Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.
Up now: Anwyn Crawford is a writer and visual artist. Her essays on music, film and feminism have appeared in several publications, including Frieze, Loops: Writing Music, Sound On Film and Overland. It therefore comes as no surprise that she chose to dedicate herself to months of research on Hole’s Live Through This and the riot-grrrl cultural climate it bloomed in for her forthcoming 33 1/3 book. Read on to learn about her affinity for blonde singers, and Hole as a gateway band to a wealth of other feminist-conscious rockers.
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Anwyn Crawford: Beyond personal significance, the fact that Live Through This is a rare example of feminist rock music. But the feminism it articulates is not affirmative or celebratory. It’s full of anger and shame; it revels in psychic and physical wounds. I think Live Through This is a good example of what Robin James, one of my favourite contemporary writers, has called “shadow feminism”. There’s a gothic quality to it: nothing is healed, nothing is overcome. Despite the title.
A lot of people hate Courtney Love. A lot of feminists hate Courtney Love, because she’s not a “good” feminist. I’ve been re-reading Ellen Willis’s wonderful collection, No More Nice Girls–she was writing 30 years ago about the need for women to, collectively, rid ourselves of the good girl/bad girl dichotomy. I don’t think we’re any closer to achieving that than we were when Willis was writing–if anything, the bad girl is now held up, in the mainstream, as a symbol of feminism’s failures. As if feminism should have a redemptive mission at its core: save the self-hating, misbehaving bad girls! But why should that be so? Over the years, it’s been clear to me that certain women–like myself–have been powerfully attracted to Courtney Love precisely because she doesn’t promise that kind of redemption. That’s part of the reason I want to write about her, and her band.
I also think that Live Through This is a fantastic piece of rock music, and I say that as someone who isn’t particularly attached to rock, as a genre. I don’t have much interest or investment in the rock canon, so I’m amused at being part of the 33 1/3 series, which, in many ways, is really about canon-building. Maybe I can do a bit of canon-unbuilding?
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
AC: I’d had Live Through This in mind for several years as an album that I wanted to write about for the 33 1/3 series, should the opportunity ever present itself. But I wouldn’t have ever acted on the idea had the open call for submissions not been made–I’m not very good at being assertive, in that way.
When the call for submissions was made, I did a quick bit of research into the history of 33 1/3, and discovered that Live Through This had never been pitched before. That surprised me a bit, and also made me nervous–I thought, well, I’m either onto a good idea, or I’m way off the mark and the editors will be laughing up their sleeves at me. I did have a couple of other albums in mind–Blue Lines by Massive Attack was one, but the Dummy title had just been published and I knew that, in background history at least, Blue Lines would perhaps cover too similar ground. The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers was another, and I was astonished to see, when the full list of submissions was posted for this round, that at least three people had pitched it! I didn’t think many people shared in that coterie obsession. But I was too close to that record, as a teenager. I think writing about it extensively would have driven me mad, just driven me into an endless, mirrored labyrinth of memory. Not to mention that it’s a really dark, horrible record, and not one I particularly want to listen to repeatedly anymore.
In the end, I reverted to my original impulse. It was important to me to prioritize writing about a female artist, because the gender balance throughout the 33 1/3 series has been really appalling–imbalance would be the proper word. It’s a real sausage party. And my critical writing is always about feminism, in some way or another. My interests suit Live Through This.
I guess what surprised me was the simple fact that I managed to write the proposal at all. For various personal reasons, it had been about eighteen months since I’d written anything professionally, and really, I sat down to do it as a way of figuring out whether or not I could still string sentences together in a meaningful order. But I wrote the introductory chapter in a day and a half, and that surprised me a great deal! Writing the annotated chapter outline was the fun bit, for me–I tried to make it fairly loose and associative, almost like a prose poem, with a chain of words and ideas underneath each heading, moving fast, not getting too bogged down in explanation or explication. I trusted that the editors would fill in the gaps, and it seems they did. Never over-explain. Always hold something back.
What was the first album you ever bought?
AC: Joyride by Roxette, on cassette tape! I was ten years old. I did love Roxette. Maybe I’ve got a thing for blonde singers: Marie Fredriksson, Courtney Love. And Cyndi Lauper. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is the first song I can remember listening to, when I was two. I still adore Cyndi. Can’t stand Madonna though, and I never could.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
AC: All three. My preference is for vinyl, but I can’t always afford vinyl, and it takes up a lot of space. MP3 players are weird, though. Everything sounds a bit shit, and I can never really decide what I want to listen to, because there’s too much to choose from and no objects to guide my decision. Being able to physically handle something, whether CD or vinyl, makes a difference, I think–it makes you more conscious of your listening choices. There are advantages to committing to one album or song at a time, without instantly changing your mind and scrolling on to the next one.
Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
AC: I’m going to dodge this question, in a way, by saying that there are a lot of lyrics on the album that I still don’t know. I’ve never bothered to look them up or properly figure them out. That’s true for a lot of albums I love, and I don’t know why I’m this kind of listener, but I can know a record back to front, musically, and still not be sure what the songs are called, or what the lyrics say. I rarely look at album sleeves. Maybe it’s because I am a writer, and words are my primary obsession–I’m trying to resist privileging the words over the music. I like the way that lyrics sound within a musical context: the way they inhabit the mouth of a particular singer, and the vocal texture and emotional force that only singing can bring to those words. If you read them on a page, they’re totally lifeless. Lyrics always disappoint me when they’re written down, so I avoid encountering them in that way, and I try to concentrate on what I can hear, even if I’m mishearing. If I know all the lyrics to a song, I tend to follow the words as if the song is a story being read aloud, and that really undermines my listening pleasure. It makes a song “about” something, and music is about itself. It shouldn’t be the subject of literary analysis.
What do you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
AC: I’m not an academic, so I can’t speak to any discourse about Hole within the realms of academia, though my suspicion would be that Hole, and Courtney Love, appear far less frequently in feminist academia than does riot-grrrl. And I really want to look at Hole within – or rather, against, that context. Of course there were clear antagonisms between Hole and more “properly” riot-grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, but part of what made Hole important was that they were so big, Courtney was so famous, and so if you were a Hole fan, the riot-grrrl stuff–and more broadly, a strong feminist consciousness–became present in your life. I grew up in outer suburban, semi-rural Australia; it wasn’t a place exactly teeming with riot-grrrl chapter groups. But Hole were unmissable, and through them you could find all this other stuff, which isn’t for a minute to diminish Hole’s importance in their own right. And they’re part of another musical lineage too, a real California bloodline, which takes in Stevie Nicks and The Runaways and The Go Gos, strong rock n’ roll women. I can even see a bit of Transvision Vamp in Hole: “Revolution Baby”, let’s say. That trashy element, and trashy I mean as a compliment, like Manic Street Preachers used to be. In the gutter looking at the stars. Which of course is an element of Hole that has really antagonized a lot of people–desiring fame, which is quite against the riot-grrrl ethic.
I’m talking to Hole fans present and former as part of my research, because a long-standing bugbear of mine is the way in which teenage girls are never taken seriously as an audience. They are the easiest demographic to patronize. Hole were huge with girls and young women, so of course they and their audience can be dismissed as silly and trivial. No one stops to think about the skill and artistry required to articulate that experience, of becoming a woman, and all the terrible contradictions and pressures it involves. We applaud men and their various Bildungsroman, but we presume that teenage girls, and the artists who speak to them, have nothing important to tell us.
What really goaded me into action with this book, the circumstance that fired my proposal, was finding myself lost in a YouTube rabbit hole one day looking at old Hole and Nirvana footage and realizing that every single video was buttressed by a vilely misogynist comment thread directed against Courtney Love. If I wasn’t such an internet naif I might have realized this before, but I am, so I never knew that this parallel universe had blossomed online in which Courtney was an assassin and Kurt Cobain was an avatar of “real” music, before it all got corrupted and feminized by, you know, women artists and black artists. But I’m old enough to remember Nirvana the first time around, and they were vocally pro-feminist… I’m bewildered and hurt and angry, as anyone is who sees a history that they participated in turned to something very false. If I can do anything in this book, what I want to do is reclaim that history in which Hole and Nirvana were both prominent, and in which feminist critique interrupted–or erupted out of–pop culture as it has done very few times before or since. I’m fed up with people not taking Courtney Love seriously because she was Kurt Cobain’s wife, and because all her subsequent troubles have happened in the public eye. Hole achieved something with Live Through This that deserves to be honored. And I feel like that achievement has been lost even from mainstream pop criticism.
Next time: Alex Niven on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. Stay Tuned.