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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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Comments

12 comments have been made. Post a comment.

It should come as absolutely

It should come as absolutely no surprise to you, Sady, that I was going to make the Yoko connection, until I had seen that you did it for me :) I have in fact seen a connection in the way they've been treated for quite a while (and as a younger, stupider person, bought into bizarre kinds of Courtney-hate in the same way that I once bought into Yoko-hate -- it was realizing "hey, wait, this sounds a whole lot like what they say about Yoko" that snapped me out of it). I'm glad to see that you drew the parallel here. Great post all around.

There are many, many, many

There are many, many, many FACTS about Kurt's death that point towards foul play being involved. Open your minds, put down your preconceptions and do some independent research sheeple. Kurt deserves a proper investigation. "The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it" -A Hitler

Courtney has a lot of bad

Courtney has a lot of bad points, however, she did not drive Kurt to his suicide. I live in PDX, met people who knew both Curt and Courtney. A friend's guitar teacher went to high school with Curt Cobain. He was one of the kids no one talked to. I met someone who was best friends with Curt's sister. He said Courtney was not responsible for his death. I heard Courtney started fights, all the crazy stuff, she just aspired to be a celebrity. I have to give it to her, she did make it to celebrity status. I agree, leave Courtney alone.

aka snobographer

That was just unconscionable of Bon Jovi to say that - that Love drove Cobain to suicide. I'm really at a loss for words over that. What a dick!

yes.

Amazing post, and I agree 100%. It's funny to me that people act like simplifying Kurt Cobain into a martyr for indie credibility is the right thing to do, rather than just accepting that his life and death were infinitely more complicated than that. In the same way, Kurt is all good, and Courtney is all bad... you get the point. I find it hard to stand up for Courtney Love at times, because of some of the things she's done, but having the guts to call bullshit on that note is worth respect.

http://rebelgirlisat.blogspot.com/

Thanks for this post; you

Thanks for this post; you said it all far better than I could have.

Tacky in the name of $20 dollar words

I don't agree with this article. In fact, it's contributing to keeping this whole "Kurt vs Courtney" thing alive. Leave her alone. This is tacky.

Another thank you

It's been hard to articulate all these years why I thought Courtney-attackers should be admonished. Thank you for helping me to sort this out in my own head.

Yep.

Hole fans remember that the B-side to Courtney's love song to Kurt ("Beautiful Son") was a meditation on rock's original loudmouth wife, Yoko ("20 Years in the Dakota"). When the song was recorded in 1992 Kurt was very much alive, but Courtney was already slipping into the role of sexist fanboy target. By 1994, most critics agreed that Kurt must have written "Live Through This," though no one wondered if Courtney contributed to "In Utero." Depression killed Kurt Cobain, but there's no room for frank talk about mental illness and drug addiction; it's far easier to blame a bitchy wife. Love her or hate her, but have no doubt that she is being scapegoated by a terribly misogynistic culture.

And for what it's worth, I love Courtney. LOVE her.

Yes, and one nitpick that isn't your fault

I remember vividly when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the rest of "Nevermind" was suddenly echoing through the halls of the college dorm where I was living. I remember when I heard that Cobain was dead the way earlier generations remember hearing that JFK was dead.

But I've never understood the Courtney hate. (I've actually become more of a fan of hers over the years.)

I wasn't even born yet when the Beatles broke up, and was barely aware of them when Lennon was killed. But after the fact, I've never understood the Yoko hate either.

Sexism makes more sense than any other (non-)explanation I've ever heard.

I just wish Cara had used the proper idiom "case in point", rather than the incorrect and meaningless "case and point", which really distracted me from the rest of the post.

I love this post. I'm glad

I love this post. I'm glad you linked to your posts on Bitch, because I didn't know about them.

I was a huge Nirvana fan in high school, and I feel you've articulated something I've been trying to tell people for more than a decade. I am not a Courtney Love fan, but she absolutely did not kill her husband or drive him to suicide (or have her album written by him, as somebody said above). What misogynist allegations. And if she was really just profiteering like everyone says, then wouldn't she have been all for this rock band thing?

I'd forgotten about the "this is all bullshit" thing that she said. That was really awesome on her part.

It became crystal clear that

It became crystal clear that Courtney has to act crazy in order to still be rock and roll. In order to be "real". Except that is it really really if you are placing yourself in dramatic situations so that you have writing material and maintain your rock star status?
Watching her self destruction as entertainment is kind of icky.
A lot of people hate her...but the most interesting fact about that is that they love to hate her...like the evil queen from the fairy tale childhood.