Courtney Love in the Continuum of Yoko Ono and Marina Abramović: An Excerpt From Anwen Crawford’s 33 1/3 on Hole’s ‘Live Through This’

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It’s no surprise that among Flavorwire staffers, Hole’s masterpiece Live Through This remains an all-time favorite. Back in April, when the album turned 20, we tapped some of our favorite musicians and music writers to dissect the album track by track. Reading Australian music critic Anwen Crawford’s new 33 1/3 chapbook on Live Through This, however, I got a sense that there are endless words for art as complicated as this.

Live Through This remains a document of a number of different movements and situations that were catalyzing around its release: Riot Grrrl and the feminism adjacent to it, Alternative as the new normal, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love being frustratingly reduced to Gen-X’s Sid and Nancy, the couple’s new daughter Frances Bean and their custody struggles, to name just a few. But Live Through This is also an album that bridged a lot of gaps. An album about the female experience to which many rock dudes listened, if only to be able to discount it later or claim Kurt wrote in some sort of backhanded compliment to Courtney. A record that dealt in feminism but openly eschewed Riot Grrrl, as if to show that there’s more than one way for women to get where they’re going. Songs showing that fear and strength are just different sides of the same knife.

Crawford clearly understands all this, and as a result, her entry into Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on important albums is one of the best I’ve read. The book was released last week, but Flavorwire is proud to run an exclusive excerpt from the chapter that focuses on the song “Asking For It.” In it, Crawford connects the rape-referencing track to early performance art from Yoko Ono, Marina Abramović, and British artist Tracey Emin’s 1995 film Why I Never Became a Dancer

“The chant became louder—‘SLAG, SLAG, SLAG’—until, in the end, I couldn’t hear the music anymore, or the people clapping.” — Tracey Emin

‘Asking for It’ is the fourth track on Live Through This. It is the song that gives the album its title, and the only lyric included among the album’s liner notes. Was she asking for it? Was she asking nice? ‘It’ is never specified. Rape, assault, abuse: all are implied. Courtney Love has said many times that the song was partly inspired by her experiences stage diving, and one incident in particular, during Hole’s 1991 European tour with Mudhoney, where ‘I just dove off the stage, and, suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn off of me, my underwear was being torn off of me, people were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard, screaming things in my ears like “pussy-whore-cunt”. When I got back onstage, I was naked.’ Did she ask you for it? Did she ask you twice? The questions circle, an interrogatory rhyme.

The song follows no clear narrative. Lyrically, it shifts from questions to promises — the much-quoted, seemingly clairvoyant couplet, If you live through this with me/I swear that I will die for you — while, musically, it is restrained until almost the exact midpoint. Then the song takes off in a fury; then it diminishes again. The arrangement exemplifies the album’s sense of space; Kristen Pfaff’s bass line carries the melody, and the guitar chords chime like bells. Sean Slade observes of Eric Erlandson’s guitar playing: ‘His chord voicings are very good. He plays open fifths, which creates a lot of space in the music. By leaving out the thirds, you get much more of a ringing tone.’ Courtney whispers her questions, her sarcasm audible, and then she screams them out, demanding an answer. ‘I can’t compare it to rape because it’s not the same,’ she said of the crowd who violated her. ‘But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience, figuratively, literally, and yet was I asking for it?’

For women, the figurative and literal space between stage and audience is highly charged. The old myth — that female actors, artists and musicians are sexually promiscuous, or are prostitutes — has never entirely been destroyed. It lingers in the way that we evaluate a woman’s ‘availability’ as a performer. Is she giving too much away, emotionally or otherwise? Are her clothes too revealing? Does she deserve what she gets? It is no coincidence that Courtney Love framed her stage-diving experience with reference to performance art — ‘I felt like Karen Finley,’ she said — for there is a clear line of inheritance from the groundbreaking performance work of feminist artists in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s to the confrontational tactics of the riot grrrls, and of Courtney herself, during the early 1990s. Teasing, provoking, antagonising: all have been methods by which feminist artists have sought to expose the latent enmity that lies between their publicly visible bodies and a viewing audience.