She Pop-Oh Well, Whatever, Never Mind: On Misogyny, Courtney Love, and the Guitar Hero 5 Controversy
Oh, yay! It's time to demonize Courtney Love! Again! The ever-convenient target for would-be-rock dude misogyny has come under fire, yet again, for Activision's use of an unlockable Kurt Cobain avatar in Guitar Hero 5.
The footage from the game is undeniably creepy and wrong, even if you aren't that sensitive about the merchandising of dead rock stars. It's hard to see how, short of digging up the man's corpse, attaching marionette strings to it, and making it do the "Single Ladies" dance for YouTube, you could do worse with Kurt Cobain than to make his Uncanny Valley-dwelling CGI likeness execute "gangsta" poses during a Public Enemy song. Really, to understand the controversy, you have to see the footage. Previous uses of rock stars' likenesses have been fairly innocuous (Billy Corgan) or even charming (SLASH! Hey, everybody, it's SLASH). This is anything but. Go on: check it out. I'll wait.
Courtney Love herself claims to be disturbed by this use of her husband's image, and has threatened to sue Activision, the company that created the game; they, conversely, claim she signed a contract and gave them permission to do what they would. But in the debate between Love (who, at the very most, is responsible for signing a contract) and Activision (who, at the very least, is responsible for asking Love to sign the contract, and was undoubtedly responsible for the animations themselves), it's odd that people are so much more angry at Love than they are at Activision itself. After all, even if she's lying, she only signed the dotted line. She didn't come up with that terrible manic jig that the reanimated suicide casualty does to the Billy Idol song. And here's a sampling of the comments on a Rolling Stone piece in which the Cobain avatar is protested by noted anti-commercial punk rock beacon of integrity Jon Bon Jovi:
"Courtney Love is a money hungry joke who knows nothing about maintining the integrity of an estate."
"The most offensive thing about this is that Courtney Love continues to
profit from Cobain years after she was certainly partially culpable in
driving him to suicide."
"The only thing I find upsetting about this is that psycho bitch Love getting money."
To understand why all of this is so upsetting, one has to deal with the fact that on the surface of it, even writing about Cobain in a column on mainstream pop is a kind of desecration. And this is true even though everyone knows the opening riff to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," even though he's sold millions of records, even though you don't need an education in music theory to get why "Come As You Are" works, even though his music is, indeed, popular. The legend of Kurt Cobain is that he killed himself because he'd gone too mainstream, because he'd succeeded too well, because he'd failed to uphold some gold standard of indie purity. And, in that respect, animating him so that he can sing a Bon Jovi song in Guitar Hero 5 is a slap in the face. Everything he never wanted. But here's an another, more realistic take: he killed himself because he was a deeply troubled man.
Kurt Cobain began to destroy himself long before anyone had heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit." He just happened to complete the process after he'd become extremely famous. And, as is the case with most people who are, for one reason or another, intent on self-destruction, anything that happened to him - up to and including his success, up to and including being loved and respected by so many people - he interpreted as an excuse to self-destruct. But, I suggest to you, if he hadn't been destroyed by attention, he would have been destroyed by being ignored. He was in charge, he was playing a game with only one possible end result, he was driving a car and looking for a brick wall to plow it into. And, precisely because he was so famous, he became a convenient figure on which his generation could hang their ideas about indie purity and rebellion from the mainstream. Ideas which many had fallen in love with in the first place because Kurt Cobain became well-known enough to voice them for a wide audience and clue them in.
It's hard to guess when, precisely, Courtney Love became the Most Hated Woman In Rock, but if I had to guess, it would be when she read his suicide note to his fans shortly after his death. The note began with Cobain expounding on his tragic loss of indie purity, blaming it for his suicide: "All the warnings from the, shall we say, punk rock 101 courses over the years with regard to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence... it's proven to be very true," he wrote, toward the beginning. And toward the end, Courtney looked out into the audience and said the following: "Just remember this is all bullshit."
I don't love every single thing Courtney Love has done in her lifetime. Nor do I agree with every single thing she has ever said. But this is perhaps the truest, most necessary statement she ever made. And people hated her for it. And they've wanted to punish her for it ever since.
Her situation isn't unfamiliar: long before Courtney, the Most Hated Woman in Music crown belonged to Yoko Ono. Another wife who didn't know her place; another widow accused of tarnishing her husband's legacy. And, as delightful ladyblogger and ceaseless Ono advocate Cara points out on The Curvature, she has been continually attacked for - oh, go on, guess - being too irresponsible and commercial in merchandising her husband's name and image. She's also been accused of exploiting his life and death in a tasteless manner, for using a shot of John Lennon's bloodied, shattered glasses - the pair through which the bullet that killed him passed - on an album cover. Cara pontificates on this (and digs up some creepy-ass reanimated-dead-guy footage of her own) as follows:
I can't say that I agree with every decision that Yoko has made about how and when to use Lennon's name, legacy and music. (Case and point.)
But if I did, I think that would be an eerie sign that she was being
far too careful, and therefore willing to also let us miss out on a lot
of good stuff. Do I cringe when Lennon's music is licensed commercially
in advertisements? Yes, and so thankfully it's rare. But when I see
people moaning about Lennon-themed merchandise like coffee mugs and
watches, the action figure and the sunglasses, I just have to roll my
eyes. If I regularly drank coffee, what mug do you think I'd be using?
Of course, the analogies aren't direct. The "Seasons of Glass" cover is vastly more understandable, as a statement, than the Guitar Hero 5 footage (which, again, Love had apparently no role in making). Cobain isn't Lennon, Ono isn't Love, and murder isn't suicide. But the scenario is the same: a whole bunch of fanboys angry at that terrible, mouthy, weird woman ending up in charge of their idol's estate, getting to make decisions about it, making (oh, no!) coffee cups and T shirts and action figures and video games and money, and controlling the materials produced by a man they love. Fanboys refusing to believe, on some level, that these mere wives had a more important connection and a more intimate knowledge of their favorite rock stars (the kind of connection that comes with, say, sleeping in the same bed with someone, and swapping spit on a regular basis, and using the same bathtub, and raising a child together) than they, the fans, do - that they might have more of a vested interest, more of a right to the estate than anyone else. Fans being outraged that their attitude toward their husbands is not one of unlimited deference, that they have not become reverent priestesses of the Great Man. (In point of fact, neither of the Great Men were apparently all that reverent about their own music; Lennon didn't believe in Beatles, after all, and Kurt Cobain thought the Weird Al Yankovic parody of "Teen Spirit" was hilarious.) It's openly misogynist, this stuff. And I suggest to you that Cobain and Lennon, who were both feminists, would have been more disappointed in it than anyone else.
I won't deny that the use of the Cobain avatar is viscerally disturbing. For someone of an age to remember Kurt Cobain, and his death, it can't be anything else. But here's one thing that could very possibly come of the Kurt Cobain avatar in Guitar Hero: little kids who play video games might get interested in this Cobain guy. They might start listening to his music. And maybe, because they initially saw him as a cartoon in a video game, they won't be able to place him on some exalted plane, above other pop and rock stars. They won't be able to think of him as inherently more pure than anyone else; they won't deal with him through the lens of "punk rock ethics 101" or the evils of the mainstream or the glorious, endlessly mourned decade of The Nineties. He won't be the tragic, untouchable legend, Kurt Cobain. He'll just be, you know, a good musician.
Which would be the best outcome imaginable.
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