>In 2009, American culture is an unprecedented cult of celebrity. Film, TV, music, art, and literature remain important apparatus, but the engine for pop culture is pop culture. For example, VH1 casts its entire reality stable and creates new series based off prior reality shows, then Best Week Ever, I Love the 00’s, The Soup, and a billion blogs regurgitate the entire production until finishes as True Hollywood Story: Flavor Flav. It has become a phenomenon about itself. As such, there is currently nothing on the planet more self-sustaining than the American pop star. It is the only place where fame alone–even without an original source–propagates fame. This could not be in more opposition to the prevailing anti-heroic attitudes of the 90’s. So, it is with great sadness and a modicum of shame that I close the 96X Anthology with the prophetic Nineties hit that most typifies the Oughts: Hole’s “Celebrity Skin.”
(Also, my editors tell me I’m under my Female Artist quota for the month.)
By the end of the 96X-era, pop music drastically differed from the grungy rock that ushered in the decade. Even though the station still played requisite favorites from every phase of the 90’s, there was no denying the contrast between 1992’s singles and 1998’s. The same format that once featured “Man in the Box” now debuted Dog’s Eye View’s “Everything Falls Apart.” Flannel gave way to Abercrombie. Suddenly, Courtney Love’s “Celebrity Skin” stood in the same spotlight her late husband’s “In Bloom” once occupied.
Naturally, I’d love to pick any of these songs featured on Volume 15 (say, any of them about “endings,” say, Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” or the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” or Green Day’s “Good Riddance”) wax poetic on the melancholic powers of nostalgia, close with a Rick-Reilly-style cheesy turn of phrase (“…And you know what, I did have the time of my life”), and tie a saccharine bow on the whole damn adventure.
But this blog’s about music, and no other song on Volume 15 bridged the gap between the 90’s and the 00’s more poignantly than “Celebrity Skin.” Grunge started in the early nineties as an alternative to the glamorous excesses of hair metal. Its first stage ignored celebrity altogether, focused instead on the “dirtier,” “grungier,” “more real” aspects of life (Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow,” for example). It was uncool and unacceptable to mug for the camera, or openly aspire to pop stardom, or write unironically about celebrity.
But by 1993, fame was unavoidable. Suddenly the anti-heroes became reluctant, if not unwilling, pop stars. This ushered in Stage 2, in which success, stardom, and celebrity were acknowledged, but in either an unflattering (PJ’s “Corduroy”) or ironic (Weezer’s “The Good Life”) light. By ’98, however, pop culture was once again ready for its close-up. “Celebrity Skin” simultaneously ended Stage 2 and ushered in a new era altogether.
A self-conscious slice of inspired glam-rock, the song itself betrays its purpose. Though initially sold as a typical post-grunge, irony-laden satire of celebrity (and Love’s association with the song invites that interpretation), the song itself celebrated celebrity more than it mocked it. With every passing three-chord phrase, every affirming “yeah” of the chorus, every bounce of the bridge’s melody, Love made it okay to sound happy again. And although her status as Widowed Queen of Grunge offered satire as a possible interpretation, the song itself was too much fun to be genuinely negative.
For all her sneering delivery and PR-BS, Love was thrilled to have a makeover, try a fad diet, get a glossy magazine spread, and secretly, embrace the New Pop. “Celebrity Skin”–especially paired with its unapologetically glamorous video in the context of the whole record–was an unironic confession of pop guilt. And yet, despite its guilt, it didn’t feel guilty.
The songs of 96X, with their frequent “Kill Your Idols” mantra, often turned their back on authority, celebrity, power, wealth, glamor, fame etc. Indeed, Thom Yorke spoke for many when he sang “they don’t speak for us.” In that way, the 96X Anthology tells the tale of the underdog becoming the champion…then wondering what to do next. Who better, then, to cap off that era than a GenX Anti-Icon like Courtney Love, once writing morbidly about “doll parts,” now all dolled up, once applying exaggerated lipstick smears, now blushing and polished post-stylist, once crowd-surfing recklessly during national broadcasts, now mugging for a vaseline-coated lens, singing joyfully, strumming the glittered guitar casually, smiling through the after-effects of a makeover*** she coyly says she doesn’t want. She took the interstate from Seattle to Hollywood and didn’t look back. Most of us didn’t look back, either. Most of us still don’t.
But some of us do.
All I wanna be,
***Yes, she’s a mess now, but wasn’t in 1998.