With riot grrrl now approaching the status of a heritage industry, not to mention Courtney Love’s current incarnation as the post-grunge Norma Desmond, it can be hard to recall that both of them helped me find my feminist footing on the slippery rocks of a ’90s girlhood. This is a roundabout remembrance of how it happened.
The arts have long been a space for radical expression by women, even if the extent of that radicalism has often gone under-acknowledged. In 1915, the author and journalist Dorothy Richardson produced Pointed Roofs, credited as the first English stream of consciousness novel, using an innovative prose style which she saw as necessary for the expression of female experience. Virginia Woolf observed that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. If Richardson’s challenge to linguistic convention in her writing has musical counterparts, one of them is the ‘new, raw and female’ sound made possible by post-punk. Punk removed barriers of precedent and technical expertise to engagement in music, enabling trips into less-charted musical and lyrical territory. But it was in the subsequent voyage of discovery that was post-punk that punk’s revolutionary potential really bore fruit, and the untried, experimental nature of post-punk music was particularly suited to women.
Inspiration can spring from the strangest of places. Kenickie were three girls with guitars and an unassuming boy drummer, a band preoccupied with glitter, Grease and Gary Numan. They began in the north-east lo-fi scene of the early 90s before kicking over the traces and high-tailing it to London in a blur of lipstick and leopardprint, attaining industry fame around the time I was sitting my GCSEs. Two albums and a trail of metropolitan mayhem later, Kenickie split up live onstage with the parting shot ‘We were Kenickie… a bunch of fuckwits’. In this piece, I’ll be speaking against the motion.
Grunge’s Norma Desmond is never an edifying sight these days, but on the strength of America’s Sweetheart I was expecting to like the new album. I did try, but essentially it isn’t what I used to love about her, nor is there anything new I could learn to love. One of Courtney’s best aspects has always been the insistence on transcending her Mean Girls detractors through adopting their costume and wearing it well, but it’s gone too far here, become blunderingly cartoonish rather than knowing and controlled. Most disappointing of all, she sounds defeated where she used to scream defiance, her voice a worn-out rasp through bee-stung lips where it used to be a buzzsaw.
The usual song-suspects are all here, done very much by numbers: the rueful (probably) Kurt-remembrance and fear-death-by-water escapist lament (‘Pacific Coast Highway’, which she’s already done better with ‘Malibu’); the defiant tarts-with-heart anthem (‘Dirty Girls’, which she’s always done better than this) ; the plaintive take-me-as-I-am cradling of your head to her bosom (‘For Once in your Life’). Certainly I’ve never liked her solo work as much as I did Hole, but there’s nothing here that really stands comparison with America’s Sweetheart, from the teeth-gritting rage of ‘Mono’ to the Cassandrine anatomising of feminine ambition that was ‘Sunset Strip’. The songs that stand out are few: ‘Stand Up Motherfucker’ is tolerable fun, Courtney snarling ‘Stand up motherfucker, I will see you now’ like Don Corleone in pantomime drag, but it’s schadenfreude rather than triumph. ‘Never Go Hungry Again’ does the same sentiment better for its musical simplicity and the lyrics’ quiet dignity. The last three songs are an extended and frankly boring fadeout. Surely she can’t leave us like this?
The headlong rush of ‘Loser Dust’ is the album’s one bright spot: Courtney at her acerbic, taunting best, both the vocal’s careering sneer and the killer description of a certain kind of woman as ‘starving and carnivorous’. I think this highlights where the album lets me down: where she used to excel at using a personal focus to explore the universal mysteries of the feminine physique and psyche, Nobody’s Daughter is full of Courtney’s turn to the external and the transient – highways, hotels, rehab clinics – and it feels appropriately flimsy and diluted. Like The Bell Jar‘s Esther throwing her clothes off the rooftop, it’s a futile if briefly self-fulfilling spectacle. C-Lo these days is as glossy as she’s always wanted to be, but her face has become the collagened Hollywood mask, too tight and smooth for anything real to break through the make-up.