From Courtney Love to Ariana Grande: Music’s Misogynistic Blame Game

by beth mcleish

If I was born a boy / Would I be mutilated Humiliated, cursed & fated to grind away my time

With my heart on the line…

You would not do this to a boy.

Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love

We all know the story of the most (in)famous rock and roll couple since Sid and Nancy. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were, quite possibly, perfect for each other. But their relationship was rocky, to say the least. Both fronting successful bands, they entered into a whirlwind, drug-fuelled romance, under the watchful and judgemental public eye. They were, according to Vanity Fair, “the closest thing the alternative nation had to a king and queen.” I am a huge fan of both Kurt and Courtney, their relationship has always been something that has fascinated me, and in particular, how hated Courtney Love was. There are even people who still believe she killed her late husband. My question is, why is she demonised for all the things Kurt was praised for?

Front-woman of acclaimed grunge band Hole, Courtney Love is someone that people love to hate. A successful musician, songwriter, poet, and actress, she is best known for being the wife of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Sometimes, she doesn’t even get the credit for that, with there being many conspiracy theories surrounding her involvement in her husband’s death. In 1998, documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield released the controversial film “Kurt and Courtney” which insinuates that Love holds responsibility for her husband’s death, speaking to many “sources” including the private investigator who is convinced that Courtney hired a hit man to kill Kurt. It is extremely biased, filled with anti- Love sentiment. Courtney is painted as a fame hungry, controlling siren, and this is the attitude that the press had towards her throughout the 90s, and to an extent, even now.   

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain

Courtney herself, in the 1992 issue of Vanity Fair, pointed out the double standard she and her husband were held to:

Kurt is able to go into a record label… decide he doesn’t like it halfway through, walk out on the guys mid-sentence, and everyone goes “There goes Kurt. He’s so moody. Nirvana’s great.” But I go in and spend three hours… I’m sorry, I don’t want to be on his label and he calls me a bitch.

Although both 1991 debut “Pretty on the Inside” and 1994’s “Live Through This” were critically acclaimed, there were (and still are) rumours saying that Kurt Cobain wrote a lot of Hole’s best songs, and most of “Live Through This” (arguably their best album, featuring some of Courtney’s best lyrics surrounding motherhood, feminism, body image, and mental health issues). This myth has since been cleaned up. It is extremely unfair and misleading to claim and not to mention sexist to assume that a woman’s success is owed entirely to her husband. In the Guardian, music journalist Everett True writes that “It would be just as accurate to say the Courtney Love wrote most of Nirvana’s third album “In Utero.” For me, “In Utero” is Nirvana’s best album, and I can definitely see the Courtney influences. Kurt’s lyrics are more poetic, and mature and thematically, share ideas with Hole’s “Live Through This.” Courtney finally commented on this dismissive and quite frankly cruel rumour in 1998 saying “(If he had) the songs would have been much better.

For me, this abuse and discredit simply come from a place of misogyny. I think that the music press and the general public were threatened by someone like Courtney. An extremely self-aware, brashly outspoken and confident woman, all legs, dark lipstick, and bleach blonde hair, writing songs about sex, abuse, and suicide? Put simply, she was hated for acting how male rock stars had been acting for decades before her. Her being blamed for her husband’s death not only discredits his mental health struggles (an issue which in itself is deserving of an article) but also perpetuates the damaging idea that women are, largely responsible for their significant others’ wellbeing.

Sadly, even today this is the case. To give a more modern example, American pop singer Ariana Grande was harassed after the untimely death of her ex-boyfriend rapper Mac Miller. Many people on social media criticised her for not staying with him as he struggled with his drug addiction. The scathing comments on her twitter range from “I hope you feel bad,” to “You did this to him”, and “You killed Mac Miller.” This clearly affected Grande as she eventually turned off comments on her Instagram, and went on a Twitter hiatus.

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This behaviour from Mac Miller’s fans and Twitter users in general reflects on the way society treats female celebrities, and women as a whole. The National Organisation for Women (NOW) President Toni Van Pelt told VICE, “First of all, people are responsible for themselves, and men in particular are taught to think of themselves first.” Van Pelt goes on to say that women are always expected to look after or take care of others before themselves, and if they dare to put themselves first, they are seen as selfish. This point was touched upon by Ariana herself, in her statement on Twitter. She said: “how absurd that you minimise female self-respect and self-worth by saying someone should stay in a toxic relationship because he wrote an album about them… I am not a babysitter or a mother and no woman should feel that they need to be.”  

It is interesting that she mentions motherhood in this statement, as this is another issue that women face throughout their lives. It also ties in with Courtney Love’s struggles. This archaic ideology that a woman’s role is in the home is something that to this day is instilled in us, from a very young age. Ariana also touches upon this saying that “shaming/blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his sh*t together is a very major problem.” She’s right, and it needs to stop.

This misogynistic attitude is sadly still so prevalent in today’s culture and is especially ingrained into music. Different genres all share elements of it, such as emo, hip-hop and alternative rock, whether it be in their lyrics or behaviours. I mean, in the ruling era of the “Soft Boy” (def; a man that uses his “sensitive” side to appeal to the emotions of women and subsequently manipulate them), it is surely not surprising.

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For example, Chicago based rapper Juice WRLD pines after an “evil girl” with “the prettiest face” who supposedly wants him dead, on his 2018 track “Lucid Dreams.” It may just seem like a sad love song on the surface, but when you think about it, we don’t hear this girl’s side of the story, and Juice WRLD is fully blaming his sadness on her. He also compares himself to his ex’s new boyfriend saying that he is the “better one.” The whole thing just doesn’t sit right with me, even more so when taking into consideration his preceding single “All Girls Are The Same”.

This is a very common theme in emo too. Think about Panic! At The Disco’s “Lying Is The Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off.” Brendon Urie scorns a lover who cheated on him, blaming her and only her, possibly forgetting that there was another person involved in this infidelity. In the chorus he sings of “testosterone boys and harlequin girls” which suggests that boys are just hormone crazy, enforcing the dreaded “boys will be boys, and that girls are clowns, falling for anyone who is nice to them”. To me, all of this seems to subtly reinforce these attitudes towards women in general. And of course, the whole idea that men are uncontrollable when it comes to sex is just as bad. He is blaming the woman for all of his anger and unhappiness. Now, of course, there will be times where women do abuse their partners, cheat on them, break their hearts, and that is completely valid. But all these songs seem to do is perpetuate the attitude that this is normal, and almost expected of women to do.

In 2003, American rock band Brand New released Deja Entendu, featuring the song “Me vs. Maradona vs, Elvis.” Singer Jesse Lacey sings “I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans” in this thinly veiled song about date rape, claiming “I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do… I swear I’ll tear you apart.” Lacey has said that these lyrics are not autobiographical, but recent allegations against him may beg to differ. Emily Driskill and Nicole Garey both recently shared accounts of their encounters of Lacey whilst they were underage. They say that he manipulated them into sending nude photos, and were groped at various concerts.  Driskill told Pitchfork that she hopes “with this coming out, it opens the door for people really looking out for women in our scene. It’s been talked about for a while but it hasn’t actually been happening.”

Music critic Jessica Hopper sums it all up in her 2003 essay “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t”. She says that “Girls in emo songs do not have names…We span from coquettish to damned… We leave bruises on boy hearts, but make no other mark… We are mysteries to be unlocked, bodies to be groped…

What Hopper says is so relevant, not just in emo, but in music in general. These damaging attitudes towards women have survived, and are still being sang about today. Women are not therapists, mothers, or simply just bodies to have sex with, and the sooner these ideals are challenged, the better and safer the music world (and the world in general) will be for women and girls.

 

References

Hirschberg, L. (2019). Strange Love: The Story of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. [online] HWD. Available at: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/03/love-story-of-kurt-cobain-courtney-love.

Love, C. (2006). Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love. Faber & Faber.

True, E. (2019). Ten myths about grunge, Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/aug/24/grunge-myths-nirvana-kurt-cobain.

Vice. (2019). Ariana Grande, Mac Miller, and Why We Blame Women for Male Substance Abuse. [online] Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/a38g5k/ariana-grande-mac-miller-and-why-we-blame-women-for-male-substance-abuse.

Broadly. (2019). Making Mac Miller’s Death About Ariana Grande Is a Sexist Distraction. [online] Available at: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/bja8xz/mac-miller-death-blame-ariana-grande.

NME. (2019). ‘Live Through This’: Not a Hole lotta Kurt – NME. [online] Available at: https://www.nme.com/news/music/courtney-love-244-1400512

Pitchfork.com. (2019). Two Alleged Victims of Brand New’s Jesse Lacey Detail Years of Sexual Exploitation of Minors | Pitchfork. [online] Available at: https://pitchfork.com/news/two-alleged-victims-of-brand-news-jesse-lacey-detail-years-of-sexual-exploitation-of-minors/

Hopper, J., Shepherd, J., Klein, C., Blegvad, K., Samavai, S. and Casey, P. (2019). Where the Girls Aren’t – Page 2 of 2 – Rookie. [online] Rookie. Available at: https://www.rookiemag.com/2015/07/where-the-girls-arent/2/?fbclid=IwAR0V1bigBafeURSbBAx8uezOqTnGeyste_A5d-CC2DSuMg4Z3ylYz-lRngE [Accessed 3 May 2019].

 

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