Don't Ever Say "Courtney Love" Three Times While Looking in a Mirror

by Mike Barthel

This weekend’s walk-about with Courtney Love in the Times was both excellent and at the same time fundamentally indistinguishable from any other long-form profile of Love written in the last twenty or so years. There is a simple and straightforward reason for this. Courtney is the Dorian Gray of the American celebrity-industrial complex. Her public face shows us exactly what we want to see, while her private face is revolting (and even aging) and seeing the two in close proximity unsettles the viewer on an almost biological level. There’s no denying that Love can be personally unpleasant; a former co-worker who went on to be Courtney’s assistant said her favorite part of the job was going home at night, because “that’s when the screaming stops.” But despite a decade of so of not accomplishing much that would justify continued attention (two good-to-great albums, neither of which sold well), and despite a public that more than likely finds her, at best, unsavory, she remains in the spotlight in a way none of her cohort have managed or, more likely, desired. Love’s persistence in the public’s field of vision testifies to a fundamental truth of her character: she is the dark mirror of our desires, reflecting not our more self-serving excuses for following gossip, but the gross reality of our appetite for stories of fame pursued and lost.

There are lots of people who play their life stories out in the media as a kind of career. It’s hard to think of anyone who’s kept it going as long as Love has. That’s because, when it comes to the celebrity media, “they are manipulating one another,” as Eric Wilson writes of Courtney and her fashion-world fellow travelers. The media has become almost Fordist in their ability to identify someone hungry for fame and bait them, through coverage and personal attention, into self-destructing.

But Courtney would self-destruct with or without media attention, and this gives her a kind of power. It’s hard to think of anyone who could’ve survived having their kid taken away from them after admitting third-trimester heroin use to a magazine writer, but here Love is, still separated from her child and still being written about. The logical response to having your life destroyed by the media is to pull away from the media, but this is not Courtney Love’s style. She falls and rises and falls and rises in a way so personally traumatic that it can’t possibly be planned and yet is so perfectly reflective of the stories we want to hear about the famous and famous-for-being-famous that the media almost have no choice but to cover her. This attention merely inflames her tendency toward auto-immolation, rewarding her bad behavior with greater fame and providing every incentive to keep using those Nirvana dollars to do stupid things.

Love’s public actions also seem to critique and take advantage of the expectations we have for celebrities, and that makes her considerably more sympathetic. Wilson’s piece notes that Love “has avidly embraced social media,” but she’s been a presence on online message boards (the web 1.0 version of social media) for years. In addition to regularly responding to fans on her own site, she took to The Velvet Rope, a music industry gossip board, to post punctuation-free jeremiads laced with given-name-only references to biz heavies that were sometimes understandable (“Lyor”) but most often not, and these offered fascinating revelations regarding the industry’s machinations and Love’s own skewed thought process. Courtney Love does not believe in the public-private divide. The personal is political enough for her that she embraces perfect transparency, making it possible for the public to always know what she’s thinking, even when what she’s thinking doesn’t make any sense. Like Courtney herself, this seems like a combination of admirable and misguided, a brave symbolic gesture that in practice would’ve been better off un-made.

Then, of course, there is the subject a mountain of dissertations could be (and probably have been) written on: Courtney’s body. Wilson begins his piece with Love bursting into a hotel room naked, putting on a see-through gown, and then walking through the lobby “with her breasts exposed to an assortment of prominent fashion figures.” If you’ve ever had any sort of affection for punk rock, it’s hard not to love this gesture as a fuck-you to the Madonna-whoring of the female form, flipping the bird to cultural attitudes that hold women’s bodies to be something so precious that they can only be revealed in private. They’re just boobs, after all! But then, this is Courtney; it’s entirely possible she just didn’t realize her tits were out, and it’s hard not to feel this would undermine the power of the gesture maybe a little. Wilson notes that one of the things Courtney’s been in the news for lately has been her abundance of plastic surgery, and while you can construct a good feminist argument about women’s right to alter their appearances without facing public censure, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Courtney did go a little nuts with it. She may be a feminist, but she sure as hell seems to have internalized the ol’ beauty myth. It feels like a disappointing rejection of the message sent by her more au natural public appearances, the ones that felt anarchic and genuinely disruptive. And yet, at the same time, going overboard with plastic surgery seems like another kind of fuck-you.

So yeah: Courtney Love, comma, it’s complicated. What makes her still a useful object of inquiry, I think, is the way these contradictions drag in our most conflicted feelings about celebrity. The biggest excuse we use to reconcile our desire for gossip with our distaste for gossip is the argument that these people are dumber than us. But for as many problems as Love has, she’s nothing if not sharp as a tack. For instance, I don’t know anyone who’s ever written a text message as lyrical as “I trust you understand that our hearts can take us all to dark and ill timed places,” and I know some reasonably smart people. Her fuck-ups prompt an easy feeling of superiority, but then she’ll go and do something that has us rooting for her again. This stings all the more when she, inevitably, fucks up one more time.

Courtney’s refusal to recognize the public-private divide — that continual simultaneous acknowledgment of Dorian Gray’s public face and private picture — is both what makes her special and what makes her a failure. It’s the right message, but by sending it in the wrong way, she undermines her authority. But what else would we want from the ultimate unreliable narrator? Maybe there’s a real redemption coming someday for Courtney — certainly it would be the next logical step of her story. But that would almost be a betrayal of all she’s stood for so far. Courtney Love is the whipping-girl of American culture, the one who always fucks things up, who breaks the rules and suffers the consequences, both rebelling for us and showing why it’s better not to rebel. She is a still-living repudiation of our myths of success and progress. Courtney Love is the avatar of an America where everything is always awful, where nothing ever changes, and where we really, really like it that way.

Mike Barthel has written about pop music for a bunch of places, mostly Idolator and Flagpole, and is currently doing so for the Portland Mercury and Color magazine. He continues to have a Tumblr and be a grad student in Seattle.