On April 12, 1994, Geffen Records released Live Through This, an album which changed my life. Eighteen years have passed but it feels like nothing has changed when it comes to its expressive strength and cultural relevance. In 1994 I had no idea who the Hole were: I mourned the loss of Kurt Cobain, like most people of my generation, but his widow was a total mystery to me. I first listened to their album in 1995, I guess, and it totally blew my mind.
I spent a lot of time speculating about the cover of the album, which I bought at an indie music shop near my university (at the time I lived far from home). Was the crowned winner of a beauty pageant Courtney Love herself? Or the embodiment of Courtney’s idea of being “pretty on the outside”? I still had no knowledge of the aesthetic and imagery connected to their music, but I felt there was much more than what appeared on the outside.
Later, I found out the beauty queen on the cover was a model, Leilani Bishop, who had been chosen to represent an ideal of traditional beauty as part of American culture. Beauty pageants can be found all over the world (in Italy, too!): despite being strongly criticised for being a mere exhibition of bodies – women are identified by a number and their bodies is what defines them – they are a goal that many women (let alone toddlers) want to achieve. Putting a beauty queen on the cover of an album was also a consideration on what women are ready to do to their physical appearance to look pretty, prettier than others.
The back cover of the album showed Love in a picture taken when she was young. Her natural beauty, the casual pose in front of the camera, the basic outfit – everything contrasts with the beauty queen cover. Such a dichotomy can be found in the album, as well, where hard and soft edges coexist.
The booklet is one of the most impressive works of art ever. In terms of aesthetic refinement, it can’t be compared to what contemporary artists can produce – I’m thinking of the super-polished productions of most female singers – but the depth and consistency of its imagery are incredible. As a nostalgic of the 90s, I often think this feeling is a bit creepy and pathetic, as if I couldn’t leave the past behind, but part of my cultural background has its roots in that decade. I often feel alone in my nostalgia, but realizing there’s someone else (Edward Meadham, for example) who’s still haunted by the memory of Live Through This-era Courtney Love makes me feel less miserable. The designer, who’s part of the duo Meadham Kirchhoff, used graphics and images from the album booklet in his creations: the flying witch above, for example, can be found on a black sweater from the fall/winter 2011 collection.
I’ve always loved this photo composition, where the images of a pink rose in bloom, a music box ballerina and quotes from Asking for It merge. There’s a constant flow of romantic and childish references into the imagery of the album, both visually and in terms of content, but there’s no place for optimism: the album takes you to a world where violence, aggressiveness and criticism are mixed with continuous references to roses, precious stones, dolls and anything feminine/romantic. This is its strongest point, a unique mixture whose magic cannot be fully grasped, not even after eighteen years.
The artwork of the cd itself was another contribution to the aforementioned imagery, with that hot pink heart on it. The same heart can be found on the white vinyl version of the album. Hearts again are on the pink 7-inch record of Miss World.
This was the cover of the 7-inch record. The concept is the same of the album, but here the beauty queen is a toddler: a black and white picture of her, wearing a tiara and a ribbon, is decorated by a hot pink band with “Miss World” written on it in silver glittery letters. The concept behind the album cover was brilliant, but this is even more. In this case, I think we are given a deeper consideration about beauty and its relevance for women: being pretty (which is also a synonim for being compliant, nice, cute, respectful and respectable) is an idea which baby girls are taught to consider true, a goal to achieve. Without referring to the tragic realism of tv shows such as Toddlers and Tiaras, showing the dark side of mother/daughter relations, it’s true that young girls are supposed to respect the same rules as adult women do in order to be accepted by society and, later, desiderable.
In the back of the record, the child is wearing white socks and mary-janes, accessories that Courtney Love sported in the music video of Miss World, directed by Sophie Muller in March 1994.
I’ve already posted it many times, but here we go again. It’s still my favourite music video, because the reasons why I loved it in the 90s are true today, too. First of all, the setting is just magic: I’ve never been to a prom, because it’s not a tradition in my country, but I’ve always loved movies set at the prom, seen as a sort of rite of passage which takes you from adolescence to a more mature phase of your life (or kind of). All those glittering stars hanging from the ceiling, the sparkling background of the stage, that writing (“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”) which sounds like a quote from the Bible, are elements of a never-ending fantasy.
All the songs of the album are relevant, in my opinion, but Doll Parts surely holds a special place, and the same can be said for the artwork on the 7-inch record sleeve. What’s more apt for female children’s play than Barbie? The logo of the band on the cover of the album was inspired to the 90s Barbie logo, but in this case the connection is brought to a higher level. I was a child in the 80s and I remember the blister packs containing clothes and accessories for Barbie: I got my favourite one (it included ballerina tutu, crown and pointe shoes) on a Christmas day. The back and front of the sleeve reproduce those blister packs: wedding dress on the front, night dress and négligée on the back. All the doll clothes and accessories have a strong 50s vibe: for example, the yellow telephone on the back sleeve is something we could find in Frenchy’s bedroom in Grease. The message conveyed by the artwork is complex: the concept of women as objects is reinforced by the comparison with dolls to play dress up with, but the focus is on a specific type of woman, the “pretty” one, the respectable and obedient one, the one who sees marriage as a goal to achieve, who wears matching nightwear to be nice in the bedroom for her husband. The contrast with the band’s image and with Courtney Love couldn’t be more striking. I don’t know who wrote the words on the back sleeve but they’re a beautiful piece of poetry and reinforce the pretty/romantic/doomed imagery of the album:
In the introduction I wrote that much has changed since 1994: I took my degree, started working, changed many jobs, decided to become a teacher, started a blog, got married, had a daughter, started another blog and more. The change has not occurred to me only: Courtney Love has changed, too. I’m older and she is too, but in my mind she’ll always be “the girl with the most cake”, the one who wants the cake and gets it, no matter what.
As for the song, the structure of the tune is extremely simple (three chords), but the lyrics are so intense, especially considering it’s a song about love and rejection, a reference to an encounter Courtney had with Cobain before their relation started. Each word expresses pain and love: “And someday, you will ache like I ache” is the epitome of painful love and fear of rejection.
The video was directed by Samuel Bayer in July 1994, a very hard period for Love, who lost her husband in April and Kristen Pfaff (the bassist of the band) in June. The memory of Kurt can be found in many elements of the video, especially in the blond boy who wears sneakers and a striped t-shirt. A very sad video, indeed.
Music and images have always had a huge role in my life: I’ve loved many artists and their albums, I’ve mourned the loss of many (Andy Wood and Layne Staley, but also Aaliyah and Amy Winehouse) and wished for many of them to stay true to their hearts. I find impossible and kind of ridiculous to choose a favourite album ever, but if I really had to, I’d probably choose Live Through This, not only because it brings back incredible memories, but also because its microcosm – visuals, content, imagery – still speaks to the bottom of my heart about the complexity of human feelings and of what being a woman means.