Sure it was a publicity stunt.
When Courtney Love gave David Letterman a peek and later did the same
and more for some guy outside Wendy's, she certainly had the sales
of her latest album in mind. But I'm willing to cut Courtney a lot
of slack. No woman in music today gets closer to Janis Joplin when
it comes to channeling the primal.
Though she was much too shy to show her breasts, Janis definitely
let it all hang out. She was one of the great hunger artists of the
'60s. In performance, she tore her insides out and offered them up
to her audience in the (usually vain) hope of pleasing and attracting
men. I don't surmise this from a rockumentary. I got about as close
to Janis as a rock writer could, and in those days you could get pretty
close. I saw her neediness and confusion, and I watched as she was
allowed to slip away. Her death from an overdose was a major reason
why I stopped writing about music in the early '70sbut that's
When I watch Courtney, I see the same failure to distinguish between
persona and self, the same refusal to draw a boundary between expressiveness
and excess, the same insistence on showing pain that made rock music
in the '60s so intense.
Of course, Janis wasn't gratuitously violent, if only because she
didn't have the ego strength to project her anguish onto anyone but
herself. Nor was she capable of the sleazy stylizations that Courtney
can't resist. Janis was too badly damaged to be a narcissistand
the industrial tropes of rock were nowhere near as binding as they
are today. Janis grew up in an era when there were young ladies and
sluts like her, but by the time Courtney came along, bad girls were
invited to kick out the jams. Watching her flail about, I can see
the world my generation created, for better or worse.
I'll leave it for dude nation to rate Courtney's rack. Instead, I
want to focus on breast baring as an act of power. It has a rich history
in Western culture, one that merits mentioning at a time when female
flashing has become a line of demarcation in the culture wars.
I'm not thinking of those naked majas and nurturing Madonnas that
grace the realm of art. When you enter a museum, bare boobs are all
around you. This hallowed setting sanctions the root reverie of heterosexuality
that involves possession, domestication and control of the female
body. That's why the male nude is usually standing while the female
nude is passively posed. But there's another more active role for
women in art. By the time Eugène Delacroix got around to painting
Liberty Leading the People in 1830, the bare-breasted woman warrior
was a signature of civic strength. Blame it on the Romans and their
goddess Justicia (a.k.a. Dike, if you want to get Greek about it).
Her nude figure stands in the lobby of the Justice Department. When
John Ashcroft had it draped so he could hold his press conferences
in decency, he attested to the enduring power of women who expose
themselvesand the anxiety they provoke in the religious right.
You don't have to tell that to Karen Finley, the performance artist
who poured chocolate over her naked body and stuffed food up her butt
while incanting a poetry of pain and rage. Perhaps you remember how
the pussy-chasing gents of Congress reacted to this gesture in the
'80s. I still vividly recall the first time I saw Finley perform and
the reaction of men in the audience. This was a club crowd, and they
threw lit matches at her. It was a supreme gesture of male terror
Because female exhibitionism carries this aura of violation, it unleashes
all the demons of gender. That's why breast baring has been utilized
by generations of rebellious American women. Isadora Duncan, the mother
of modern dance, was the Karen Finley of her time, never more so than
when she let her drape drop before a stunned audience. So, in a sense,
was Sojourner Truth, the freed slave who became a powerful preacherand
one of the first activists to link the oppression of slaves and women.
She was so imposing that she was often accused of being a man. In
order to stop such slander, she exposed her breasts before a crowd
in Indiana. It was one of the most important moments in American history,
though you'll never see it on a commemorative stamp.
Flash forward to the Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson stepped into the
sexual maelstrom by allowing Justin Timberlake to rip her possibly
pre-torn top. Consider the penalty the partners in this faux apache
dance incurred, and you'll see the meaning of breast baring in a conservative
time. Janet is cast in the slut role and punished accordingly, while
Justin sails along on the unspoken assumption that boys will be boys
where the bodice is concerned. In this rapine charade, Justin butches
up his icon, and a wan apology is all the shame his sin requires.
But the bad girl can't say she's sorry. She must suffer the contempt
of those who relish watching her disgrace in slo-mo on every channel.
I can only wonder why the boom landed on Janet while Britney can flog
the scarlet letter.
Thank God, for Courtney's sake, that she is white. She can play the
wild woman without frightening the horses. What's more, she chose
to grin and bare it at an hour when all good children are asleep,
having whacked off in their beds. The mic-stand mayhem that followed
was the ideal addendum to this piece of performance art, and the climax
came when she emerged from jail to the timeless glare of the cameras.
It was a perfect tabloid moment.
If you step back a bit from this vaudeville, it's hard to ignore the
evidence that Courtney is a woman in crisis. She faces drug possession
charges. Her daughter has been removed from her custody. The 10th
anniversary of her husband's suicide is coming up. Sure she markets
her madness, but the primal currents that course through her act are
real. That's what makes her a hunger artist. And she doesn't just
put her personal pain in your face. In the tradition of Joplin and
Finley, her art answers Sojourner Truth's fearsome, if rhetorical,
question: Ain't I a woman?
But Courtney's 'tude also evokes a much less salutary tradition. Entertainers
like her are often rewarded for being out of control, and the reinforcement
accelerates their downward spiral. That's what happened to Janis and,
for that matter, Judy Garland. Baring the breast can represent a rebellion
against this sacrificial rite. It's a gesture of agency. Check out
the manual of psychological disorders and you'll see that exhibitionism
is regarded as a quintessentially male pathology. When women do it,
they lay claim to the phallus.
There's something about a rampageous woman flashing men that resonates
with power. You expect guys to rear back in horror, as they did before
Sojourner Truth, or to throw lit matches, as they did at Finley. That
was then and this is now. David Letterman was anything but fazed by
Courtney's desk dance. In his insouciance, you can glimpse the liberal
man's defense against the phallic potential of women. Don't try to
repress itthats for Republicans. Just sit back and enjoy
If I have to choose between The Stepford Wives and MTV Spring
Break, I'll definitely opt for the latter. But at least conservatives
take sexual transgression seriously. The liberal solution is to tame
it by trivializing it. That way, male distance is maintained. The
classic gesture of female incursion is neutralized. And ultimately
the joke is on desire.
Richard Goldstein is the executive editor of the Village Voice.