Ever since Hole unleashed their alt.rock opus, Live Through This, on April 12, 1994, the music-consuming public and press has played a hypothetical game of “What if?” What if it didn’t debut just seven days after the culture-shattering death of Kurt Cobain? What if frontwoman Courtney Love wasn’t the target of both the press and Cobain conspiracists? What if Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff hadn’t died just two months after the album’s release? Despite the odds stacked against it, however, Live Through This still stands as one of the most iconic alt.rock albums of the 90s.
Incredibly melodic but with a punk streak, Live Through This proved that Hole and its antagonistic frontwoman, Courtney Love, could deliver more than just tabloid fodder. It remains a living document of a scene, a cultural moment, and a story of survival at all costs.
Hole’s first record, 1991’s Pretty On The Inside, had earned them considerable street cred. It’s a sludgy assault on the senses with a no-wave, atonal sound that reflected the influence of the album’s producer, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. In the three years since its release, however, the band’s profile had been raised significantly. Love and Cobain got married, had a child, and became the poster couple for grunge; the controversial Vanity Fair profile hit (in which Love was photographed baring her pregnant belly, and the magazine asked “if the pair were the grunge John and Yoko? Or the next Sid and Nancy?”); and there was a bidding war for Hole’s next record. The group ended up signing to Nirvana’s label, Geffen, and changed their line-up to start recording their major-label debut.
Love was unabashedly ambitious and not preoccupied with such trivial 90s concerns as “selling out.” With Live Through This, she set out to make a commercial record that also proved Hole was a legitimate band to be reckoned with. After Hole’s original drummer, Caroline Rue, left, Love and co-founder Eric Erlandson recruited Patty Schemel at Cobain’s suggestion, along with and their ace in the hole, bassist Kristen Pfaff, who brought a new energy and polish to the band.
Produced by Sean Slade and Paul Q Kolderie (who’d produced Radiohead’s Pablo Honey), Live Through This captured the band’s raw primal energy while still being an impeccably structured album with codas, choruses, and plenty of hooks, coalescing around Love’s emotional ferocity. The influences were clearly there (Pixies, Joy Division) but the band progressed beyond 80s post-punk retread to create 38 minutes of anthemic punk perfection.
From its blistering opening number, “Violet,” it was clear that Love wasn’t pulling any punches. While some easily recall their favorite chorus off an album, Live Through This is remembered for its screaming chants and ferocious drumming by Patty Schemel, inviting you to pour oil on the fire that is Courtney Love. You don’t sing along, you scream along.
Initially written in 1991, “Violet” became a live trademark during the group’s touring years before it became the album opener. Like Love herself, it’s full of contradictions, calling out the sexually exploitative nature of relationships while simultaneously inviting it upon herself: “Well they get what they want, and they never want it again/Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.” “Violet” sets the tone for the whole album, facilitating between intimate, quiet verses to the raging chorus, just as Love easily switches from victim to aggressor to create a dramatic tension that never breaks.
On “Miss World” – and, subsequently, every other track – Love addresses the listener directly, not necessarily as the perpetrator of all these problems but as complicit participants in society’s patriarchal ills. The song starts out softly melodic until the chorus erupts, repeating itself until it becomes a kind of invocation. Even the cover of Live Through This speaks to the album’s themes (desire, degradation, celebrity, and survival), featuring a disheveled Miss World beauty queen who could be a stand-in for Love herself, realizing that a crown does not always bring glory.
Every part of Love’s presentation was an extension of her music, from her intentionally make-up-smeared face to her ragged babydoll dresses. Both the lyrics and imagery for “Doll Parts,” and its accompanying video, show Love both acknowledging how society views women as objects while equally striving to be one. Both “Violet” and “Doll Parts” were early demos that showed Love’s maturation as a songwriter and helped to break the album, along with Erlandson’s tight arrangements.
The album gets its title from a lyric in “Asking For It,” which also references the often-used retort in cases of sexual assault. While never explicitly stated, the song is said to be inspired by an incident where Love was assaulted by a crowd after stage-diving during their 1991 tour with Mudhoney. It’s songs like these that make Love’s lyrics seem more autobiographical than perhaps initially intended. The same could be said for “I Think That I Would Die,” which references her child being taken away. Which makes it all the more interesting that some of the most pointed criticism of the album comes from Hole’s fiery cover of Young Marble Giants’ “Credit In The Straight World,” which calls out their critics and indie rock snobs. It begins with a kind of Gregorian chant before launching into a dual-bass and guitar assault courtesy of Erlandson and Pfaff.
While often compared to the adjacent riot grrrl movement, Love makes it clear that she’s not part of the Washington scene led by Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Bratmobile, singing, “Well I went to school in Olympia/Everyone’s the same/And so are you, in Olympia,” on the closing track, “Rock Star.” Love’s female peers also become the central target on “She Walks On Me,” a song that further drives Hole apart from any kind of established scene. Despite its rebellious mocking tone, “Rock Star” also includes one of the more hopeful moments on Live Through This: just as the song seems to fade out, you hear Love insist: “No, we’re not done.”
Live Through This is a cathartic record, in a sense. You experience Love’s trauma but also her refusal to be a victim and her determination come out on the other side. The source material may be chaotic, but the finished product is a pristine piece of 90s alt.rock at its core. It also gave us a female rock star who had no shortage of attitude and chutzpah, and could rage with the best of them.