Pretty on the outside
Here, after four years and one shotgun blast, is the most awaited and debated record of the year; no more talking about who wrote what, about how she looks today, about anything besides the music. Some day, Courtney Love might regret even releasing the third record, seeing as how she got more press mileage out of doing nothing than wearing pretty dresses and hanging out with Madonna. A few months from now, all the deep-think reviews and skin-deep celeb profiles will have passed from memory; Celebrity Skin will just be one more record released among the thousands this year, one more piece of overhyped product greeted with cheers and jeers and, ultimately, yawns of uninterest from all but the hard-core fetishists who maintain Web sites and trade e-mails with Love.
Funny how it worked out like this, really: In 1991, Love wanted so desperately to be a Rock Star, shouting to the heavens till she made the beautiful hell that was Pretty on the Inside. Seven years later, the Rock Star part of her has been buried beneath make-up and make-overs. (The first line of Celebrity Skin: "Oh, make me over.") The woman who screamed to be taken seriously is almost a joke now, a parody, as annoying as any recurring character on Saturday Night Live. You feel her pain almost as well as you know her shtick.
In the end, how much you care about Celebrity Skin depends solely upon how much you give a rat's ass about Courtney Love. After all, the record's about her and nothing but, about how much it sucks to be famous, how much it sucks to have your life turned into an open diary, how much it sucks to be the object of desire and derision. The title song (and the first single) says it all: "Hooker waitress model actress," she sings, listing off the resume of a woman who craved all the things she now claims to despise. That Love should find her renown so annoying only compounds the lack of interest. What in God's name does anyone who buys this record have in common with a woman who only complains about being rich and famous? In the end, Celebrity Skin is pulp autobiography, the tawdry goings-on in a world that exists out there, in a place so distant and illusory it means nothing in here. Only a Rock Star would refer to Malibu as a place where you can escape to.
Read what you will into the album's title, discern what you will from its poor-poor-pitiful-me lyrics ("When I wake up in my makeup / Have you ever felt so used up as this"); no doubt there will be a thousand reviews that use the lyric sheet as a road map to a broken heart. For the record, there's only one direct reference to Kurt Cobain's suicide: "I had to tell them you were gone," she laments on "Playing Your Song," about how easy it is to transform a revolution into a strip mall. "I had to tell them you were wrong / Now they're playing your song." But even then, it's unclear whom she's speaking to--a ghost, maybe, but perhaps even herself, looking in the mirror and wondering how quickly and easily she became "so bored and cynical" once she attained all she desired. (There's also an allusion to Cobain's suicide note near the end of "Reasons to Be Beautiful," when Love moans that "it's better to rise than fade away," though it could also be a reference to Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," which Cobain copped for his note. In one recent overseas-radio interview, Love insisted Celebrity Skin "is no Sleeps With Angels," Young's own album lamenting the Nirvana frontman's suicide.)
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To dissect this record's lyrics is to be caught up in an unfulfilling game of now-you-see-her-now-you-don't; it's to buy into the myth that songwriters want you to see them naked so you can judge them and relate to them. Bullshit. Love's a genius faker, that's all; she gives you enough rope to hang yourself while you go on a wild goose chase seeking clues, answers, the truth. Is "Use Once & Destroy" about her? Is Kurt in "Heaven Tonight?" Who knows? It doesn't matter. That's because, in the end, this is Love's Hollywood album, her version of Beauty and the Beat. Damn right--it even sounds like the Go-Go's. That Love and her band and such guns-for-hire as Billy Corgan (who co-wrote the music to five songs) would choose to make a pure pop record after the cathartic noise that was Pretty on the Inside and Live Through This is hardly surprising; Love's been trying to sell out for years, and the plan is complete. Celebrity Skin sounds like it was recorded in a hot tub.
Maybe it's a transcendent work after all: Courtney Love obscures Courtney Love behind songs that wouldn't sound so out of place when sung by Belinda Carlisle, whom Love mimics until it almost sounds as though she's doing an impression. Never before has her voice sounded so pretty and flat; gone is the the seditious blare, the sandpaper-and-silk defiance. She's almost unrecognizable on a song like the top-of-the-pops-catchy "Awful," when she assumes an almost cheery tone while singing about how they "break all the girls like you / and they rob the souls of girls like you...and they royalty rate all the girls like you." Belinda couldn't have sung it any better. No, wait--she did, on Beauty and the Beat's "This Town," when she chirped about how "we're all dreamers, we're all whores" and how "discarded stars...litter the streets of this town." Never mind.
There are some remarkable moments here, when the music matches the lyrics matches the delivery and the whole thing blurs into a extraordinary whole. "Reasons to Be Beautiful" is almost whispered punk rock; "Boys on the Radio" (originally written about Evan Dando) celebrates and castrates rock and roll all at once; and "Heaven Tonight" is all swirling harmonies and chiming guitars and so very, well, L.A. And maybe this is a brilliant record; maybe it's just too hard to separate the person making it from the music contained on it--which is Courtney's genius, and her curse. As one friend said the other day, "It's a good record by anyone else, but a bad record from Hole." Why? He couldn't explain.