Soft, Softer, Softest

Photo by Phil Nicholls

It’s fitting that a write-up about Hole’s 1994 album, Live Through This, would be my first blog post, considering this year marks the 25thanniversary since its release. And today is also Courtney Love’s 55thbirthday, so why not? The truth is, I’ve been trying to write something for months about this record—an album that served as a soundtrack for my awkward teenage years, a time in my life when I felt both isolated and undesirable, before I realized that I could find solace, even acceptance, in music.

In the spring of 1994, it seemed there was no escaping the publicity machine and accolades behind the record—Rolling Stone and the Village Voice placed it at the top of their year-end lists, and Entertainment Weekly jokingly called Courtney Love the “brattier sister of Johnny Rotten.” But as a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in a conservative area of California with few friends, I was convinced that every piece of music on this album was written just for me. And it made sense that only other young girls my age would be able to discern which lyrics were meant for girls like us and which lyrics were meant to offend those who were probably too old and boring to appreciate or understand their meaning (translation: our parents).

But who exactly were “girls like us”? Or girls like me, for that matter? That summer, I spent most days in my room with the radio blaring, head on the pillow and fingers tapping to the beat on my kneecaps, all while thumbing through magazines like Sassy and Vogue. I would make snacks of flour tortillas and jalapeños (don’t ask) and sometimes, when the 100-degree heat became intolerable, I would suck on ice chips and watch music videos on MTV. 

And there it was, as I turned on the television and sprawled onto the couch—the music video for “Miss World.” An alarmingly pale woman with blue eyes appeared onscreen, powdering her face and décolletage with such intensity that at some point you worried she just might disappear under a haze of white dust, a pool-blue barrette clinging to her bleached locks and a pout of thick red lips the only features that remained visible. 

You missed a spot.

And what exactly was she singing? That she’s a girl who cannot look anyone in the eye, is sick, and lies and lies and lies? It was strange and disorienting, and yet there lurked a lesson in there somewhere, as though she wanted you to recognize her blanching herself with a powder puff the size of a dinner plate was nothing more than an exaggerated performance of femininity, and if you concentrated solely on her excessive primping, you might not hear her voice swell with ache and despair. If some feminists believe that the higher the heel, the more repressed the woman, then Courtney’s morphing into a mid-thirties Baby Jane Hudson forced me to consider the absurdity of what women felt they needed to do to look and feel beautiful, be seen. The absurdity of whatever it was my mother implied when she reminded me to be a “lady” in social settings, the absurdity of my grandmother’s horror at seeing young women braless at the mall, the absurdity of stuffing my blouses with tissue so the world would see me as a woman, not a girl.

In the coming days, I would turn on the television and immediately change the channel to MTV while my father was preoccupied in the kitchen, a burning hope inside me that “Miss World” would flash across the screen so I could press the record button on the VCR; if I could pull this off, I could watch it over and over until each frame lined up in succession, a reel that I could burn into my brain and keep on loop, even after I left the house. But that hope never materialized, though on a family trip to Los Angeles later that summer, I finally struck gold: After a long car ride, my father stopped and parked our black Ford Bronco into a parking lot on Sunset Boulevard, the circus-like red and yellow lettering of TOWER RECORDS hovering above us.

We had stopped to eat, not record shop, but I asked, as casually as I was able, if it would be such a big deal to just look inside Tower Records. And there inside I zoomed through every aisle until I found a cassette of Live Through This, sandwiched between albums by Billie Holiday and Buddy Holly. (Don’t fret, I came to appreciate those artists eventually, too.) I don’t remember asking my parents if I could buy it. Certainly the album’s cover art—a winning beauty queen clutching a bouquet of flowers and sporting a tiara—was not threatening enough for them to deny me my newly found treasure. And success! My wish was granted.

On the car ride home, I gleefully studied the liner notes, absorbed every image and photo included in the artwork, and vowed to always keep its condition pristine. To misplace or dirty the cassette would be akin to injuring myself, and no matter how many other copies existed in the world, I knew my tape was special because it was meant just for me. I was going to keep it safe.

Nearly every night from then on, I would shut my door and bury myself beneath the covers, gingerly inserting the tape into my cassette player that I would cradle against my chest, the volume raised just enough to drown out my parents fighting in the living room. No moonlight ever made it through a crack in the blinds, but this way, with Hole’s music on repeat, the dark became a respite, an escape, my own little bearable hell.

***

There’s one track on this record called “Softer, Softest,” that I would always skip. By this time I had upgraded to a Sony CD Walkman, one of those portable devices with a smooth, silver sheen that had a row of buttons on one end, so that when I placed the Walkman face-up in my small purse, I could easily access the play/pause button. And without fail, when the simple guitar strum of “Softer, Softest” began, I would slip my fingers into the front flap of my purse and hit the skip button, eager to listen to the next track. I can’t remember why I disliked the song so much. Perhaps it was too slow for my liking—by this time I was seeking out the fast-tempo tracks of punk bands like X-Ray Spex and Black Flag. Plus, the album already had what I considered a ballad: “Doll Parts,” a tune of longing and self-doubt that became the album’s second single, and comprised of only three chords. 

But on Valentine’s Day in 1995, Hole was invited to play an acoustic set on MTV’s Unplugged, a special series where artists were invited to perform a stripped-down set of their music in front of an audience. The acoustic renditions of “Miss World” and “Doll Parts” were particularly beautiful and engaging, yet here was where I learned to appreciate “Softer, Softest.” Introducing the song, Courtney explained, “This is a song about the girl who always smelled like pee in your class. She was me…”

And she was me, too. There is a line in the song that directly precedes the chorus, a line that saddened me: “Pee Girl gets the belt,” which sounds as though Pee Girl were a young female superhero whose special power was simply wetting the bed, a skill that subjected her to lashings by whom I assumed to be her father. Watching Courtney talk about “Softer, Softest,” I understood for the first time that Pee Girl was none other than herself. And why didn’t I realize this sooner? So much of her work is largely autobiographical, and yet I never made the connection. Maybe because it was so personal for the both of us, considering that I wet the bed until I was nearly nine years old. In second grade, I remember secretly removing my white tights behind the blue handball court, hoping no one would smell the urine that had run down my legs because I waited too long to use the restroom during recess, flinging the tights into the trash bin, looking over my shoulders for any classmates who might catch me in the act. And my friend’s parents, who would wrap their daughter’s mattress with plastic sheeting whenever I would spend the night, lest I ruin the bed, a cacophony of crinkles beneath my small body as I tossed and turned in my sleep.

These were the memories that pushed me to keep “Softer, Softest” on repeat, a new appreciation developing with each listen. The track contained so much of what made Live Through This a kind of handbook for displaced preteens: themes of anger, loss, the desire for beauty and the struggle for acceptance. Courtney’s references to milk are especially pronounced in “Softer, Softest,” where milk has the power to comfort or destroy: it can be a life-giving force (“your milk turns to cream”), a rotten, contaminated substance (“your milk has a dye”), or a sexual threat (“your milk has a dick”).

But as poetic as I found the song to be, it became clear that Courtney’s persona was beginning to eclipse the music. She seemed to land interviews in every major entertainment magazine, and she was never out of things to say. I tried to keep up with the band’s television appearances as best I could, and what little allowance money I had was spent on magazines where the band’s music was reviewed.

At a garage sale I came across an old issue of SPIN where Live Through This received a high rating. Of course, the review began by mentioning Courtney, namely her acting stint in 1986’s Sid and Nancy. But even if Courtney was playing a role, she was still the biggest character of them all: the music critic likened her part in the film to “a Hole song,” the kind of tune that most would assume to be “about Love piping up for girls with bad reputations.”

I paused. Was this true? I wasn’t stupid—I knew her reputation preceded her, and she never made a secret of her demons and legal troubles. But I wasn’t a “bad” girl with a “bad” reputation: I was scared, timid, quiet, and uneasy in my own skin. I remember my mother asking, “What the hell do you see in this woman?” pointing to Courtney on the cover of a 1995 issue of Rolling Stone, a mop of yellow straw on Courtney’s head, her midriff exposed. The words Hole is a Band was splashed across the front, Courtney Love Is a Soap Opera printed directly underneath. I considered those words may have been true, but I didn’t want to fully divorce the music from the creator. I appreciated Courtney’s antics, I understood her rage, I accepted her faults. Why did everyone seem to think rebellious, wild young women were the only ones who could appreciate her music? I knew she could speak for us inhibited types, too.

Still, once I reached high school, nobody understood why I taped a picture, about the size of a Polaroid, of Courtney playing guitar on the front of my binder. It was an image of Courtney onstage that I ripped out of a magazine, she lying on her back during a performance at some music festival, her seafoam green guitar resting across her belly. “Tit shot!” a boy in my math class would always yell whenever he’d grab my binder, greedy for a closer look. Couldn’t he see the anger, frustration, or sadness in this image? There was beauty in the positioning of her body; she appeared uninhibited yet tender, passionate yet emotionless. But he only wanted to see her breasts. You just don’t get it, I would think. And that made me feel surprisingly at ease. It was like the image contained a special language, and only I and other girls like me could hear it.

A year later, after my parents divorced, I started my senior year at a new high school in a different state. I kept the binder with the torn out image of Courtney, but it acted more as a signal for other students to avoid me. During the second week of school, I walked past a girl with platinum blonde hair, carrying a binder like mine, except she had taped a large black and white photo of Courtney to the binder’s plastic sleeve. My mouth opened but no words escaped. I felt like I had finally found someone I could talk to, but we continued to pass by each other day after day, saying nothing at all. Sometimes she would smile at me in the halls and keep walking, and I always made sure that my binder and the image of Courtney faced outward, so she would recognize me, like our little secret code. I liked to imagine that she went home and listened to Live Through This after school, as I did, and that she too knew every word to “Softer, Softest.” Although I never learned her name before the end of the school year, we had established a connection based on our shared interest—a friendship that, although unspoken and fleeting, was nonetheless a camaraderie that offered us a respite from the outside world, a reminder that no matter how many times we felt ugly or out of place, we knew we were never alone. I’d like to thank Courtney for that.

Happy Birthday, C.

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