On the ninth day of September, in the year of our Lord 2014, we learned that Courtney Love is not a great singer. “But wait,” you might say, “Courtney Love has been famous for nearly a quarter-century now. We have known since the release of Hole’s debut album, Pretty on the Inside, in 1991, what her voice sounds like.” And yet, when a gentleman named J.M. Ladd — who says he was “hired through the venue to record this show” — uploaded an isolated recording of Love’s vocals and guitar from a 2010 Fashion Week gig, every music and pop culture publication on the Internet posted the clip, accompanied by some pointing, laughing commentary. “Courtney Love’s Isolated Vocal and Guitar Tracks Are Even Worse Than You’d Imagine,” Noisey sneered, in a headline that encapsulates the general response.
Isolated vocal (and, to a lesser extent, instrumental) tracks have become an object of fascination on music blogs in the past several years; Flavorwire certainly hasn’t been immune to their appeal. And it’s easy to see why they so often go viral. At their best, they showcase remarkable individual performances on songs we’ve only ever heard as the sum of a whole band’s efforts. At their worst, they appear to prove something about the innate talents of the musician in question.
But listeners who don’t know much about how albums are recorded — or how audio is mixed at live shows — are liable to have a hard time contextualizing what they hear on these tracks. An isolated vocal track like Kurt Cobain’s from the studio recording of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is indeed impressive, but it’s also the result of multiple (although in this case, only three) takes, and there’s a noticeable echo effect that lends some extra depth to it. Live performances, obviously, are one-shot deals, and the whole purpose of having sound engineers on hand is to ensure that the many different noises being produced onstage come together in the way the band intends.
I asked one such professional, Danielle DePalma, a freelance audio, live sound, and lighting engineer currently working for New York’s Bowery Ballroom and Webster Hall, for her thoughts on Ladd’s video. “What we are seeing is an incomplete sentence in a very complex novel,” she told me via email. According to DePalma, the video captures just “two microphone signals out of what I can estimate to be a rough total of 24 instrument signals. These instruments are mic’d to provide the Front of House Engineer the greatest flexibility to control, process, and enhance the sound as they see fit. They have to create a powerful mix through loudspeakers. This is a very different application from the art of studio recording.” DePalma explained that “the volume [balance] between Love’s guitar and her vocals in this YouTube video seems highly altered from what any of her engineers would have approved or achieved.”
Specifically, DePalma confirmed that the vocals on the track don’t represent “the full picture” of Love’s vocal performance. This, she told me, is “because a dynamic mic in close proximity to a vocal causes enhanced bass response and a flatness character. This is great for a live sound engineer, who then uses dynamic effects processing to enhance the vocal sound and send it through loudspeakers at a high volume.”
Love’s scratchy, minimal guitar playing sounded amplified but not otherwise altered to DePalma. But she didn’t find this particularly alarming because, as she told me, “I don’t believe it was the [intended] role of Courtney to play the ‘guitar goddess’ in this song.” DePalma explained that “it is not so out of the ordinary for a front person to mimic, or minimize, their guitar playing for the sake of a live show experience. The front person is there to unify the crowd and the band, and create a great show.”
Still, ignorance about the technical reasons behind the video’s sound didn’t stop any of our esteemed cultural publications from gleefully slamming it. “The vocals are sneery (to be expected) and her hands maybe don’t work right?” said Spin. From Dangerous Minds: “holy WOW WOW… this is just truly awful. Love’s vocals aren’t the worst here, but that guitar! Was it not tuned properly before she played? Or does she just not even know how to make a bar chord?” And Uproxx got personal, scoffing, “All that ‘Nirvana money,’ and not a single cent went to guitar lessons, apparently.”
“We have another bias confirmed in the form of Courtney Love’s isolated guitar and vocal tracks,” A.V. Club wrote in their post about the clip, and at least they were honest. Because confirmation bias is indeed at the heart of this. The people who decided to hate Courtney Love 20 years ago (which is to say, most people) rejoice in what they misread as proof that she has just as little talent as they had hoped.
It doesn’t matter, apparently, that Love is not — and has never been — the lead guitarist of Hole. That is why her instrument is turned down so low in the mix. (And look at the video of the properly mixed performance. Most of the time she’s not even pretending to play her guitar.) As DePalma noted, her job as frontwoman is to captivate the crowd. If you don’t believe Courtney Love is good doing that, well, you haven’t watched nearly as many Hole performance videos as I have.
It also doesn’t matter, I guess, that Love is a rock singer whose snarling, cigarette-strained voice is her signature. She’s never tried to fool us into thinking she’s Whitney Houston. As Vulture pointed out, Ladd also recorded her telling someone in the audience, “Sweetie, I don’t need my voice, so I can lose it.” Imagine seeing similar snark applied to an isolated vocal track from a live Bob Dylan show, which would surely be all bluster and wheeze. If a writer were stupid enough to argue that Johnny Rotten was a fraud because he lacked technical skills, punk fans would be quick to point out that his lyrics and attitude and delivery are what’s important; it’s just the same for Love. Her particular genius is in her embodiment of a certain chaotic female experience, and the potency with which she articulates it.
But hey, why let the truth spoil a good pile-on?