Written By Naomi Fry
As someone who was already in her early twenties—still young, surely, and yet unquestionably an adult—when Hole’s single “Celebrity Skin” was released, I’ll admit it was a bit of a shock to realize that the song is celebrating its twentieth (!) anniversary this week. But once I managed to look past the pangs aroused by time’s swift passing—Were we ever so young? Etc., etc.—I could admit that, if nothing else, the occasion provides us with a perfect opportunity to revisit this perfect song.
“Celebrity Skin” made its début on September 1, 1998, the first single from Hole’s album of the same name. It marked the band’s return after a hiatus, which was taken to allow the lead singer, Courtney Love, to focus on her acting career—an effort that culminated with a Golden Globe nomination, in 1997, for her role in Miloš Forman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” and the glamorous look that she revealed, before the Academy Awards that year, on the red carpet. That look transformed Love from a chaotic, thrift-store-wearing avatar of the grunge era to a kempt, Versace-gown-clad star, and that makeover continued into the studio: in many ways, Hole’s third album smoothed the band’s difficult, discordant rock into something more commercially palatable.
“Celebrity Skin” epitomized this transition. Running at a fleet two minutes and forty-two seconds, the song is glossily produced and features a sugarcoated melody that, matched with Love’s polished singing and ooh-ooh, sixties-girl-group-style backing vocals, makes for a great pop single. What turns “Celebrity Skin” into an enduring artifact, though, is its aggressive undertone. Beneath the saccharine harmonies, there is a hint of darkness, placing the song in a lineage that proceeds from melancholy pop bards like the Beach Boys all the way to contemporary divas like Ariana Grande, who tends to mix her sweetener with a dash of poison. We can hear this right from the start, when the song begins in medias res, with a riff that becomes unforgettable after only a couple of listens, up until its end, when it abruptly cuts off, almost before you can catch your breath. “You want a part of me / But I’m not selling cheap / No, I’m not selling cheap,” Love sings, and there comes that riff again. I might be commercial, she’s telling us, but that doesn’t mean I’m selling out.
A previous version of this post misstated the award for which Love received a nomination.