Live Through This by Hole turns 30

Larissa Oliveira
14 min readMay 1, 2024

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“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” — Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the wind’ (1939)

The words uttered by Vivien Leigh’s character amidst the ruins of everything she knew as her unshakeable world served as inspiration for the title of the second album by the punk band Hole, Live Through This, led by Courtney Love. Both Scarlett O’Hara and the band’s lead singer and guitarist went through tragedies and gathered the strength to rebuild their lives by picking up pieces from the floor. In Courtney’s case, her involvement in the punk scene goes back a long way, but her marriage to the last great rock star and former leader of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, led to an arduous path that Love would face in a fierce yet vulnerable way, the same attitude as O’Hara. This translates into this emblematic album, which placed a band fronted by a woman in the 90s grunge and male pantheon, just as in the 30s fiction feature in which Scarlett took control of the family business, notable steps outside the norm for women, given the fact that sexism reigns in any era.

And if the first sign that Hole’s Live Through This is emblematic lies in its process and subsequent success, we should be aware of the fact that the band could only enjoy its glory in times of pain. Still drawing parallels with ‘Gone with the Wind’, if there is a happy ending to the album’s story, it relies on its legacy, and since it has been 30 years since its impact, we need to step back and remember how Courtney survived in order to create her masterpiece.

Courtney Love, who will turn 60 in July 2024, was first introduced to a transgressive environment at a young age, when her family lived in hippie communities. Her father was the manager of the psychedelic group The Grateful Dead and Love has already claimed that he gave her LSD as a child. As a teenager, the young girl from San Francisco was placed in a boarding school for girls due to her erratic behavior and years later she would become a stripper, spend some time in England falling in love with acts such as Echo & the Bunnymen (Hole has already covered ‘Do it clean’) but she would really be impacted by women like Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac) listen to Hole’s cover of ‘Gold Dust Woman’, and Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders). Courtney not only loved women in rock, but also formed all-female groups with Jennifer Finch (L7) and Kat Bjelland (Babes in Toyland) in the 80s. However, when she temporarily lent her vocals to Faith No More in the same decade, she was fired because the band claimed they wanted a male energy. Love then decided to channel her pulsating rebellion by forming Hole in 1989, first recruiting the excellent guitarist Eric Erlandson, and then other women. She said in an interview that the name Hole alludes to a quote from the ancient Greek tragedy Medea, and also to her mother, who once claimed that Courtney didn’t need to live with a hole inside her because of her difficult childhood. As well as the obvious reference to the hole in the vagina. In any case, the choice of the band’s name already showed the confrontational and ambiguous nature of the artist, something that is essential to understanding her through different layers and away from a single, sexist perspective fed by the media.

A very young Courtney Love. Photo: Retrieved from her Facebook page.
Courtney in a promotional photo for Alex Cox’s 1986 film Straight to Hell.
In it, Courtney appears opposite Joe Strummer from The Clash, one of her idols.
But Courtney would become better known for her part in another Alex film, Sid and Nancy. It was in this movie that Kurt Cobain saw her for the first time. Photo: Reproduction
The Original Hole Line Up: Courtney Love (Singer), Eric Erlandson (Leadguitar), Mike Geisbrecht (Rythym Guitar), Lisa Roberts (Bass), Caroline Rue (Drums). Photo By Jennifer Finch. Source: Reddit

In 1990, with bassist Jill Emery (Mazzy Star and SuperHeroines) and drummer Caroline Rue (The Darklings) on board, Hole released the singles “Retard Girl” and “Dicknail”. Both had an abrasive sound that matched Courtney’s feral vocals, essentially inspired by the no wave legend Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, with the central figure of Lydia Lunch. They are ambiguous but feminist lyrics, since, at the same time as Courtney blames herself, she calls out on abusers. There is a kind of catharsis in portraying real experiences (a bunch of guys tried to rape her when she was working as a stripper) in such a raw way and alternating perspectives. Love was already using provocative language that we would later find in LTT when she sings “she was asking for it […]”. This was before Kurt Cobain and the Riot Grrrl movement. We can conclude that even before the impact of the two on her life, the artist already had a consolidated vision of gender and artistic identity.

Hole released their first album in 1991. Pretty on the Inside was also my first album by the band when I was 16/17 years old. I remember a friend who was also an ex-girlfriend sharing the MP3 files of the record with me, and I listened to it during a high school break. At that time, I was already familiar with Courtney’s solo album and was a big Nirvana fan. I had also had my feminist awakening with Riot Grrrl, The Runaways and reading about women like Pagu. Of course that Courtney’s looks and attitude had an impact on me. I used to wear red lipstick to school at 7am in a small and conservative town of Sergipe, Brazil; I didn’t care if my hair was disheveled; and I loved being alone at home in the afternoon blasting her songs out loud without shame at how high my voice could go. Pretty on the Inside hypnotized me that morning. I’m an English teacher and I’ve always had a habit of trying to understand what artists were singing. Music was my main gateway to affection for the language. Suddenly there was this woman screaming about low self-esteem in the title track, talking about problems with her mother in Teenage Whore, or about abortion in Mrs. Jones, and all this amid sonic distortions that blow us away.

Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland on the cover of the single ‘Retard Girl’. Courtney brought a vintage, feminine aesthetic to the band’s artwork. The contrast between the name of the song, the clothes and Kat’s pose set off the contestation of femininity. Photo: Reproduction

The post does not attempt to detail everything about Love’s life, but it is important to highlight that in 1991, she had an affair with Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, which didn’t work out, and some time later she started dating Kurt Cobain, getting married and conceiving her only daughter. These details are significant to understand the 1994 album. When Courtney was with Billy, she didn’t know that he already had a girlfriend, and in order not come across as the one who had something to lose, she wrote ‘Violet’ for him that same year, claiming her autonomy as when sings “[…]you should know when to go, you should know when to say no[…]”. In an iconic performance of the track on the TV show Later with…Jools Holland in 1995, she makes a point of mocking the Smashing frontman by saying: “This song is about a jerk. I hexed him, and now he’s losing his hair.”

Besides, when Courtney started seeing Kurt, he was also seeing another artist, and she felt uncertain about the relationship. That’s when ‘Doll Parts’ was created within minutes in the bathroom of a punk producer. Keep in mind that the lyrics would not be a struggle for the singer, as her previous songs had a feminine imagery. “[…] I am doll eyes, a doll mouth, doll legs […]”. While she slammed Billy, with Kurt she was vulnerable. The couple’s romantic side could also be perceived with the heart-shaped box gift, which and inspiration for Nirvana’s future hit of the same name. However, for many it was difficult to accept that a loud, assertive and artistic woman had a relationship with the guy who redefined punk, in other words, with a myth. The slut/witch/gold digger outfit and anything else negatively associated with a woman who chose a different path, seemed like the only one that would fit Courtney. Just like it was with Yoko Ono. However, unlike this one, which had albums produced by John Lennon, Love would refuse to have Kurt participate in Hole in addition to backing vocals that were later suppressed. The motto “each in their own band” was important to her, as it was her career and identity as a woman at risk, after all, Hole was her creation. But while the couple came to each other’s defense in the media, an unfortunate Vanity Fair article from when Courtney was pregnant inflamed the battle she was facing. The journalist did not mince words to worsen the image of the Hole leader as a woman, wife and future mother. But what stuck was the assumption that Courtney used heroin even though she knew she was pregnant, which was never proven. According to her, she used it in the first trimester, and only later she found out she was expecting. Furthermore, let’s consider the woman that Frances Cobain has become, now aged 32. Love may not have been the perfect mother, but she certainly played a fundamental role in Frances growing up immersed in the world of Arts and aware of the importance of her father. But going back to 1992, the repercussion of the article led the Cobain family to lose the temporary custody of the newborn, which generated a rift that both Kurt and Courtney would let bleed through their next works.

The Cobain family photographed by Les Guzman in 1992 for Spin magazine. It’s my favorite shoot of the couple, as it has Courtney with her postpartum body, and Kurt in pajamas and both have writings on their bellies that reminds us of what the riot grrrls did. What’s more, it’s a spontaneous shoot, something unconventional for rock stars. The session was turned into a book and will be released in June this year.
Comparing the cover (first image of the post) with the back cover of Live Through This, we have an interesting contrast between the natural look of the girl in baggy clothes and bare feet (who is Courtney herself) and the Miss Congeniality who had been shaped by the imposition of femininity. By these images we can infer that it is undoubtedly an album about the female experience.

As if Vanity Fair wasn’t enough to haunt Courtney, Kurt Cobain would die 4 days before the album’s scheduled release date on April 5, 1994 — I was born exactly one year later. Even though the album deals with themes related to depression, self-image, pregnancy, and others that will be further discussed below, its legacy has been shadowed by Kurt’s death. It’s possible to say that LTT is influenced by Nirvana while drinking from the soft verse and heavy chorus formula (being a more direct influence from Pixies) and I think that’s it. Love’s use of terms such as “milk”, which was also used by Kurt in the track ‘Milk it’ in the album In Utero, is part of the mutual experience with Frances’ breastfeeding, in addition to heroin and sperm. Courtney uses the term in more than one song with all three meanings. ‘I Think that I Would Die’ is the most explicit song about losing temporary custody of Frances when Courtney sings:
“I want my baby
Where is the baby?
I want my baby
There is a baby[…]”

“I want my baby
Where is the baby?
I want my baby
There is a baby[…]”

Courtney then shouts “There is no milk” several times alluding to the fact that if she doesn’t have her daughter, there is no milk at the same time that her assertiveness is a way of retorting the defamation by claiming that she doesn’t have heroin. “Milk” also serves as a keyword in “Softer, Softest” and the appearance of the term “witch” in the line “burn the witch, the witch is dead” is a reference that the artist makes of the demonized figure created around her. The same word was used in “Plump”, a track that deals with pregnancy dilemmas such as nausea and also the judgmenet of bodies in the postpartum period. Despite being themes that we associate with femininity, Courtney deconstructs the romanticization of pregnancy and marriage. She also breaks taboos in “Miss World” when she sings “I am Miss World, someone kill me […]” thus creating a contrast between gender performance and deviance. The track was the album’s first single and features a music video inspired by the film ‘Carrie’ and directed by the acclaimed Sophie Muller, as well as being the only one featuring bassist Kristen Pfaff, who contributed the chorus lines and passed away months after the album release. This evidently contributed to the dark atmosphere surrounding Live Through This, as the song deals with self-destruction, as in the reference to poet Anne Sexton in the line “kill me pills” — both Anne and Kristen died in tragic ways. However, the lyrics also suggest Courtney’s beef with the Riot Grrrls.

When the feminist punk movement that encouraged girls to have a voice in the world by forming bands, making zines, and other types of artistic as well as political expression, emerged in the early 1990s in Olympia led by bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, it was possible to notice changes both on stage and in the audience of punk shows. With the motto “girls to the front”, other female bands that were not Riot Grrrl were inspired to adopt a more politicized posture. At that time, the punk feminist awaraness was also raised with the creation of the Rock for Choice series of events by the band L7, whose main objective was to raise funds for pro-abortion groups. Courtney Love, who already had her own feminist background, influenced and was influenced by Riot Grrrl by appearing on the covers of fanzines and by writing her own “And she’s not even pretty” in 1992.

However, due to conflicts of ideas, dissolution of bands and the strong backlash they received from the media and other artists, as the movement became commodified, the riot grrrls of the 90s era took other directions, but they did not escape Courtney’s criticism, especially the women of Bikini Kill. She didn’t completely reject them, she admired their essays and some singles, but at some point they fell out and in Miss World, Love sings: “Kill girls watch when I eat ether […]”. We can deduce that the leader of Hole draws attention to their feminism, as she was facing sexism, and did not have the grrrls to fight for her. In addition to criticizing the feminist revolution proposed by them in “Gutless”: “Revolution comes and die”. Riot grrrls are also mentioned in “Rock Star”, which was originally titled “Olympia”. Courtney begins the lyrics with “When I went to school in Olympia.” which was previously “When I went to School with Calvin.”

In fact, her punk school was never there. In her point of view, all local punks had to have Calvin Johnson’s approval, a musician and owner of the influential indie label “K Records”, as well as considered the mentor of the scene by many, including by Kurt Cobain, who played in one of his bands alongside his ex,Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, and tattooed a K on his arm. However, Kurt reported Calvin’s arrogant and elitist attitudein an unsent letter due to the myth created around him. At the same time, Courtney did not spare throwing jabs at contemporary rock stars, buying into Kurt’s fights, and also being a motherly figure to him and thus making her role more complex than it seems. But beyond the album’s intrinsic relationship with the Cobain couple, there is a certain pioneering move by Courtney in dismantling the pantheon of male rock stars in her songs.

Hole’s lin-up at the time of Live Through This (from left to right): Patty Schemel (drummer and who released the book and documentary “Hit So Hard” about her dilemmas and the band’s ups and downs; Courtney Love (vocalist/ guitarist); Eric Erlandson (guitarist) and Kristen Pfaff (bassist/backing vocals).
Zine made by Courtney Love. Source: https://fuckyeahcourtneylove.com/post/115089404293/and-shes-not-even-pretty-zine-by-courtney

If Courtney criticized punks from Olympia, the same can’t be said about her admiration for post-punk bands like Young Marble Giants, of which she recorded a cover of “Credit in the straight world” and the song’s intro would also be used in her version for “Old Age”, a song discarded by Kurt Cobain at the time of Nevermind and given as a gift to Courtney, who loved the melody and modified the lyrics. You can find the version of “Asking for it” from Live Through This with Kurt’s backing vocals in the line “[…] If you live through this with me I swear that I would die for you […]”. Despite its revealing nature, the song itself is about the abuse that Courtney suffered while stage diving. The track is extremely important, as it is about time to re-evaluate the sexist treatment of women at concerts. And it is still somewhat part of our fight. Regarding the event, Courtney revealed:

We had just gotten off tour with Mudhoney, and I decided to stage-dive. I was wearing a dress and I didn’t realize what I was engendering in the audience. It was a huge audience and they were kind of going ape-shit. So 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. I felt like Karen Finley. But the worst thing of all was that I saw a photograph of it later. Someone took a picture of me right when this was happening, and I had this big smile on my face like I was pretending it wasn’t happening. So later I wrote a song called “Asking For It” based on the whole experience. I can’t compare it to rape because it’s not the same. But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience, figuratively, literally, and yet, was I asking for it?

Without a doubt, one of the legacies of Live Through This was kicking the doors in music industry to recurring universal themes for women from a personal point of view. The fight against rape culture has become one of the main themes in most female-fronted punk/grunge bands formed in the 90s onwards. In addition to many adopting a Kinderwhore visual aesthetic, whose origin is attributed to both Courtney Love and Kat Bjelland and the two have always had a love-hate relationship, which is portrayed in the track “She walks on me” from the album in question. It is evident that despite the thematic and melodic revolution (a grunge band led by a woman selling thousands of copies and with a more pop sound), sisterhood was never Courtney’s strong suit. However, I don’t believe this should erase the importance of Hole’s work for women in music. Some bands that prove this point are Margaritas Podridas from Mexico, Domestic Junkies and Trash No Star from Brazil and The Distillers and Hands Off Gretel from the United States. The record’s influence also reached current pop music, with singer Olivia Rodrigo recreating the album cover as well as movies, inspiring the cult horror film “Jennifer’s body” taken from a track of the same name.

Live Through This redefined female punk in the 90s, showing in a more mainstream way than Riot Grrrl, that women can be assertive, complex, flawed, skilled, clumsy and still sell records. Her marriage to Kurt Cobain and her pregnancy were central to generating the album, but it manages to stand on its own. After all, why is it never talked about how In Utero wouldn’t exist without Courtney?

May more women channel their pain, battles, complaints, etc. in music and other artistic forms, as we need to continue taking up spaces and smashing the patriarchy. It’s very difficult not to feel a jolt when listening to Live Through This. It was through the album tour in 1994 that Courtney found the strength to survive her losses, and we can find strength in her work to deal with what we go through at any point in our lives.

American pop singer Olivia Rodrigo recreating the cover of LTT to promote her album Sour in 2021. The original cover was created by German photographer Ellen von Unwerth. Photo: Reproduction
Hole during their Goth-themed unplugged MTV on Valentine’s Day 1995. Canadian bassist Melissa Auf der Maur (left) joined the band the previous year, and her backing vocals became a staple at the shows. The unplugged further proves Hole’s sonic versatility.
Me with the Miss World music video in the background and holding my copy of LTT. I owe a lot to this album that made me believe in my voice and be able to continue here, writing about women in music.

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Larissa Oliveira

Brazilian writer, teacher and zinester. Articles related to cinematic content. I also write for https://medium.com/@womenofthebeatgeneration_