Some people drink a cup of chamomile tea to fall asleep. Some count sheep. Others rely on a boring book or the soothing sounds of a white noise machine. But me? The summer before I turned 13, there was only one thing that calmed my mind at night: listening to Hole’s Live Through This on my Walkman.
On more than a few occasions, I fell asleep wearing headphones, listening to Courtney Love’s aggressive guitar and angry lyrics. I needed to hear someone else screaming about the same injustices that made me want to scream. If Hole could rage against sexism and conformity and the ludicrous claims that culture makes on women’s bodies, then I could take a break from it, at least long enough to sleep.
Just relax, just relax, just go to sleep. That’s a line from “Jennifer’s Body,” and sung soft and low, it’s the closest the album comes to a lullaby – if only it weren’t couched between hoarsely screamed verses and the machine-gun drumming and cymbal crashes that end the song. Live Through This is known for its “loud-quiet-loud” dynamic, and it plays with tempo in a similar way (“slow-fast-slow”). These sudden changes in volume and speed are among the many reasons why it’s a strange album to fall asleep to.
But then again, summer camp was a strange place. I lived in a cabin with nine other girls, and in those close quarters, anxiety and shame about our bodies hung in the air like bug spray. “You’re lucky,” my bunkmates would say, “you’re so skinny.” I didn’t think of myself as skinny or fat. I mostly thought of my body in terms of what it did, not how it was looked at.
Some of the meanest girls at camp were thin, and some of the nice girls were bigger. And of course, the mean girls would give the fat girls shit about their weight. Although I wasn’t heavy, I got shit, too: I was weird – I daydreamed all the time, didn’t have crushes on the popular guys, wasn’t in any hurry to start shaving my legs.
Live Through This was jarring and abrasive, sure – but it was also familiar. I’d listened to it countless times, and the intimacy was comforting. The cassette had been a birthday present from my friend Sara, the autumn before I brought it to camp with me. She knew I’d be happy to have my own copy, because we’d already spent hours listening to the tape in her room. After school, we practiced maximizing its cathartic potential, sitting on the floor by the stereo and rewinding over and over and over to the part in “I Think That I Would Die” when Love screams FUCK! YOU!
It felt good.
We didn’t know what the song was supposed to mean, but the lyrics were clearly about asserting ownership, then lashing out when that ownership is threatened. You can tell that without even hearing the words – just from the shattering violence of the clash between the moments of silence and the wonderful scream that follows.
It’s… [quiet guitar] Not… [same quiet guitar] Yours… [same quiet guitar] and then the FUCK! YOU!
Sometime between 1994 and now, I learned that Love temporarily lost custody of her daughter when she was two weeks old, and it makes sense that “I Think That I Would Die” was written about that traumatic experience.
But that didn’t matter to me and Sara. As we sat in her room, rewinding and rewinding and relishing the abandon of our favorite part of the tape, we were learning how to scream “fuck you.”
All 12-year-old girls have to learn how to scream “fuck you.”
Sara got her period before I did. I remember the package of Always pads that appeared next to her dollhouse one day. I remember she didn’t like to talk about it much. I remember boys making fun of her when they saw the pale green plastic of a pad wrapper sticking out of her back pocket. This was a signal. This was starting. Our bodies were not going to be our own anymore. They were becoming public; they could be commented upon, judged, held to sick standards; they could signify sex and whatever else, whether or not we wanted them to.
One of the main themes of Live Through This is the objectification of the female body: I am doll parts / Bad skin, doll hearts.
Something the girls at camp understood better than I did was that women are required to be thin. No matter how many YM articles I read about “Skirts for Every Body Type!” where “pear-shaped” readers were perkily assured that there were “options” to “camouflage” their hips and thighs, I maintained some amount of immunity to the poison of this body shaming.
But even though the angst I had about my own body was minimal, I felt an overwhelming sense of outrage at the injustice of this requirement. How it made my best friend at camp anorexic, how it made the other girls in our cabin waste time worrying about the calories in pizza, how it made someone (we never found out who) vomit into Diet Pepsi bottles and hide them on the dusty shelves above our cubbies.
Nobody talked about the Diet Pepsi bottles. Nobody talked about eating disorders. Nobody questioned how damaging these standards of “beauty” were. Well, nobody except for Courtney Love, who knew just how fucked up it was: They say I’m plump, but I throw up all the time (“Plump”). Be a model or just look like one (“Asking for It”). Anorexic magazines / It smells like girl, it smells like girl (“She Walks on Me”).
The cover of Live Through This shows a beauty queen in a tiara, caught in the camera flash, clutching a bouquet of flowers. Contrast this with the image in the cassette insert: a picture of a young girl in a flannel shirt, standing barefoot on a gravel road (a family photo of Love at age 8).
The first time I opened the cassette and saw that photo, I was startled to see myself there: messy hair, sleeves too long, not quite smiling.
What is the “this” in Live Through This? For me, it was adolescence. How to understand a world that rewards women with crowns and flowers for being dumb and fake and smiling just right, when it makes more sense to hang out in a flannel and no shoes and do whatever you feel like.
If you live through this with me / I swear that I will die for you / And if you live through this with me / I swear that I will die for you. When I heard Love sing those lines in “Asking for It,” they felt like a promise. She understood my pain, because it was her own. She was like an older sister who had been to hell and back, and was there to tell me about it: Someday, you will ache like I ache (“Doll Parts”).
So, I did live through this. And I still am. That summer was the last one I spent at camp, and I haven’t needed to listen to Live Through This to fall asleep since.
Still, I return to the album again and again. It’s part of me. It played a tremendous role in the formation of my feminist identity. It taught me how to be angry. And even after nearly 20 years of listening, its cathartic powers haven’t dulled. There are some days when the only thing I want to do after work is blast Live Through This on my headphones and aggressively wash a sink full of dishes. Run the water hot, turn the volume up, and FUCK! YOU!