Under the Influence: The Billy Corgan Albums, Pt.2 – Hole's Celebrity Skin

For part two of our look into the Billy Corgan albums of 1998, we are going to break down the circumstances the created Hole’s album, Celebrity Skin. Formed in 1989, Hole had always been on the periphery of the music scene for several years, receiving more press on the other side of the Atlantic than here in the states. The breakthrough success of their sophomore album, Live Through This, created an anticipation for their next L.P. that was nearly fever pitched. By the time Celebrity Skin came out, it couldn’t live up the hype pressed on it. Changing sonic directions also ensured that it would lose a segment of the fan base, which it did, especially those who took Courtney’s impassioned wail to heart.

At the time, Courtney, like Marilyn Manson, was looking to get out from under the shadow of an omnipresent mentor. In Courtney’s case, her albatross wasn’t just one of her best friends, it was her deceased husband and designated “voice of a generation,” Kurt Cobain. Eyebrows were raised when Kurt married Courtney in 1992. For her part, Courtney played the loud, brash, counterbalance to Kurt’s quiet demeanor, and she played it to full effect. Reportedly scoring a major label deal in part to her husband’s success (something she has vehemently denied), Courtney and company went into the studio to record Live Through This, considered Hole’s definitive work. Released just 4 days after the Kurt’s suicide, Courtney was being recognized for being something besides Mrs. Cobain.

Depending on the rumor, either Kurt wrote the entire album willingly, or Courtney was stealing songs from Kurt. One fantastic rumor that has floated for years states the housecleaner saying that Kurt was locking himself in the basement when he was writing the songs that would comprise most of Nirvana’s last album, In Utero, to prevent Courtney from taking them. Whatever the case may be, the allusion was clear; Courtney was an untalented artist sucking off her highly influential spouse, a modern day Yoko Ono making unreasonable demands that no one in the band liked.

Several highly successful singles (including “Miss World,” “Doll Parts, and “Violet”) and a two year world tour, the chapter entitled Live Through This closed, and thoughts shifted to a follow-up. However, if Courtney was feeling any external pressure to release the next album, she wasn’t showing it. There were a couple of half-hearted attempts to record, but Courtney’s mind was on other projects/distractions, including a couple of run-ins with the law (then a novelty, now a regularity) and an earnest attempt to get into pictures.

Courtney actually had minor success getting on the silver screen pre-Hole. After trying valiantly to land the role of Nancy Spungen (including sending a deranged video to director Alex Cox demanding the role), she scored a bit part as Nancy’s friend in the Gary Oldman picture “Sid and Nancy.” Courtney’s newest attempt to reestablish an acting career only reaffirmed people’s belief that she only married Kurt for the visibility, and that she had no genuine love for music. Surely, someone as shallow as that couldn’t exist in Hollywood, right?

Courtney’s Hollywood makeover was one of the most improbable in the history of celebrity. Her role as Althea Flynt (written with her in mind by Milos Forman) in The People vs. Larry Flynt garnered her rave reviews. Essentially playing herself on screen (or at least the media’s creation of her) Love was praised for her realism and made many feel she was a lock for the Academy Award. The woman, who was once the reigning “queen of grunge,” and all of its negative connotations, was now Tinsletown’s newest ingenue. It was perhaps her not too distant past (notably, the famous heroin/pregnancy article in Vanity Fair) that caused her to be snubbed from the final nominations. It should be noted that 1997 was also the year that Madonna was ignored for her title role of Evita.

Despite any official recognition (save for the New York Film Critics Circle Award), Courtney became high on many casting director’s lists for their next projects, and she was open to all opportunities. The prolonged absence between albums fueled speculations that she couldn’t do it “on her own.” To help record Live Through This’s next effort, she turned to the bald-man (and then love-interest), Matt Pinfield, err…Billy Corgan.

Courtney had always had a guiding hand regarding the sound and direction of Hole’s music. Erik Erlandson, beyond being the only male in the group’s history (as well as the only other original member), represented the musical arm of the band. Though Courtney had a more hands on approach with the music then Marilyn Manson, she needed someone to put to paper the thoughts and ideas that would represent the core of Hole’s music, and Erlandson filled that role perfectly. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon produced Hole’s first album, Pretty on the Inside, and Cobain’s rumored input on Live Through This was widely reported.

Serving as a “consultant” (the same moniker he took with Mechanical Animals), Corgan oversaw the course of the albums production. Knowing Corgan’s penchant for being hands-on, however, it would not be presumptuous to assume he had more to do with the album than the honorary title would suggest. But like Manson, Love was looking to prove she could do it on her own and any title that would be remotely official would hinder that. As someone who’s rise to prominence was similar in time (early ’90s) and genre (alternative), Corgan could immediately lend credibility to the album. Also, Smashing Pumpkins’ songs always tended to the Stadium set, even if fans of their music never admitted to that fact. That worked perfectly for where Love wanted to take the album.

Courtney had always espoused her love for Stevie Nicks. For the Crow 2 soundtrack, Hole recorded a cover of the Mac’s “Goldust Woman,” which featured the first in-studio work of bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur (who had been with the band since ’94). In interviews at the time, Love stated that the new album was about “California,” and using the ’70s Southern California bands as a model (including the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Fleetwood Mac, who were originally from the U.K.) she was going to update that sound and craft an album that dealt with false sincerity and unattainable dreams.

When word was out that the album was finished, anticipation escalated in a fashion that people coming of age in a post-Napster world will never understand or appreciate. The label heads wisely choose the title track as the first single. A segway between the power and punch that epitomized the first album and the melodic pop-structure that was the center of the new release, “Celebrity Skin” was an immediate radio hit that long-suffering Hole fans had waited for. It was, however, the second single, “Malibu,” that captured the mood of the album. An airy track that featured Love cooing and singing more than her trademark screaming and snarling, a casual listener may have been shocked to hear that this was the same woman who so ferociously closed out “Violet” just one album ago.

Released on September 12th, 1998, critics praised the new album, although many hard core Hole fans felt abandoned. Applying the rock monster sound that Corgan had mined endlessly on his Pumpkins albums, Celebrity Skin removed the edge that had become the cornerstone of Hole’s music, and was a much lighter album. The autobiographical lyrics of previous albums seemed to be replaced by a more distant approach. Entire books have been written about (the lack of) women in rock. For many Midwest and/or suburban girls not clued into the riot grrrl movement, Courtney Love was as close to proto-feminism as they were going to get, especially those tuned into MTV. For all of her faults, she was always a vocal proponent on the removal of societal restrictions on what girls can and can’t do.

That is what made Celebrity Skin so disheartening to many of Hole’s fans. It wasn’t Courtney Love singing trough the stereo anymore, it was actress/media darling/fashion plate Courtney Love, and the change was noticeable. Now that isn’t to say that an artist can’t evolve or move in another direction, but for a woman who had dubious credibility with many fans and critics, the change only seemed to cement their prejudices against her.

Comparing Celebrity Skin to Live Through This is really apples and oranges. Each have their own positive and negative qualities. Like Mechanical Animals, if another band released Celebrity Skin it would have been able to stand on its own merits as opposed to being compared to an album that is considered the definitive work in a group’s career.

Courtney and Manson embarked on a co-headlining tour that seemingly generated more news than ticket sales. At each date, both acts would find time to trash each other, drawing equal cheers and boos from those who were there to attend one band in particular. Not surprisingly, the tour only lasted a handful of dates. Once again, Courtney stayed busy while Hole took a prolonged sabbatical away from the spotlight. Courtney made some more movies, most notably in Milos Forman’s film biography of Andy Kaufman, “Man on the Moon.”

Cracks in the hull began to appear. Melissa Auf Der Maur, for starters, didn’t want to wait for Courtney to get back around to recording. When D’arcy left or was sacked (depending on the story) from the Smashing Pumpkins, Auf Der Maur became that band’s new bassist. Ironically, Corgan introduced Auf Der Maur to Love all those years ago, and recommended her for their vacant bassist position. The next to leave was Samantha Maloney, who became the interim drummer for Motley Crue, of all bands. All that remained were the two founding members, Love and Erlandson.

Then on the heels of an announced supergroup entitled Bastard featuring Love and Veruca Salt’s Louise Post, Courtney quietly disbanded Hole. When that group didn’t get off the ground, Courtney released a solo album, America’s Sweetheart, which was believed to feature a few of the aborted Bastard tracks. The album received mixed reviews. Recently, Courtney has been in the press more for her off stage antics than for her music, a trend that has followed her throughout her career.

I find it a little tragic that Courtney Love will never get the credit I believe she deserves. Sure, her rise to stardom appears to have some unsavory corners, but most ascension to celebrity does. Hers just happened to be played out in the media. Besides, would there be as much of a fuss over her if she was a man? There is hypocrisy in our society that deems some actions (even the disturbing ones) more acceptable for a man then a woman. After daughter Frances Bean was born, both Kurt and Courtney shot heroin but the anger was only directed at her. Kurt’s a tortured genius, Courtney is an unfit mother. Hole’s music stands up and hopefully that means there will be a time when her music can be recognized outside of the tabloid points that it is always referenced with.

Once again, I just want to say sorry for the wait and to thank you to those who waited for and read this edition. Next column, we will look at the third and final Billy Corgan album of 1998, the Smashing Pumpkins Adore.