Hole's 'Celebrity Skin' Turns 20: Reflecting on the Glistening Pop-Rock Tribute to LA
The glitz, the glamour, the tragedy: It’s all front-and-center on Courtney Love’s letter to the City of Angels.
The story of Hole’s Grammy-nominated third album, 1998’s Celebrity Skin, is the story of modern Los Angeles, aka the City of Angels. Because beneath the glitz, the glamour, the windswept palms and star-studded skies, it can be a scorched earth hellhole filled with traffic and tragedy. That iconic album cover—with the palm trees ablaze, “paradise” burning—was spot on.
LA has a truly lovely façade—the sun, the ocean, the Ferraris, the gym-toned, beautiful people and their architecturally beautiful homes (and pools). The fame, the canyons, the money, the aspiring singer-actor-comedian triple threats and on and on and on. It’s a manicured paradise built on nearly-uninhabitable desert, and it’s all hiding the city’s bedrock—the stark tragedies most of us swish by during rush hour on the side streets, or wince at in traffic on the freeway: The addicted, homeless droves dying atop the Walk of Fame—that stretch of Hollywood Boulevard celebrating actors and starlets (at the cost of $10k per year for a few pressure washes)—while surrounded by the nearly-as-desperate men and women dressed as film super heroes, ready for a tourist’s photo op at the first sight of green. The prostitutes, the drugs, the isolation of a car-dominated social structure. Skid Row. Wow, Skid Row. The omnipresent helicopters and the car chase-as-spectator-sport culture they document, down to their inevitable, usually deadly, conclusions. The false promise of fame at your fingertips, luring more and more into its almost-always unrewarded depths. It’s the excess of the Haves vs. the destitution of the Have-Nots, in America’s most cynical display of entertainment.
It’s a trip out here—Los Angelenos let their freak flags fly high, for better or worse, and the more time you spend in L.A., the more Pulp Fiction watches like a documentary film, a twisted alt-version of itself playing out in some corner, every day, of this expansive city.
But, damn, Malibu really is nice.
With Celebrity Skin, Hole captured this angels-and-demons juxtaposition in pop-rock form, one acutely of the late ‘90s—not the early ’90s. For Love, both her husband, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and the grunge era in general, were over and dead.
Sure, nowadays, LA’s a little less Melrose Place and a lot more Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But the seduction remains the same. And Love, a self-professed fame chaser from her earliest days, moved to Hollywood to remake herself from a grunge fuck-up with a dead icon of a husband, into a bonafide superstar. And like starlets before her, Hollywood first embraced her, then it threw her to the curb.
The album opens with the title track, “Celebrity Skin,” with a super-barbed guitar hook and Love cutting to the chase: “Oh, make me over!” And by ’98, her makeover was well underway. She had scored a Golden Globe nomination in 1997 for her role in The People vs. Larry Flynt (and was dating her co-star, Edward Norton), and she strutted her new look on the red carpet. The disheveled, Value Village prom queen of yesteryear had gone glitz. And so did her sound with Hole.
Love was clear about her intentions with Celebrity Skin from the get-go: Deconstruct the California sound, with hooks and hooks and hooks. Her label brought in Michael Beinhorn (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Aerosmith) to produce—and the sound is a clean sheen that pre-dates, yet nods to, the crispness and sterility of ProTools. Love, who was bouncing between auditions attempting to expand her acting career, was in a writing rut, so she brought in Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, among others, to help. Beinhorn’s exacting production process—Love would later call him a “Nazi,” but then re-hire him to produce 2010’s Nobody’s Daughter—was causing rifts in the band. Major ones.
Unhappy with Patty Schemel’s drumming, Beinhorn recruited a session drummer, Deen Castronovo, to take over. This move resulted in Schemel spiraling into drug addiction, leaving the band and ultimately landing on the streets of LA, homeless and smoking crack and heroin. She’d later document this period (and more) in her book Hit So Hard. Fame has its costs, and she was hardly the band’s first casualty.
Death and destruction—embodied in the abstract of drowning—were themes at the time. First, it was Cobain, who “drowned” in his fame and heroin. Then, after the release of their name-making record Live Through This, bassist Kristen Pfaff died from drowning in a bathtub. While recording the album, Love’s friend Jeff Buckley drowned. Guitarist Eric Erlandson’s father died of cancer, drowning in his own failing body. Bassist Melissa Auf de Mar’s father met a similar fate from lung cancer. “Drowning became a metaphor for this record and for all the people we had lost,” Erlandson once said. A liner note dedicated the album to "… anyone who ever drowned.” On the back of the CD (remember those?) was Paul Steck’s painting “Ophelia Drowning,” depicting a Victorian princess floating blissfully underwater, flowers clutched to her chest.
Celebrity Skin was Hole's most commercially successful album. To date, it has sold over 1,400,000 copies in U.S. For good reason: It was a sonic makeover. The guitars have a clean, twinkling sheen to them—and the songwriting came together beautifully. Like most thing in Hollywood, it Hole's sound, misery and fury, plasticized and packaged for the masses.
“Hey baby, take me all the way down,” Love sings on “Reasons To Be Beautiful.” On “Dying,” she whispers over softly strummed guitar, “Our love is quicksand / So easy to drown,” before the sound swells like the sea over two lovers rolling in the surf. On the dark, nu-metal-y “Use Once and Destroy,” she wails, “It's the emptiness that follows you down / It's the ache inside when it all burns out.” A squall of bass and wire-y guitar tangled in a knot, before exploding in a black-hearted chorus: “It's the awful truth you fight for your life / It might as well it might as well hurt.” It’s a tragedy in paradise.
Then there’s “Malibu,” the soul and center of Celebrity Skin. Ah, Malibu: Where the stars go for a little peace and quiet. Of all the hype around LA, Malibu actually deserves it. When you drive up the 101, then veer into Malibu Canyon Road you feel as if entering a sort of heaven. It’s the road convertibles were designed for. And when you crest the hill and look down on the big, blue, misting Pacific Ocean, all your dreams of this sprawling city come alive. It’s the spiritual equivalent of that iconic kissing scene from Here to Eternity.
“Crash and Burn, all the stars explode tonight,” Love sings, whether she’s painting a picture of the city or an allegory for the flickering trajectory of a young starlet, it really doesn’t matter. “How'd you get so desperate? / How'd you stay alive?” It sounds like she’s genuinely asking. For many an Angeleno, that answer is priceless advice.
Love was drowning—had been drowning—and was ready for a do-over. That’s what LA is—the last stop, Manifest Destiny incarnate, a place to remake yourself, a place of freedom to be what you want to be. It worked, then it didn’t. After Celebrity Skin, Love’s career in film would never come together the way she wanted it to. The band would break up a few years later, and she’d face years of tabloid-ready scandal and drug abuse. “Oceans of stars / Down by the sea is where you / Drown your scars.” The problem, especially with LA and the promise of a makeover, is that you can never drown the scars. They’re always there. But sometimes the beauty is in just trying to.