Celebrity Skin Turns 20
Written by JARVIS LEROUGE on September 7, 2018
California has long been the land of reinvention in the American imagination, the place that people go to lose and find and then lose themselves again. Even the word “California” is synonymous with “freedom” in our popular culture — in some cases boundless, in others extremely limited. There is no place that better exemplifies California’s mythology, its promises and failures, than Los Angeles. It was built to be the future, a landscape so sprawling that it had to contain every possible outcome within its changing borders. Opportunity as far as the eye can see. LA is a dreamscape and a wasteland and whatever splits the difference. In her book of essays Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, & LA, the socialite-turned-essayist and true LA woman Eve Babitz explains: “You can’t write a story about LA that doesn’t turn around in the middle or get lost.”
Hole’s third album Celebrity Skin (which turns 20 tomorrow) sounds like LA. It’s polished, decadent rock with something rotten at its core, a celebration and condemnation of what Courtney Love names “beautiful garbage” on the title track. It is an album with a dramatic, he-said-she-said backstory made in the aftermath of terrible tragedy. Writing about Celebrity Skin presents the perfect opportunity to get lost. There are many threads to follow, there are controversies on controversies on controversies to track, and then there is the actual music, which is some of the very best the ‘90s had to offer. Celebrity Skin marked a lot of endings: alternative rock as truly alternative, the end of the decade, and the beginning of the end of Hole.
“We’re just the type of band where everything is falling apart all of the time,” guitarist and founding member Eric Erlandson once said. “Making that record was insane. There were obstacles at each step of the way, nothing was smooth and easy.” The album artwork is a perfect distillation of that energy: a photo of the band on a beach at night and everyone’s gaze is averted aside from Love’s. She’s staring straight at the camera and behind her is a tall, skinny palm tree on fire. “Oh, make me over,” is the album’s opening line, a statement of purpose.
To make Celebrity Skin, Hole tapped into what bassist Melissa Auf der Maur once described in an interview with MTV as the “California muse.” Ideas weren’t coalescing, the band wasn’t getting along, and Love decided the album needed some kind of unifying theme, something anyone could relate to. She wasn’t going to mine her fraught personal life for ideas. “Let’s tie this together with a concept, even if it’s fake,” Love said during the interview. “For directional purposes.” So Hole started to work in the grand tradition of writing about Los Angeles, thinking about “California as a metaphor for the American dream.” That clichéd, almost cynical approach to songwriting landed their biggest commercial hits and made Celebrity Skin an era-defining album.
Hole started writing in three different cities before returning to their hometown of LA. They tried New York, New Orleans, and Memphis, music capitals that lacked the right atmosphere. At that point in time, inspiration that wasn’t terribly depressing was hard to come by. Love’s husband, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, killed himself four days before Hole’s seminal sophomore album, Live Through This, debuted in 1994. Soon after, the band’s bassist Kristen Pfaff died of a heroin overdose. Love became tabloid fodder and drummer Patty Schemel was battling a worsening drug habit. In spite of all that, the band took Live Through This on a long and tumultuous tour, replacing Pfaff with Auf der Maur. Shows were uneven, with Love breaking down or going on lengthy, rambling monologues about her dead husband, behaviors that were attributed to her heavy drug use. In ’95, Hole joined the Lollapalooza lineup, during which Love allegedly punched Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. That same year, a wasted Love threw her compact at Madonna during the VMAs. It was, to put it mildly, a rough couple of years.
None of that madness cheapens Live Through This. It is the kind of album that, if you hear it at the right moment in time, will change your life. It would be impossible for Hole to make another just like it. Love’s acerbic public persona inverted on those songs. She became at once ferocious (“Violet”) and fragile (“Doll Parts”), a woman singing about her aggrieved childhood and the joys and burdens of being a wife and a mom and a rock star and a ticking bomb because of it. There is no album that I would rather listen to on any given day of the week; it is a masterpiece, a definitively feminist work of art that also happened to be a critical success, buoyed in part by the fateful timing of its release and that prophetic title that seemed to hint at the turmoil the band would undergo in the months surrounding its release.
Love suffered very publicly after Cobain’s death — her mourning became spectacle and it elevated her to the coveted halls of Very Famous People. Part of Love’s narrative is that she always wanted to be famous, ever since she was a teenager. It’s an ugly thing, though, to achieve a level of notoriety based on the fact that you are a grief-ridden widow with a baby daughter and a drug problem that everyone knows all about. By the mid-’90s, Love started to get her life back. She was cast in her first A-list film, Miloš Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Love was now known as just Courtney Love as opposed to “Kurt Cobain’s wife Courtney Love” or “Courtney Love from Hole.” Love probably could’ve gotten by without releasing another Hole album. Nevertheless, the band was contractually obliged to record the follow up to Live Through This, which proved to be a long and arduous process.
Grunge ended between Live Through This and Celebrity Skin. By ‘98, all of the movement’s biggest names were either dead or onto something new. Celebrity Skin reflects that: Its production has a plastic slickness, the melodies are tight and radio-ready, and there are no strange interludes or moments of chaotic catharsis. Love barely ever screams on it which, if you’re familiar with the band’s previous two albums, is almost unthinkable. Instead, she stretched her vocal abilities to their limit, proving that she had one of the biggest voices in rock, big enough to compete with the guys. There’s nothing scrappy about Celebrity Skin — it sounds like money, and it sounds that way because Love wanted it to. “I built it as a monument,” she says in a Hole profile published by Rolling Stone that year. “That important record where art and commerce are meeting, where discipline and restraint are meeting total organic truth. Like Nevermind. Like Appetite For Destruction. Like The Wall. Like Rumours. Big, huge records with something to say.”
To get that big, huge sound, the band opted to work with producer Michael Beinhorn, who at the time was known for his work with stadium rock acts like Aerosmith, Marilyn Manson, Ozzy Osbourne, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Schemel describes him in her memoir Hit So Hard (2017) as “probably the Michael Bay of record producers — he’s just there to blow stuff up.” Love would later call Beinhorn “a Nazi fuck,” albeit in a joking way.
It’s impossible to talk about Celebrity Skin without acknowledging the exhaustive drama that went into making it. Beinhorn, who was known for firing drummers, cut Schemel out of recording Celebrity Skin, convincing Love that bringing in a session musician would give the album a cleaner clip. Beinhorn said Schemel got “red light fever” and freaked when it came time to actually lay down tracks, while Schemel insists that Beinhorn didn’t like her from the get-go and was eager to bring in his own guy. (She also points to Beinhorn’s latent misogyny in Hit So Hard, saying that he “generally talked to women like they were all his ex-wives.”)
Schemel descended into addiction after that, eventually quitting the band before they went on tour and suing Hole. The drum parts she demoed are still there, though, played by Deen Castronovo — the rhythm-led psychedelic onslaught of “Use Once And Destroy” being the most affecting. Beinhorn caused an irreparable rift in the band dynamic, but he would go on to win the Producer Of The Year Grammy for his work on Celebrity Skin. And Beinhorn wasn’t the only collaborator Hole clashed with: Billy Corgan did his best to overshadow Celebrity Skin before it was even released.
Love and Corgan are rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest frenemies, former lovers who continue to orbit one another to this day. By ‘98 their history was well-documented — Live Through This, after all, opens with “Violet,” a kinda-sorta breakup song directed at Corgan. Nevertheless, Love invited Corgan to workshop with the band in the studio, to the chagrin of Hole’s other members. She needed someone to stoke her inspiration and jumpstart a songwriting process that had been lagging for a year. In retrospect, Love attributes a lot of that lag to the fact that she never properly dealt with Cobain’s death, touring extensively and sacrificing herself to the stage night after night, suffering in public and numbing herself in private. On paper, Corgan is credited with co-writing five songs — “Celebrity Skin,” “Malibu,” “Hit So Hard,” “Dying,” and “Petals” — but at the time, he was sopping up more credit than was due in interviews. “They can be mad about it if they want, but it’s still my riff,” Corgan said of “Celebrity Skin” to Howard Stern.
Part of that aggressive self-promotion probably stemmed from the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins’ electronic 1998 release, Adore, disappointed longtime fans. With Celebrity Skin, Corgan proved that he could still do guitar riffs, he could still do rock music. In another world, Corgan’s boastful comments might’ve gone ignored, but seeing as how he was talking about Courtney Love’s band, there’s no way in hell that was gonna happen. Love shot back by calling Corgan sexist for saying that Celebrity Skin wouldn’t have been made without him. She also accused him of downplaying Erlandson’s contributions. Love did absolutely give him credit for that overblown, very rock ‘n’ roll opening riff by way of a backhanded compliment, stating that “no self-respecting female would ever write” it because “it’s so cheesy.”
(Just last month, Love joined Corgan onstage at the Smashing Pumpkins’ 30th anniversary show. She thanked Corgan, calling him: “My nemesis, protector and maker of career.” Good to see they’re still at it.)
Love already knew what to expect when the public learned that Corgan co-wrote songs on her new album. When Live Through This came out, detractors accused her of hijacking ideas from her late husband, going as far as to say that she didn’t write any of the album herself. These were the same detractors who would cling to the conspiracy that Love killed Cobain. (Nick Broomfield’s controversial documentary, Kurt & Courtney, came out in February of that year.) “I mean, what else is new? Right? I mean, every day it’s, ‘Ehhhh she didn’t write her songs,’ ‘Ehhhh she punched me,’ ‘Ehhhh she stole my grandmother’s ring,’ ‘Ehhhh she’s on her period.’ WHATEVER, I don’t care!” Love said, mocking her critics at a press conference for the ‘98 VMAs.
Like so many women in rock (and women in general), Love’s talents are often attributed to the men she surrounded herself with. Love has never not been a brash woman, a “difficult woman,” the kind of woman that doesn’t care if you like her. As she once put it: “I didn’t ask to be hated; I just didn’t mind being a bitch.” There are so many male rock stars that boast the same attributes, but there are few who are so vehemently despised for it.
It’s impossible to discuss Hole’s music without simultaneously addressing the misogyny they weaponized. Love’s lyrics adopted the male gaze, with her pointing to specific instances of gross sexism on songs like “Asking For It” and “Jennifer’s Body.” Before Love was a rock star, she was a stripper, and the lyrics on the band’s debut album Pretty On The Inside were partly inspired by a night Love was nearly raped at her job. It’s a sneering, noisy album, completely unlike the pristine, candy-coated sheen of Celebrity Skin. Some of the themes Love wrestled with in her early work certainly carried over to her new moneyed lifestyle, but they were less prominent.
There is one song on Celebrity Skin that communicates directly with the feminism that propelled Hole in their earlier days. The album’s third single, “Awful,” is all about the corporatization of rock music, the way it exploits young women, their aspirations and desires. “They royalty rate all the girls like you/ And they sell it out to the girls like you/ To incorporate little girls,” Love and Auf der Maur harmonize on the chorus. “Awful” finds Love confronting her younger self (“I was punk/ Now I’m just stupid”), trying to find a place for her politics in the glossy new world she gladly embraced. The song ends with a message of empowerment, a gang-vocal chant that lacks any of the cynicism or self-deprecation of much of Hole’s work: “If the world is so wrong/ Yeah you can break them all/ With one song.” It’s so unlike anything else the band has ever written; conventionally hooky, hopeful.
Big, huge records with something to say. That’s what Love wanted Celebrity Skin to be, a statement piece that subverted the record labels and the media and anyone who thought she couldn’t make pop music with some kind of message. Love didn’t care at all about “selling out” — “Celebrity Skin” ends on the line “You want a part of me/ Well I’m not selling cheap/ No I’m not selling cheap” — but she also didn’t care to make something that was just beautiful, bereft of any of her personal life tangled up in it.
Ugliness is Hole’s beating heart, and the ugliness of living your life for the world to editorialize and critique is at the center of many of Celebrity Skin’s songs. “Reasons To Be Beautiful” opens with Love narrating her own suicide like it’s out of a pulp (“Love hangs herself/ With bed sheets in her cell”) while the absurdly catchy “Playing Your Song” shamelessly disses Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, with whom Love would be entangled in a legal battle over Nirvana’s publishing rights for years. “Malibu” drips sunshine but is said to be written about Cobain’s final stint in rehab. “Don’t lay down and die!” it goes, and the chorus crashes in like a wave.
Hole dedicated Celebrity Skin to “the stolen water of Los Angeles and to anyone who ever drowned.” The backside album art features a painting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. References to drowning in excess, in fame, appear throughout the lyrics, a thematic thread that ties the work together. The alienation of celebrity hangs heavy, too, despite the number of sticky hooks or the many lyrical references to candy. There are moments of sweetness, for sure, but even romance sounds like violence on Celebrity Skin, as it does so often in Hole’s work. “Hit So Hard” is a song about having a huge crush, but its shimmering chorus is a double entendre: “He hit so hard/ I saw stars/ He hit so hard/ I saw God.”
Hole collapsed after Celebrity Skin came out. Auf der Maur quit the band and replaced D’Arcy Wretzky in Smashing Pumpkins, while Love and Erlandson had a falling out and decided to end things in 2002. As a result, Love got into a long, drawn-out legal battle with their label — Hole promised them seven albums and they got two.
Celebrity Skin is Hole’s most sonically accomplished album but it is not their best. Love already built her monument, she just probably couldn’t imagine at the time that a monument could be as dilapidated and angry as Live Through This and survive its moment. Celebrity Skin is something entirely different. It’s a beautiful collection of pop songs that proved Hole could go that direction and stand their ground, that they could outlive grunge and make something shiny and new.
I recently revisited Love’s episode of “Behind The Music” and have thought often about how impossible it must have felt to be her in those days, to deal with unthinkable trauma in front of strangers who hated or loved her for it. There are too many people who only know Love because of the tabloid headlines, the public meltdowns, the drugs — people who don’t even realize that she fronted her own band before she was a countercultural princess and pariah. I waver on this, but Celebrity Skin might be the album I’d tell those people to listen to first. It’s accessible, perfect pop and Hole didn’t compromise their reputation making it. When you’ve written your song of survival before disaster even hits, what’s next? With Celebrity Skin Hole did the only thing they could do: lean into the void and laugh.