Hole’s Celebrity Skin represents an era of excess and fame in America
Original release date: 8 September, 1998
In 1995 Courtney Love joked that her next album would be called Celebrity Skin because she “touched a lot of it”. By the time of its release in 1998, Love possessed more eccentric glamour than any star she’d come into contact with. In the Celebrity Skin video, the first single off the album of the same name, her infamous straw mop is now a golden perm so expensive it’s peppered with what look like diamonds. Girls in purple gowns twirl and Love blows glitter into the air. At the end, Love saunters on stage in a scarlet dress – Marilyn Monroe meets hot Disney stepmother – and bows to the camera.
This was the world’s reintroduction to Courtney Love, the rock star. In the four years between Hole’s seminal 1994 album Live Through This and its raw touring cycle – Love was grieving her late husband Kurt Cobain while on the road – and the release of Celebrity Skin, a change had taken place. Love got clean from heroin to act in a string of movies, winning critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for her starring role in The People vs. Larry Flynt. When she appeared at the 1997 Oscars with a chic bob and a Versace dress, the press and public were stunned. “Last year she was still rock’s open wound,” Time Magazine wrote a few weeks later, concluding that it was the “most thorough transformation since Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins”. But could this New Courtney pivot 180 degrees on one stiletto? The answer was a resounding yes.
Twenty-two years later, everyone remembers the simple riff written by Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan (in interviews Love liked to joke that only a man could have written a three-chord sequence that corny) and her tongue-in-cheek gag at her own narrative arc in the opening line: “Oh make me over/ I’m all I wanna be/ A walking study/ In demonology”. With its high contrast colours, the video evokes 90s teen movies – makeover scenes and high school drama. The polished, trashy sound is both a nod to the kind of Sunset Strip glam metal that ruled the underbelly of 80s LA and commercialised post-Cobain rock – the staple of labels so flush with success that they would happily give bands like Hole hysterical amounts of money and four whole years to create an album.
The record was Hole’s ambitious attempt at a Californian album, a la The Doors or The Byrds. The influence of Fleetwood Mac – idols of the band – can be heard in many of the songs, particularly the second and third singles Malibu and Awful, both of which feature bright guitars, swirling melodies and Melissa Auf Der Maur’s backing vocals that call into Love’s like a siren. Rage, Love’s commanding quality, was tempered. She sounds artfully restrained as she leans into romance and femininity, and even, as she joyfully trills on Awful, positivity: “If the world is so wrong/ Yeah, you can take it all with one song”.
People hungry for a widow’s album had to be content with a swift reference to Cobain’s suicide note (“it’s better to rise than fade away”) on angsty alt-rock ballad Reasons to Be Beautiful and its morose sibling Petals. But rather than focus inward, the album critiques the dark allure of celebrity and the way LA both attracts and destroys like a venus fly trap. The album’s poppiest moments may evoke palm trees and boulevards, but there’s also a nauseous sweetness in the images of rotting beauty (“I squashed the blossom/ And the blossom’s dead”).
Critics who balked at its excessive polish missed the point: why, the album questions, aspire to old notions of “authenticity” in rock when LA and celebrity culture dominate? Hole always wanted to be a mainstream band, and those involved felt that this third album would be as commercially successful as Live Through This and Nirvana’s Nevermind.
In fact, Celebrity Skin did represent the height of Hole’s success, selling over a million copies and earning three Grammy nominations. The secret of its success is, perhaps, simple: it was the American Dream writ large in addictive riffs and seedy glamour. As Love explained to a BBC radio host in 1998: “In America at least, if you’re born a serf, you can die a king.” If you work hard enough, you can die an infamous rockstar. But in hindsight it captured a particular moment: this was the last hubristic summer before the rise of Napster in 1999, a development that would wreak havoc on the music industry. The excesses of Celebrity Skin, captured masterfully in the broken allure of the title track’s video, was a final shimmer of light on the Pacific ocean as the sun went down on an era.