts like Soul Asylum, Soundgarden and Red Hot Chili Peppers — clashed with drummer Patty Schemel while recording her takes. In her 2017 memoir, Hit So Hard, Schemel suggested Beinhorn had it out for her from the start: “One of the techs told me that Beinhorn read the newspaper in the booth with the sound off while I played.” After hours of grueling drum takes, Beinhorn convinced the rest of the band, then comprised of Love, Auf der Maur, and Eric Erlandson, to hire session drummer Deen Castronovo in Schemel’s stead. Schemel, betrayed by her bandmates, promptly took leave from Hole.

“I did this very ‘classic rock’ horrible thing,” Love later admitted in a 2002 interview with Carrie Fisher. “I let the producer tell me that she sucked, let him play me a tape of her sounding the worst, that he had basically cobbled together. He’d kept a guy on retainer the whole time […] I ruined her life for two years because I kicked her out of the band for the duration of the record.”

In spite of all its chaos, Celebrity Skin became Hole’s most pristine release to date — an emotionally fraught, musically nuanced and deeply refreshed move on the band’s part that gave as much to the longtime believers in Love’s brilliance as it did to the haters who doubted her multi-faceted abilities. Singles “Awful” and “Malibu” fed into the drama; Love poked fun at her younger years on the former (“Just shut up, you’re only 16”) while the latter seemed to hint at Cobain’s stay at a rehab clinic in California (she later revealed it was about her first boyfriend, Jeff Mann, who lived in the city of the song’s namesake). Yet the loss of Cobain is present throughout; she quotes the final line of his suicide note — “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” — prominently on “Reasons to Be Beautiful,” “Boys On The Radio,” “Playing Your Song” and to a smaller extent on “Malibu” (“How are you so burnt/When you’re barely on fire?”).

Love’s voice was as full of raspy howling fire as any other time in her career — no amount of prim and proper Hollywood appearances could take that grit away from her. She would shed her celebrity skin within time — addiction remains an unshakeable disease for many and she would relapse in the early millennium and find herself embroiled in several legal battles with Nirvana’s Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Hole would break up and make up in the years following as well, following up Celebrity Skin 12 years later with Hole’s final record, 2010’s Nobody’s Daughter. Love herself has found peace and stasis in the time since, playing different shades of herself in numerous television shows like Sons of Anarchy, Revenge, and Empire. She was most recently cast in James Franco’s upcoming film, The Long Home. But let it be known: she has no plans to sell cheap anytime soon.

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