“Le disaster”: Courtney Love‘s two-word epitaph for her 2004 album America’s Sweetheart, an unmitigated catastrophe that sent her hurtling back to the bankable moniker of her 1990s band Hole for its follow-up.
Concocted in a three-year maelstrom of excess, the highly anticipated solo disc was overshadowed by Love’s erratic behavior. In the wake of its release, an incomprehensible Love flashed David Letterman on national television. She was arrested for allegedly striking a fan with a microphone at a concert and faced court on multiple drug charges. It was a sad, swift demise for rock’s most infamous woman, who rose phoenix-like from the loss of her husband, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, rebranding herself as a Grammy and Golden Globe-nominated double threat. Not quite a sweetheart, but a survivor.
America’s appetite for celebrity downfall reached a viperous peak in the 2000s. Anyone who committed the cardinal sin of placing themselves in the public eye was considered fair game. The advent of reality television gave unfettered access in a way that never existed before, dismantling the myth of celebrity a few years before TMZ picked at its carcass. The pendulum swung from the anodyne domestic chaos of Ozzy Osbourne’s family in The Osbournes all the way to The Anna Nicole Smith Show, whose appeal was predicated on perverse dramatic irony – we were laughing at the ill-fated “model/actress”, not with her.
In 2004, Courtney Love embodied the culture’s obsession with humiliation. The short-lived VH1 animated show ILL-ustrated aired a sketch called “Courtney Love Rocks!” In it, the exaggeratedly hunched musician vomits on herself and throws expletives at paparazzi, talk show hosts and Dave Grohl, before telling the judge who sentences her for possession and child neglect to “[eat] a big pile of s**t”. Somehow, the satire is kinder than it should be, barely scratching the surface of the Greek tragedy unraveling in real life.
The long, protracted tale of America’s Sweetheart begins at the dawn of the new millennium when Hole were embroiled in a legal dispute. Sensing the changing tide of the industry, Love declared Hole would leave their label, Geffen Records, and release music directly to consumers on the Internet. It was a prescient vision of the future accessibility of music, but on 19 January 2000, Geffen’s parent company, Universal Music Group, sued Love for breach of contract. Love countersued, citing unfair contracts for recording artists under Californian labor laws, launching a movement supported by LeAnn Rimes and Don Henley. She settled two-and-a-half years later, begrudgingly exchanging the rights to a Nirvana compilation album for her emancipation.
By this time, Hole had disbanded. A joint statement issued by Love and longstanding bandmate Eric Erlandson in May 2002 admitted, “Universal’s lawsuit against us made it impossible for us to find a new record company” during the forced hiatus. In their ten-plus years together, supported by a revolving door of strong female musicians, including Canada’s flame-haired Melissa Auf der Maur, they produced a small body of work showcasing an impressive sonic evolution. The primordial grime of their 1991 debut Pretty on the Inside showed promise, which 1994’s grunge-adjacent Live Through This delivered in spades. When Love made a credible bid for Hollywood stardom in the film The People vs. Larry Flynt, the music pivoted to shiny power pop on 1998’s Celebrity Skin. Love’s incisive lyrics and searingly angry voice were the binding force connecting all three albums, so it was no stretch to contemplate a potential solo career.
Love, it transpired, found the transition difficult. Fifteen months prior to the formal collapse of Hole, she was rallying troops for a new all-female band christened Bastard. Tentatively linked to independent punk label Epitaph Records, she enlisted former Hole drummer Patty Schemel and two members of Veruca Salt, Louise Post and Gina Crosley (Babes In Toyland’s Kat Bjelland declined her invitation). The lifespan of the group was farcically short. In March 2001, Bastard went into a Los Angeles studio, but Post quit after one day of recording. By September, Love and Schemel had completed the demos on their own following the exodus of Crosley as well as her replacement, and come December the project was no more.
The lasting contribution of Bastard to the genesis of America’s Sweetheart was Courtney Love’s desire for a raw, less polished sound. She premiered future album tracks “All the Drugs”, “But Julian, I’m a Little Older Than You”, and “Hold on to Me” at the Ventura Theatre in California on 26 October 2001, a warm-up for her first billed solo gig the following night at the Hollywood Bowl. The new material heard by the thousand-strong crowd was characterized by New Musical Express as “60s garage”, with Love telling US Weekly, “It marries Zeppelin to early punk. Always with a hook, of course.” She also sang a song that night which did not make the album featuring the line “and the plane it went down and we all hit the ground but God will never forgive you”. Only a month after 9/11, Love claimed to have written the prophetic lyrics before the terrorist attacks took place.
The Hollywood Bowl performance should have signaled a rebirth. Sporting a mane of flowing pre-Raphaelite extensions and an off-white lace shirt, she appeared to have stepped straight out of Laurel Canyon, a throwback to a simpler period of organic rock music. The performance, however, was pure bedlam. Opening for Jane’s Addiction, Love was late to the venue and proceeded to kick a member of the headlining group’s dance ensemble at soundcheck. Love’s set was labeled “unfulfilling” and “self-indulgent” by Los Angeles Times. Backed by three musicians procured only a few weeks earlier, the lack of rehearsal showed.
“The new material would have benefited from more focus, and all selections could have used some actual endings rather than Love’s free-associative ramblings,” cautioned the Los Angeles Times reviewer. Meandering arrangements did not help Love comply with her allocated set time. The outdoor venue had a strict curfew, and Jane’s Addiction was in danger of starting late. After playing Hole’s shimmering “Malibu” at breakneck speed (and shouting instructions at a fan who won the chance to perform backing vocals), stagehands informed Love she had one song left. She refused to leave. As interval music played over the speakers, she was escorted offstage by security.
The adage all publicity is good publicity did not apply to the former Hole frontwoman. She desperately needed good press and goodwill to ink a record deal. Her litigious relationship with the music industry made major labels wary. A representative from Columbia Records went backstage after the Hollywood Bowl set to listen to some demos, but no deal was made. That Courtney Love could command such attention in the first place is an acknowledgment of her talent.
The new songs were compelling, even in embryonic form. “All the Drugs” stood out for its brazenness: dispensing with the metaphors she employed in Hole, this was a direct admission that “all of my money doesn’t feel as good as the drugs”. Schemel held the band together, pounding the drums with a ferocity that Love matched. “Devil’s driving my car tonight, and he’s drunk,” she sang over a relentless guitar phrase, elongating the last word into three syllables. Her vocals on the studio version come close to rekindling the wild energy of the night.
While much of 2002 was devoted to Love’s ongoing legal disputes (including one with Nirvana’s remaining band members), a crime thriller she filmed the previous year alongside Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon hit cinemas in September. The same month, Love hosted a 24-hour music marathon live on MTV2. Lounging on a bed in MTV’s studio above Times Square in New York, her rock trivia and serial name-dropping made for interesting viewing, as did phone calls with director Cameron Crowe and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. The stunt was a way to ensure Love remained in the public consciousness, one arm of a multi-format press assault.
For a year, she shrewdly courted the British rock music press. Perhaps believing the country held their artists in higher regard than America, Courtney Love secured lengthy cover stories in NME; the writers, wise to her game, wondered aloud if she was “using [us] as a part of a wider plan”. In October, a gentleman’s handshake with Poptones, an independent UK label founded by music executive Alan McGee, was supposedly agreed upon amidst some confusion from both parties regarding the specifics. Love decamped to England in December 2002 after a breakup with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, former Geffen A&R representative James Barber. The release of a single named “Mono” was earmarked for February.
Q magazine was chosen to announce her return to music. They described “Mono” as “a caustic anti-nu metal rant”, opening with a sample of Elizabeth Taylor’s dialogue from the 1963 film Cleopatra instructing Richard Burton to “kneel… on your knees”. Built around a bratty riff that evoked MTV’s original theme tune, Love proclaims herself rock’s great redeemer, opining the eminence of inferior males armed with “three chords in your pocket”. It was an unsubtle effort in self-mythologizing, the likes of which only Love could manage.
The photoshoot for Q concluded with Love walking the streets of London in her underwear in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, blocking a stream of oncoming traffic. This scandalous, off-the-cuff moment was, in fact, a carefully orchestrated slice of publicity, the accompanying article revealing she invited Q into her hotel suite partway through a full body wax. A photograph of a dead-eyed Love on the couch with a beautician between her legs was published in their next quarterly issue. Curiously, the closing sentence read, “Courtney Love is still without a record deal” – months later, “Mono” was still nowhere to be found.
Courtney Love’s time in London was memorable. She performed at a February 2003 fundraiser for the Old Vic Theatre as Elton John’s duet partner on his hit “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, re-emerging for an encore dressed in the Donald Duck suit he famously wore at a concert in Central Park. Once again she stripped to her underwear, climbing on Sir Elton’s piano to sing “The Bitch Is Back”. Love-as-Donald yielded another NME cover, but with it came tabloid coverage of her arrest at Heathrow airport the day before. Citing abusive behavior to an airline steward, authorities detained Love for 11 hours.
The airline in question was Virgin, whose boss, Richard Branson, also attended the Old Vic fundraiser. Love charmed him afterward, smoothing over the altercation and wrangling the promise of free first-class tickets. This conversation may well have been the inception of her deal with Virgin Records, who won a bidding war for the rights to Love’s solo material, nullifying the Poptones agreement.
News of the Virgin signing trickled into the media in June. It was rumored to cost the label $10 million, a modest figure compared to the advance paid to Mariah Carey in 2001 (for the equally disastrous Glitter film soundtrack). Ex-boyfriend and future co-producer of America’s Sweetheart James Barber called it a “last minute” decision, as Virgin wooed Love through various marketing commitments and the promise of creative control. The three-album deal would include a live album to be recorded at a women’s prison, a tip of the hat to the 1968 Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison LP.
Barber confirmed eight finished songs existed at the time of signing, recorded in Los Angeles with Schemel on drums. Along with those performed live in 2001, these included a cover of the Vertebrats’ “Left in the Dark” and three new songs – “Sunset Strip”, “Evil Woman Blues”, and “Never Gonna Be the Same” – co-written by Linda Perry. Courtney Love met Perry in San Francisco when she was the lead singer of nineties rock outfit 4 Non Blondes, but by 2003, had eclipsed her own moderate success to become a highly sought-after collaborator for female artists, unshackling P!nk and Christina Aguilera from label interference. Their albums M!ssundaztood and Stripped were commercial conquests, and the Perry-penned singles “Get the Party Started” and “Beautiful” were global chart-toppers.
Perry possessed honorable intentions. “I thought I could save [Courtney],” she confessed to Rolling Stone in 2019. “I really wanted to try to be a sober creative space for her.” This proved difficult when Love repeatedly left her waiting at a Los Angeles studio until four o’clock in the morning. The sessions moved to a recording studio at Château de Miraval in Provence, France in the first half of 2003 to actualise Love’s dream of making “a south of France, AC/DC, f**k-off record”. Her reference points remained grounded in the classic rock of the 1960s and 1970s, explaining to Billboard, “I want that French light to come through the way it has on the Great European Records, [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall, the Stones records”.
Despite the ambience of a centuries-old château, there was little joie de vivre in the troubled sessions. On the red carpet at a film premiere a few months earlier, Love staunchly denied any illegal drug use. “Am I on narcotics? No way,” she balked. “Have I been prescribed mood-altering medication? Absolutely.” Friends indicated the breakup with Barber in 2002 was due to Love’s increasingly worrying reliance on oxycodone. Perry later disclosed the extent of the drug abuse. In Will Yapp’s 2006 television documentary The Return of Courtney Love, she said, “A lot of heart went into [America’s Sweetheart], and it got ruined because she and her friend were coked out. And that is the truth, and that is a fact, and everybody knows that.”
History was repeating itself. Eight weeks after Hole’s alternative rock opus Live Through This hit stores in April 1994, bassist Kristen Pfaff died from an opiate overdose. Drummer Patty Schemel suffered from similar addiction problems and spiraled when she was replaced by a session player for Hole’s Celebrity Skin album. For the title track’s glittering video and subsequent international tour, a stand-in, Samantha Maloney, was used. With the cruelest of ironies, when Schemel unexpectedly left the America’s Sweetheart sessions, it was Maloney who was flown in to finish her parts.
Between the Los Angeles sessions and the weeks spent at Miraval Studios, enough songs were completed for the album. Courtney Love boasted she wrote thirty-two in total and was considering giving one to Britney Spears. In an exclusive interview with Billboard magazine in July 2003, she revealed the title – “in no way is it ironic” – and Virgin moved quickly to capitalize on the buzz, setting a release date of 28 October. There was even talk of a tour, Love having placed a full-page advertisement in New York’s Village Voice seeking touring band members who fit her simple criteria: must look like a “goddess” and be able to “really play” guitar.
But first, some changes were required. “Virgin were supposedly buying a finished album but, immediately after the deal closed, they announced that they wanted to trash the record and make it over from scratch,” James Barber said in an interview for the Poptones website in 2005. The producers who grace the final product read like an elaborate prank: Barber remained involved despite his rocky personal relationship with Love, whilst Josh Abrahams, who produced albums for Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, the very nu metal acts she despised, retooled some of the early tracks. Virgin CEO Matt Serletic, responsible for the sound of Matchbox Twenty’s first three albums, took the reins for the ballads “Hold On To Me” and “Uncool”. The latter included lyrics by Elton John’s writing partner, Bernie Taupin. “It needed a fix,” Love explained to Interview magazine in 2004. “I’m so not a snob about stuff like that.”
The planned October release was pushed back to February 2004, a spokesperson stating “the label and Courtney decided to go back into the studio in the interest of making the record the best it could be”. On 2 October, Love tried to get into Barber’s home to retrieve some CDs of songs they were working on and broke some windows in the process. She was arrested on the misdemeanour charge of being “under the influence of a controlled substance”. Less than an hour after posting bail, police responded to a second call and found Courtney Love had overdosed. She had her stomach pumped, and child services removed her 11-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, sending her to stay with family. By the end of the month, Love was charged with illegal possession of two types of opioids, pleading not guilty.
A Fox News article alleged Virgin paid for Love’s voluntary rehabilitation stay at Wavelengths in Malibu during November, ferrying her in and out to re-record parts of the album. This claim was refuted by Virgin. The lore around Virgin’s meddling seems erroneous as promotional copies surfaced in Japan at the same time with an identical tracklisting and sequence as what would eventually be released. America’s Sweetheart was evidently completed months prior to Love’s fall from grace.
One of the musicians co-opted for the Hollywood Bowl show in 2001, rock guitarist Jerry Best, is credited as a writer on over half the album and “Fly”, a Japanese bonus track. A handful of these songs rate as Love’s finest work, glimpses of artistic acuity from the eye of the storm. “Evil Woman Blues”, retitled “The Plague” then “Life Despite God“, sounds almost improvised, constantly shifting form over its four-minute runtime. A melancholic, church organ drones underneath Courtney Love’s atonal voice, railing against an ex-lover and then turning the focus squarely onto herself. The unbridled rage recalls Hole’s “Violet” whilst the lyrics allude to the inescapable madness of Lady Macbeth: “Everything went f**king wrong, chaos reigns when I’m along… Wash that stain under your skin, can’t wash it out, ‘cos I’d wash it in.” Briefly touted to play the Shakespearean role in a Luc Besson film, her self-awareness is unnerving.
The sharp, unpalatable edges of “Life Despite God” are absent on the closer “Never Gonna Be the Same“. It is a tender moment, shapeless in the same languid, billowing style as Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” with Love approximating Stevie Nicks’ melodious rasp. She sings of sitting by a bay, a nod to San Francisco, where she was born, contemplating the existence of God (“I can’t believe in anything,” she insists. “I know that Mary lied.”) Love’s plea for peace after riding “that black horse… through the depths of hell” is genuinely affecting.
But for each of these gems, there are barrel-scraping inclusions, which beg the question: who thought this was a good idea? On his website, Jerry Best remembers being “summoned… to Hawaii in February 2003 to play and write songs” for the project. He brought with him a track that referenced the “woo hoo!” hook from Blur’s “Song 2” and chords “similar to [Nirvana’s] “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and in the same key”. The result, “I’ll Do Anything”, did nothing to appease detractors who believe Kurt Cobain wrote Love’s best material. A line in the second verse repurposes the infamous decree attributed to Marie Antoinette as Love shouts, “Let ‘em eat cake until they all starve”; for the woman who once wanted to be “the girl with the most cake“, this was the sound of her walking towards the guillotine.
America’s Sweetheart was finally released in February 2004. It was an exhausting, difficult birth, and nobody was satisfied with the end product. As a producer, Matt Serletic was “bleary-eyed from… all-night recording session[s]” with Courtney Love. As Virgin’s CEO, he seemed ready to cut his losses. The album failed to hit the mark; by coating the record in a glossy radio-ready sheen, Love’s difficulties were obscured behind a disingenuous gauze. The images that adorn the sleeve perform the same bait-and-switch, glamorous Vargas-style pin-ups by artist Olivia De Berardinis depicting Love as rock’s fallen angel. De Berardinis complimented her subject, saying, “She was a diva… and I loved every minute of it. It was part of the experience.” Despite its selection as one of uDiscoverMusic’s 100 greatest album covers, Love maintains the artwork makes her seethe as she gave no approval for them to be used. (She wanted a letter from film studio pioneer Mary Pickford to actress Joan Crawford on the back cover, an idea that was kyboshed).
An attractive video for the lead single, “Mono“, directed by Chris Milk, was the finest piece of promotion for the doomed album. Love’s fairytale alter ego is awoken from a glass box in the depths of a forest by a group of CGI pixie-nymphs. Pursued by paparazzi, she stumbles into the real world and wreaks havoc. An army of little girls in tulle brandishing weapons help their twisted hero evade police, leading a chase through suburban backyards of unflinching civilians. Milk addressed Love’s freefall with a knowing wink, allowing her to be in on the joke. Speaking to MVWire, he added, “The little girls concept came out of the old Hole “Miss World” video in which Courtney plays a beauty queen. There seemed to be something interesting in giving tiny pageant princesses the tools to rise up against their oppressors.” “Mono” received some airplay on alternative radio and music video channels but had no real impact.
The week of release, Courtney Love failed to attend a court hearing, made unscheduled appearances on The Howard Stern Show and played two gigs with her all-female backing band the Chelsea. Together, they performed select cuts from the album, including “Sunset Strip” which, inexplicably, was released in two completely different guises: one acoustic-led arrangement for North America and a more electric take for Europe. Both versions start out as jangly Californian guitar-pop, a dopamine rush so intense the morbid chorus “rockstar, popstar, everybody dies!” sounds uplifting. But the rot soon sets in, and this spiritual sequel to Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” devolves into a loquacious exposé of Love’s troubles: she recites the litany of ailments she is medicated for, ranging from comic (“I got pills for my coochie ‘cos baby I’m sore”) to chilling (“I got pills ‘cos you’re dead”). It is a David Lynchian horror set on a Hollywood highway, with Love’s car careening off the road.
In the Los Angeles Times review of the show at the Roxy Theatre, rock journalist Richard Cromelin succinctly articulated the problem with America’s Sweetheart, calling Love’s performance “neither classic meltdown nor transfiguring return”. The record plays on well-worn tropes of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but only intermittently makes them worthy of writing about. Part of the blame lies in its production which Love deemed “a nightmare”, defending the smattering of “really good songs [that] were rendered lazily and sound like s**t”. A listen to the acoustic version of “Hold on to Me” performed live on Atlanta’s 99x radio station in 2002 compared to the sludgy dreck of the studio version suggests there is some truth in this. Tantalisingly, James Barber teased a demo that had a “totally different feel… with an incredibly cool mandolin part”.
Linda Perry was similarly candid, telling MTV, “It was a horrible, crap-ass record”, and Jerry Best tersely said his contributions “got reduced instead of produced”. Love threw Barber under the bus too, calling him a “lame boyfriend” in an Australian interview and rueing her “decision to allow him to produce my record”. (His sole co-writing credit is the middling “Almost Golden”, a track that sounds cobbled together from fragments of discarded tunes). Everyone – including Love – distanced themselves from the album. Brody Dalle, founder of the punk rock group the Distillers, played uncredited guitar on “Sunset Strip” and “was a little insulted when I noticed my name wasn’t on there, but I’m glad now, ‘cos the reviews have been so mixed”. Matt Serletic resigned as CEO of Virgin in October 2005.
America’s Sweetheart limped into the Billboard album chart at #53. It fared a little better in other territories, but not even a tie-in with a manga character based on Love boosted the project’s appeal in the usually loyal Japanese market. The pandemonium surrounding its release built to a frightening crescendo in July 2004 on the day of her fortieth birthday. Love, who was living in a loft apartment in New York, was spotted sitting on the outside windowsill. “I have all the leading indicators for suicide,” she told Rolling Stone writer Neil Strauss. “Loss of child, loss of spouse, public humiliation, civil arrest, financial collapse, displacement from home.” Described by a New York Post report as paranoid and delusional, she was admitted into psychiatric care and underwent a further rehabilitation stint.
Ultimately, Courtney Love shouldered responsibility for the failure. “I knew it was f–ked up when I was making it. That was my midlife crisis, right there,” she told Clash in 2010. Much has been laid at the feet of Virgin Records and the personnel involved, but nobody could have saved Love from herself: “I was too busy doing drugs, and I thought I could get away with it, and I couldn’t, and I got really humbled by it.” She completed a small five-date tour of California at the end of 2004, the last unremarkable gasps of an album pronounced dead on arrival.
Love reunited with Linda Perry on a second solo endeavor under Hole’s name – the far superior Nobody’s Daughter – but their first collaboration remained a sticking point. For all her bravado, she craved success; in a 2004 Blender magazine feature, the broken singer recognized the high stakes, conceding, “This record is my shot. After this, will I even get another?” Validation was important to Love, a perpetual outsider whose music obsessively problematized her own self-worth (Hole’s debut single “Retard Girl” was a lyrical objectification of herself). Instead of cementing her position as the savior of rock, America’s Sweetheart turned her into a punchline.
“Maybe one day I won’t hate that record,” Courtney Love mused in a now-deleted Instagram post from January 2021. “It’s one of my life’s great shames.”
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