By Courtney E. Smith
With Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Today we look at Hole’s revered second album Live Through This, which turns 20 on April 12.
Released on April 12, 1994, Hole’s landmark Live Through This is an album that is inherently female, unforgivingly dark, and perfectly self-aware.
It was also the mainstream world’s introduction to Courtney Love, who sang lead and wrote most of the songs on the album with guitarist Eric Erlandson. And it became one of the most controversial albums of the year due to luckless timing: It was released one week after Kurt Cobain committed suicide.
But as much as the music drew a certain type of person to the band, so did the album’s artwork and packaging. That focus on the visual elements was deliberate, and according to Robin Seibert (née Sloane), the former creative director for Geffen/DGC Records, it was also all thanks to Love. “This is all Courtney’s creation,” Seibert told Radio.com.
In 1994, most people would have first made contact with Hole through the single “Miss World,” thanks to radio play or a music video. And the subsequent decision of whether or not to buy Live Through This would have been made in person, in the aisles of a record store. Many listeners probably took a look at the crying beauty queen on the cover and decided that, yes, they would like to hear more of what’s inside. Which was why, especially at the time, creating compelling imagery was vital.
Photography on Live Through This, including the iconic cover art, was primarily handled by Ellen von Unwerth, a former model, fashion photographer and music video director. Her work is so pop culturally pervasive that Complex magazine created a list of her 100 Sexiest Photo Shoots. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, von Unwerth shot to fame after mass exposure from her Claudia Schiffer for Guess campaigns. These days she’s the photographer of choice for many pop stars, including Christina Aguilera and Rihanna.
(Ellen von Unworth – Fashion Story: So full of Dreams – Vogue Italy, July 2012)
In the ’90s, the connection people didn’t often make was that Courtney Love was emulating the styling of Madonna, in the same way that, today, Beyoncé does right and many other pop stars do wrong. All of these women are trying to be multidimensional: a sex goddess who is also the boss; a mother who’s also a giant star; an artist who also runs a business.
And for Love to tap a photographer like von Unwerth showed she was including sex as one of the tools in her bag of marketing tricks. It was an inspired choice, because von Unwerth is a photographer and videographer who can paint with all the shades of the female sexuality rainbow, from full nudity to beguiling Victorian. And she likes to tell a story.
(Ellen von Unwerth – Fashion Story: Thinking of a glamorous time – Vogue Italia, April 2012)
Seibert is the former creative director for Geffen/DGC Records who worked with Hole on the packaging of Live Through This, as well as the subsequent visuals attached to the project. Seibert explained to Radio.com that it was her idea to work with von Unwerth, with the aim of creating something different. However, she made clear she was only connecting the already dotted line of interest between the high fashion world and Courtney Love.
“Here’s the thing with this band Hole,” said Seibert. “It was always Courtney’s vision. I don’t remember having any conversations with any of the other band members about imaging. Not that they weren’t valuable, but this is all Courtney’s creation. Everything to do with Hole.”
The high fashion world had a hard time adapting the grunge look (witness the legendary Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis’s Spring 1993 grunge show that got him fired — though it’s now considered visionary). In addition, the heritage labels were slow to adapt to the lowbrow flannel-and-flea-market look the genre popularized. But apparently everyone was eager to get their paws on the already notorious Love.
“Courtney was really clear, and she said, ‘I don’t want to wear those clothes. Not yet, not in this part — I’m just launching,'” Siebert said. “She understood how to create the image she was going for. She was not naive about any of this stuff.”
And, Siebert continued, “in addition to having great visual ideas, [Love] had her own fashion sense. I think she helped to carve out that baby doll image, initially. She already had a presence in the fashion world, and Ellen had done all that great work for Guess jeans. We thought, let’s try and get someone really out of the rock and roll world.”
(Courtney Love of Hole on MTV Unplugged in 1995 – Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
And then there’s that cover, the heavily made up beauty queen, played by model Leilani Bishop. It’s the kind of image that appeals to a girl who gets the joke — who is torn between wanting to be the beauty queen and seeing the ugliness of an enforced standard of beauty. And it came from a particular teenage inspiration.
“The cover was [the result of] conversations with Courtney,” Siebert said. “I’m not saying that this cover came from this, but the conversation started with the movie Carrie…. Obviously the movie was different, but it was created while keeping the darkness of that in mind.”
(Courtesy of Geffen/DGC Records)
Siebert elaborated that the visuals from the “Miss World” video were meant to continue that idea, playing on the dark beauty queen theme. It was also echoed in the idea of being, in the words of another Hole song (“Doll Parts”), the “girl with the most cake.”
The overall image of girlishness-meets-dirtiness is reflected throughout the album’s design, from the pink and red hearts to the font used for the thank-you notes. Additionally, two smaller images (selected by Janet Wolsborn, the album’s art director) come from Margaret Morton and Juergen Teller.
Morton’s contribution came from an ongoing project to photograph homeless dwellings in New York City. The particular photo used in Live Through This (below) was also published in a book called Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives. The subject was a series of photos taken in gardens that had been created by homeless people. In context, it examines the desire for permanence from a necessarily transient population. Put in the visual context of Live Through This, it echoes a messiness that comes with being a woman-child. Nothing is sparkly and new; the world is damaged, so get used to it.
(Margaret Morton – Transitory Gardens, Uprooted Lives – Yale Press 1993)
Teller’s contribution is a small ballerina photo that appears in the Live Through This booklet. Teller would later collaborate with Love on a photo shoot for i.D. magazine, but here his representation is small and fragile, used to reinforce an idea of girlish things. At the time, Teller was very well known in music for his collaborations with Björk. Modern day pop-culture fans, however, know him as the in-house Marc Jacobs photographer who passed on shooting Miley Cyrus for the brand’s spring 2014 campaign because, as Jacobs told the press, he just didn’t want to shoot her.
At the end of the day, music fans can look at the packaging of an album as simply the wrapping paper around a gift. And in fact many bands have given little consideration to it. Others, however, recognize album artwork and packaging as a way to express another aspect of themselves.
Courtney Love managed to achieve that on Live Through This. But by doing so, she also foreshadowed her own transformation into a red carpet Malibu queen (see her in bed with sumptuous designer clothes on Hole’s next album Celebrity Skin) more quickly than we would ever have imagined.