Courtney Loves The Canon
The use and abuse of history in alternative rock
It used to be that school was where you went to learn the rules, and rock and roll was where you went to break them. But to Liz Phair, in 1992, it seemed the opposite was true. Phair had recently graduated with a degree from Ohio’s Oberlin college and was making her way through the underground rock community of Chicago. The scene was nicknamed ‘Guyville’, for reasons which would soon become apparent. It was made up of bands which were made up of guys, who hung out with other guys who listened to bands, and shared records and tapes by other guys who made rock music. There were girls, of course, but they didn’t rock. That was just a rule. In fact, Guyville seemed to be even more full of rules than it was of guys, which was saying something. You had to listen to certain kinds of records and grow your hair a certain way and wear certain kinds of clothes. And you had to respect certain truths, including the universally accepted truth that girls couldn’t play guitar as well as guys, and that if you were a guy in a band, you could have a girlfriend, but you should not, under any circumstances, allow the girl to be in the band (or even at the band meeting) because... Yoko Ono! This, to Phair, was astounding. At College, she’d learned about feminism, critical theory and art history, all of which had taught her that women could do anything men could do, and that if it seemed they couldn’t, it was most likely culture rather than nature that was to blame. But the guys in guyville clung to culture as though its meaning were self-evident and true for all time. If you tried to tell them girls could rock, they’d ask you how many great girl bands there were in rock history, and you couldn’t name five in under ten seconds, the case was officially closed. Then would come the list, the list of all-time classics. Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rolling Stones, The Clash, Ramones, Cheap Trick. You see any girls on there?
Phair had a strong suspicion that the list itself was the problem, and in this she wasn’t alone. A few years ealier, in another college-town punk scene, this time in Olympia, Washington, a young writer named Tobi Vail began publishing a fanzine called ‘Jigsaw’. “Of course we are told that there are no good girl bands and are deprived of our heroines!” she wrote. “Anyway, what I am trying to say is that there is a whole history of women in rock that isn’t too easily accessible and maybe it should be.” Vail set out to restore the balance by providing her own list of great female punk bands who’d been hitherto written out of the guy version of rock history. “X-Ray Spex, Kleenex, Delta 5.” Why had nobody heard of those groups? The cultural logic of guyville said it was because they weren’t good enough, because they never appeared in the Rolling Stone history of rock or on those compilation albums of classic songs of the punk era. Obviously, they sucked. But who wrote for Rolling Stone? Who compiled the compilations? Who decides, for example, to include the Ramones in the ten-year punk anniversary special and not, say, the Go-Gos? At the time Vail wrote, the Go-Go’s were the first and only all-female rock band to top the US Billboard chart. Their album ‘Beauty and the Beat’ was, by any objective standard, a masterpiece. And yet the band were, in 1989, routinely dismissed as bubblegum, a guilty pleasure at best. “I want to inform you”, thundered Vail in her editorial, “that Go-Gos don’t suck so stop putting them down. Yes that means you Mr Rock Journalist.”
Vail would soon put theory into practice by forming a band of her own, along with her friend and fellow zinemaker Kathleen Hanna, called Bikini Kill, in 1990. Men said they couldn’t play, but Hanna and Vail, having rejected the boy-rock benchmark of excellence, had no reason to care. “We will never meet the hierarchical boy standards of talented, or cool, or smart”, wrote Hanna in her ‘Riot Grrrl Manifesto’. “They are created to keep us out, and if we ever meet them, they will change.” Like Liz Phair, Hanna was a product of a liberal arts education, in this case at Olympia’s Evergreen college, brought up on egalitarian ideals and with a sound understanding of the relationship between history, culture and society, who found herself in a supposedly radical underground rock scene whose sexual politics seemed to be stuck somewhere in 1952. When Hanna observed that the male fans’ fondness for ‘slam-dancing’ at the front of the gigs was discouraging young women from doing their thing, she was told that if the girls wanted to slam-dance, they could; if they weren’t, it meant they weren’t tough enough, or they just didn’t want to. The very same ‘law of the jungle’ approach was applied to history and the canon - strength and merit put the Ramones or Black Sabbath on the list. If girl-bands didn’t make it, it proved they just weren’t good enough. Hanna knew these were contingent, rather than essential truths, whose tenacity could be explained by the power relations they upheld and reinforced. So she set about a program of affirmative action within punk. Bikini Kill instituted a ‘girls to the front’ rule at their shows by way of re-engineering the social space of the gig and giving women a chance to express themselves. In interviews and zine articles, she and Vail dropped names and drew up lists and wrote about the old books, records and tapes in their collection, reminding their fans of the rich legacy of women in music, literature and visual art, the submerged tradition to which they, band and fans alike belonged. With her second band, Le Tigre, Hanna set one of these lists to music on a song called ‘Hot Topic; a new feminist art-rock canon, chanted, playground-style, over a hip-hop beat. “Carol Rama and Eleanor Antin / Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneeman...”
Hanna has been accused, throughout her career, of ‘politicising’ things that ought not to be political, including music history. But history, music or otherwise, has rarely been anything but. The Greek historian Polybius reflected in the 2nd century BC that “the study of history is at once an education in the truest sense, and a training for a political career.” All historians agree, he wrote, that “the most infallible, indeed the only, method of learning how to bear with dignity the vicissitudes of Fortune is to be reminded of the disasters suffered by others.” It stood to reason that, having reflected on the struggles and victories of those who built their society, young people would emerge with a clearer idea of what that society represented, and a desire to safeguard its existence in the future. At least, this was the view taken by those scholars who revived Polybius’s ‘pragmatic history’ in the 19th century. “The old tradition of pragmatic history” wrote historiographer John Burrow, “might also be able to foster patriotism, a national consciousness, opposing ultra-radical and socialist tendencies.” Just as Hanna and Vail would do with their history-zines a century and a half later, German scholars, following the example of Herder, set about inventing German history, by picking over the record of the middle ages and early renaissance, looking for the people and events which led - or seemed to lead - to the emergence of a German national consciousness in their own present, and the eventual foundation of a German state. History writing in the 19th century became - along with flags, dictionaries and anthems - an element in the creation of nations. But this conception of national history also led, in a round-about way, to its opposite.
As Burrow has pointed out, national history virtually implies revolutionary history. If it’s possible to write the history of, say, Great Britain as the story of a certain group of people living in a certain part of the world, working their way toward the status of a modern industrial power at the helm of a great empire, then it ought also to be possible to write the history of those who were left out of this process, those with a sense of themselves as a people, with a distinct culture or class, who for whatever reason never managed to form a nation-state. Burrow cites Augustin Thierry’s 1825 book on the Saxons as an early example of this kind of history, the advent of Marxism would lead to many more. By positing the revolution of the proletariat as the goal of history, Marxism gave a narrative to the lives and times of all kinds of people who’d been left out of the offical record of states and empires. E.P. Thompson, in his ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, wrote that he had set out to rescue his stockingers, hand-loom weavers and luddites from “the enormous condescension of posterity”. History with a capital ‘H’, supposed that those people had no role to play in the story of the past other than to stand in the way of the inevitable arrival of the world as it was in the present. Thompson’s approach, and that of other writers who followed him, gave them a future, from which their past looked very different. It also put the lie to the 19th century ideal of ‘scientific history’, as though the historian were simply recording observable facts and presenting them to the public without comment. This kind of history-writing never quite recovered from the twentieth-century attack on its conventions, although it retained a certain hold over the guys of guyville, who, as late as 1990, tended to assume that the Rolling Stone version of rock history was nothing more than a record of what the great German historian Ranke liked to call “the way it really was.”
As the age of Empire came to an end in the 20th century, more and more submerged histories were brought to light - the history of colonised peoples in Asia and South America, for example, or the history of West African slaves. Post colonial, and later, post-modern history allowed that all kinds of people whose development had been left out of the official record might have stories to tell - rastafarians, homosexuals, teenagers, and that other mysterious societal subgroup whose members almost never featured in the history books despite making up slightly more than half the population of the world - women. By the time Phair, Hanna, Vail and their contemporaries entered college in the mid-80s, this idea was well and truly established within academe. All would have taken for granted the notion that history has no ‘grand narrative’ as such, that there are not one but many ‘histories’, and that all these histories reflect the interests and power relations of the people telling and writing them. So, for example, in the oft-told story of how Yoko Ono “broke up the Beatles”, Vail heard a form of vernacular history which was being used to reinforce the idea that women are not only incapable of making art, they’re also a danger to men’s art.
Riot Grrrl’s response to this was a move familiar from the world of post-colonial or post-modern history, the re-appraisal and rehabilitation of Ono herself as an artist in her own right, rather than merely a villiain in an old historical tragedy. Instead of being looked at in the context of the development of mainstream, white rock and roll (a genre whose standards Ono never accepted anyway), her work was re-inserted into the narrative of the post-war avant-garde from which she originally emerged, and also began to be understood as an important precursor to certain modes of expression used by women during the first wave of punk rock in the UK. Ono’s albums from the seventies subsequently became part of the Riot Grrrl canon, along with records by other overlooked female artists like Poly Styrene, Joan Jett and the Go Go’s, all of whom had been written out of music history to date for being either too ‘pop’ (Jett, the Go Go’s) or too ‘difficult’ (Ono); which to Vail and Hanna simply meant that they didn’t conform to the ‘boy standards’ of how women ought to look and sound. College professor and radio presenter Gayle Wald started playing old Plastic Ono band records on her radio show for the same reason she taught Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein in her literature class, because she felt it was important to establish and maintain a history of women’s art, so that young women could conceive of themselves as artists; in the same way that, say, Marxist historians earlier in the century felt it was important that the working-class had a sense of itself as a people with a past if they were to work toward a future. In this, Wald, Vail, R.H. Tawney and Thompson might all be guilty of writing what the British historian Herbert Butterfield famously described in 1931 as ‘Whig history’, a record of events which moves toward a pre-determined conclusion which is assumed by the author to be desirable. In doing so, she relegates historical figures to the status of either antecedents (‘inspirations’ or ‘heroes’ in rock parlance) or obstacles. But even Butterfield had to admit that whig history had its uses. After the second world war, he reflected (in ‘The Englishman and His History’), that the idea of history-as-progress had done much to boost morale during the interminable conflict, the sense of being part of a story, and wanting that story to continue. The same might be said of those who fought (with photocopiers and guitars rather than rifles) in Riot Grrrl’s culture wars of 1990-1996. Their history might be whiggish, but there was a war on.
“Women are the future of rock and roll, and that’s it,” proclaimed singer Courtney Love in an MTV feature on her band, Hole in 1994. “Get some guitars! This is the nineties! Empower yourselves!” Such pronouncements were often heard in the meeting-places and rehearsal spaces of Riot Grrrls in the early 90s. Familiar, too, was the tone of Love’s next quoted line, where she excepted herself from the history of ‘boy-rock’, and insisted that she wasn’t playing “rock and roll,” because its history was too polluted, too “full of fat bloated old dinosaurs”. Love herself would not have been out of place, at least to look at, at a Riot Grrrl gig, her fondness for smeared lipstick, oversized thrift-store sweaters, ripped, laddered stockings and baby-doll dresses were all very much of a piece with the look worn by Bikini Kill and other bands like Excuse 17 and Heavens to Betsy. But in the subcultures of the nineties, appearances - and words - could be deceiving. In the recent documentary film The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna reflected that she might once have seen Love as “an ally”. But by 1992, most Riot Grrrls regarded the singer as either a sex traitor or a sellout, or both. When Hole played a gig in Olympia not long before the MTV special was filmed, a whole contingent of Riot Grrrls showed up to heckle and throw zines at her. Love was more bemused than offended. “There’s always going to be a shitty band with girls in it that can’t play”, she said, recalling the incident a year later. “I was like, ‘uh, I’m really glad you’re here, girls, but check this out - I can write a bridge now.”
Love had worked hard, over the past decade, to refine her musical chops, to learn the art and craft of songwriting so that her ideas would have a chance of “getting over” in the wider world, being on the radio and in people’s heads. Love saw Riot Grrrl as doomed to fail precisely because it rejected these benchmarks of songwriting and production. Who would bother listening to the bands’ ‘message’ if all they ever played was scrappy, under-produced punk rock with out-of-time drums? “As supportive as I am of them”, she told Pamela Des Barres in 1994, “there’s a faction [in Riot Grrrrl] that says ‘we’re not going to follow your male-measured idea of what good is’.” Love had no time for such cultural relativism. “Look. Good is ‘Led Zeppelin II’. That’s fucking good.” If Riot Grrrl’s attempts to ‘empower’ and ‘include’ women in the discourse and practice of rock music amounted to a form of affirmative action, Love’s criticism of its effects could be seen as parallel to the critique of university admissions policies offered by Robert Hughes in his book ‘The Culture of Complaint’ earlier that year. By ensuring that students of, say, African american or hispanic background do not have to compete with their WASP counterparts on a level playing field, the Universities, Hughes argued, do nothing but encourage and reward mediocrity, and ultimately do far more harm than good. Love, likewise, saw Riot Grrrl’s self-determined standards as self-deceiving. “I’m not going to sit here and say you’re a good band when you suck. They’re like, ‘we’re entitled to suck’. Really?”
Further probing into Love’s conceptual world reveal more parallels with the arguments raging within and around the walls of the academy in the early 90s. By this point, American Universities’ well-meaning attempts to reflect a wide variety of cultural standards and points of view in the teaching of the humanities had engendered an enormous backlash. Critics like Harold Bloom attacked what they saw as the philistine sidelining of western European cultural history on the grounds that it was somehow ‘oppressive’ or ‘not empowering’ for female or hispanic students. The great books, Bloom argued, transcended cultural differences. Love saw Led Zeppelin in exactly these terms. The rock canon, for her, was inspiring rather than oppressive, and the goal was to engage with the tradition and learn its lessons, not to re-write the rules and give yourself a pat on the back when you win. Her status as the scourge of middle-America and its ‘family values’ belied the fact that she was, at heart, a cultural conservative, and a classicist, and not just because she liked to quote the bard in interviews and named her band after a line in a play by Euripedes (“there is a hole that pierces right through me”). Hanna and Vail saw sexual relations within rock as contingent and subject to change. Love agreed with them, but only up to a point. There were, she insisted, certain essential differences between men and women which were not culturally determined, which would remain true for all time. When Love appealed to history (as she often did), it was usually with the idea that by doing so, she could prove that some things never change.
And yet, in her very appeals to the timeless authority of rock’s canon, Love inadvertently proved that they were not as timeless as all that. In 1998, Hole released its third album, ‘Celebrity Skin’. Love described it at the time as “a record for everybody. Not for an elite core of snotty kids who went to college. Because you know what? I’m white trash, I never went to college.” In another move straight out of the conservatives’ playbook, Love accused her more politically radical contemporaries of ‘elitism’; since they insisted on giving listeners what they thought they needed (avant-garde feminist punk) instead of what they actually wanted, which, as everybody knew, was classic rock with big riffs and catchy choruses. When has it ever been otherwise? “If you write a song [like that]” Love explained, “there is nothing anybody can say to you about anything. Because that’s the thing that is spilling out of the camaro on a summer night. That’s the thing people are fighting to and fucking to and feeling great to. It’s the best thing in the world.” To write this kind of song, one had to put politics and ideology aside, as Love knew all too well. When Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson and her writing partner Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins first presented her with the guitar motif that would become the album’s first single, Love dismissed it out of hand as a “bad cock-riff”. Its brutish simplicity and thrusting arrogance reminded her of the bad old days of LA pop-metal, when her band couldn’t get arrested because all anybody wanted to hear was macho rock by big-haired nincompoops like Mötley Crüe and Poison. But by the time Hole began working on Celebrity Skin, bands like this had long since disappeared from the airwaves - in the 90s it was no longer acceptable to play power-riffs without some understanding of the power-relations they upheld. Third-wave feminism had revolutionised rock music, and the old cock-rock was consigned to the scrap-heap of history, after which the history of the genre itself was relegated to the status of a wrong turn, or a dead end. So it came as a surprise to Hole’s fans to hear them dropping Mötley Crüe’s name as an influence in 1999, or to hear the band lay into a fierce version of Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘Paradise City’ on tour later that year. Even Love seemed slightly taken aback. “I don’t know why the hell we’re picking this song!” she admitted, as Guns n Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O Mine’ blared out of the speakers, one of five songs the band had chosen as current favourites for a radio interview.
A few seconds later, she answered her own question. Guns n Roses singer Axl Rose might have been a misogynist and an egomaniac. But he also wrote classic rock songs and was, himself, “a rock star”. Again, this ‘rock stardom’ was something Love and her contemporaries had gone to considerable trouble to destroy. “But now, there’s something about it that we’re missing, at this moment.” Love was arguing on the one hand that classic rock could be, and ought to be, exempt from political concerns, that it was philistine to dismiss a great song on the basis that its sentiments were repugnant to you. But she also suggested that there were certain historical ideas that needed to be “brought back” at particular times, and that these ideas were contained within certain cultural works. So, if the world needed rock stars in 1999, then a re-shuffe of the canon might be necessary in order to revive or re-animate the tradition, the past would have to be made over in the image of the (hoped-for) future. Hole bass player Melissa Auf Der Mauer pointed out that Hole might have already done something similar with Fleetwood Mac - a band whose reputation was at a terribly low ebb in the early 90s. The group’s music was too polished and too nostalgic for the youthful optimism of the post-Nirvana years, its reputation for excess and decadence chimed badly with the period’s egalitarian ideals. But as the alternative rock revolution fizzled out, and bands settled into surpisingly lucrative rock-star lifestyles, Fleetwood Mac seemed to have something to say to them, and to their audience that no other band was saying. And so the Mac was slowly but surely re-instated in the rock-as-art pantheon, where they’ve remained ever since.
This re-cycling of the recent past is often cited as a symptom of decadence within rock, living proof that the genre has run out of ideas. Many observers see it as cyclical and as such, pointless and absurd. Kids who grew up in the 70s listening to their parents’ Joan Jett, Fleetwood Mac and Plastic Ono Band albums later become artists in their own right at roughly the same time that they begin to idealise and romanticise their childhood. They then recycle the sound of the 70s, which becomes the sound of the 90s, which will later be recycled again by the generation that comes of age 20 years later, and so on until the end of time. The process is dismissed, in other words, as mere nostalgia. This reductive reading of rock culture and its use of history does artists and fans a huge disservice. Rock makers and listeners are inherently nostalgic - their status as producers and consumers of a genre which places an enormous premium on youth virtually guarantees it. But when they return to the music of their teenage years, or their childhood, they go looking for certain things at certain times. The guys in guyville construct an image of the 70s which upholds their habits and norms, the feminist revolutionaries in their midst look to the same period for stories and individuals that will show them a way out of the same paradigm. Kathleen Hanna seizes on Yoko Ono as an early antecedent of the kind of revolutionary art she herself hopes to produce; Courtney Love picks over photos and recordings from LA Rock’s sunset years, looking for the language and iconography she and others will need to describe her own generation’s transition from post-revolutionary doldrums to a kind of new classicism.
In other words, rock artists go looking in the past for what they hope to see in the future, and construct their picture of that past accordingly. Again, in the history of history, this is hardly new. In the 19th century, German scholars and Wagnerians alike pored over the history of Germanic peoples in the middle ages in the belief that those people and events would guide them through revolutionary turmoil, and provide them with a model for the nation or society that would hopefully emerge as a result. As in history with a capital ‘H’, rock history can be used for radical or conservative ends, as a way of proving (or ensuring) that things stay as they are, or that things have always been as they are now. But it can also serve as a reminder that the limits of the world as it is as are not the limits for all time, that life was once different, and might be different again. As such, rock singers and their fans understand instinctively that, far from being a deadening or repressive force, history is potentially liberating. Indeed, the real enemy here is not history but ‘historylessness’, the suggestion (more often heard from older critics, interestingly enough), that youth culture forfeits its responsibility to invent the future by looking back, that those who do are lazy, or out of touch. Le Tigre’s ‘Hot Topic’ is one argument against this view. “You’re getting old well that’s what they say”, sings Hanna, having reeled off the names in her new pantheon; Gertrude Stein, Yoko Ono, Carol Rama. “Don’t give a damn I’m listening anyway.” Her onetime bandmate struck a smiliar note in her Jigsaw editorial of 1990. X Ray Spex, Kleenex, Delta 5... “So what if it was ten years ago?” wrote Tobi Vail. “Nothing like that is really happening today, anyway...”
(First published in Nexus 69: 'History Lessons', April 2015. Reprinted by permission)