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why I love love: happy birthday, courtney

Yesterday marked the 49th birthday of the not-a-woman-but-a-force-of-nature that is Courtney Love. I think that in her fiftieth year, this birthday calls for something of a celebration of her life.

Ms Love has always been an inspiration to me, and has been one of my heroes for many years now. It seems an unlikely match between the two of us: I’m a somewhat conservative, quiet, bookish type and Courtney is carefree, rebellious and gutsy. But I have long admired her strength and determination in the face of much criticism and media slander.

Courtney Michelle Harrison was born to psychotherapist Linda Carroll and Hank Harrison in 1964. Her parents divorced five years later, after which little Courtney lived with her mother, who had permanent custody of her after it was alleged that her father had tried to feed her LSD. They lived on a commune, and whilst at school in Eugene, Oregon, Courtney was diagnosed as mildly autistic. Her mother, meanwhile, was in relationships with two men, which resulted in Courtney’s six half siblings.

By the time she was sixteen, Courtney was legally emancipated from her life in and out of various foster homes, had been arrested for stealing a t-shirt, had worked various professions, including DJing and stripping, to support herself, had moved to Portland, and was intermittently taking English and Philosophy classes at the Portland State University.

Through her earlier years, it was clear that Courtney was smart and had a lot of potential in both academia and performing arts (she starred in two films, Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell, in the late 1980s, and she was later nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in The People vs Larry Flynt) but that she was very misplaced, had poor social skills and a lack of support network.

There was always the talent and the drive for success in music during these years as well. She formed her first band, Sugar Babydoll, in the 1980s, and served a brief stint as lead singer in Faith No More, but was kicked out of the band because the band wanted a “male energy.”

In 1989, Courtney taught herself how to play guitar, relocated once again to Los Angeles, and placed an ad in a local music zine. It read: ‘I want to start a band. My influences are Big Black, Sonic Youth and Fleetwood Mac.’ (The influence of Fleetwood Mac on Courtney and Hole could still be seen later in their career). It was this ad that was the beginning of the formation of Hole, one of the most influential (and one of my personal all-time favourite) bands of the so-called grunge movement of the 1990s Hole’s first studio album, Pretty on the Inside, was released in August 1991. It received general critical acclaim, but it was with their second album, Live Through This, and their new line-up of Courtney, Kristen Pfaff, Patty Schemel and Eric Erlandson that saw Hole receive critical and commercial success, with the album going platinum.

But the release and promotion of this album was not without controversy…

Live Through This was released just four days after Courtney’s husband and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide. This was one of the defining moments of the music world, with many labelling it ‘the death of grunge’, and it is still notorious and raw in the music world’s consciousness today. It’s hard to even imagine how this must have affected those who were personally close to Cobain, let alone his wife. On top of all of this, Hole’s then bassist Kristen Pfaff also passed away of a heroin overdose two months later. Despite all of this, Hole embarked on an ambitious worldwide tour to promote the album, which became a spectacle due to Courtney’s fragile emotional state, and led to an even more erratic performance style, including provocation of fans, the destruction of instruments, and screaming and crying on stage. provocation of fans, screaming and crying on stage.

But Courtney and the band managed to make their performances and sets always entertaining and even heroic. Following the band’s performance at the 1994 Reading Festival, BBC’s John Peel wrote:

‘Courtney’s first appearance backstage certainly caught the attention. Swaying wildly and with lipstick smeared on her face, hands and, I think, her back, as well as on the collar of her dress, the singer would have drawn whistles of astonishment in Bedlam. After a brief word with supporters at the foot of the stage, she reeled away, knocking over a wastebin, and disappeared. Minutes later she was onstage giving a performance which verged on the heroic … Love steered her band through a set which dared you to pity either her recent history or that of the band … the band teetered on the edge of chaos, generating a tension which I cannot remember having felt before from any stage’.

After this, Hole released Celebrity Skin in 1998, which showed a shift from grunge and punk rock stylings to a more power pop sound. The album, once again, was a commercial success, going multi-platinum and being nominated for three Grammy awards. The album was also well received by the critics – it was named Album of the Year by such periodicals as Spin and The Village Voice, with the single “Celebrity Skin” being the band’s only number one on the Modern Rock Charts.

Following this, Courtney went on to begin a solo music career, then briefly reform the band, before resuming her solo career late last year. It is clear that Courtney’s musical career has been successful and she should be proud of all that she has achieved.

On top of her music career, Courtney has advocated for stricter gun laws in the United States, even giving a speech in 2000 at the Million Mom March, a rally held in Washington D.C. on Mothers’ Day. She is also a fierce LGBT advocate, and has publicly fought for constitutional rights since the early 1990s.

She is also a self-identified feminist. Many of her lyrics ‘articulate a third wave feminist consciousnesses’ and have even been studied by scholars. Her songs, particularly earlier Hole songs, are aggressive towards cultural perceptions of women. Often this can be through parody of sex roles, but equally so she addresses many important issues through these lyrics, such as rape, misogyny, elitism, pregnancy and death.

Yet despite all of this documented success, Courtney is perhaps most well-known for her relationship with Cobain, and for her off-stage antics (including problems with drugs and occasionally subversive behaviour, including being arrested on her fortieth birthday and being imprisoned for six months to aid her drug addiction – she has now been clean for over five years). The media and, more recently, the Internet have swamped Courtney with claims of homicide following the suspicious circumstances of Cobain’s death, as well as numerous claims of her being a bad parent to Frances Bean, her daughter with Cobain. There are some truly horrible things written about her out there, with no intention other than spite and malice. One only has to click onto any of her YouTube videos to see in the comments malicious claims that “Courtney killed Kurt”.

The comments and criticism may be justified (particularly regarding her drug issues and her admission that she took drugs whilst pregnant with Frances Bean), but perhaps it is indicative of an extremely high profile relationship where the woman is the more dominant personality. Nevertheless, she has maintained her strength, courage, passion and determination, and she’s proven absolutely fearless with all that she does. She’s incredibly talented (her lyrics speak for themselves). And she’s such an inspiration to me, and doubtless many others because of her courage, uninhibited free nature, lyrical talent, onstage prowess and eloquence in the face of much criticism.

Happy birthday, Ms. Love!

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