All images of Courtney Love fracture and diverge, as if her persona is projected through a shattered lens. There is no one picture of Ms. Love as a person, just one truth about her as a public figure: She is the most-hated rock star in the country.
To millions, she is the tempestuous leader of the band Hole, a foul-mouthed singer with a mean streak who slugs other performers and wallops unlucky fans with her guitar.
To some she is the avatar of a rock goddess, snarling lips smeared blood-red like those of Kali, a Hindu deity who can be either destructive or charitable. In the latter guise, she's the Madonna, protective mother of Frances Bean Cobain and sister-savior to countless girls and young women who idolize Ms. Love as a powerful and successful woman in a man's world.
She is the bereaved widow of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, who took his own life last year with a shotgun blast to the head.
She's also the epicenter of a nagging conspiracy theory among some Nirvana fans, who are hounding her to answer a private investigator's claim that she was behind Cobain's death.
She is either loved or hated; few people who know about her harbor ambivalence toward her.
But what most people know of Ms. Love, 31, is the persistent image of the Bad Girl -- staggering across the stage, answering audience taunts with an outstretched middle finger or a flash of her breasts. There was a collective "uh-oh" when Hole was named to the summer Lollapalooza music tour; on the first date, Ms. Love made national news by punching out Kathleen Hanna, singer for Seattle-based band Bikini Kill.
In Ms. Love's world, every movement and utterance is collected and dissected. There's a body of evidence to support the claim that she's examined in a way rarely suffered by equally outrageous male rock stars.
"She's the first genuinely obnoxious female rocker . . . I don't think that's that bad a thing. We've had enough nice women rockers who don't offend anyone," said Joy Press, a free-lance writer and co-author of the recently published book "The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'N' Roll."
"I think that many girls found the first Hole album incredibly liberating. It appealed to women, especially to a lot of girls. It appeals to men too, but in a different way."
A basic band
As a band, Hole is fairly basic fare: sloppy guitars grinding away in a quasi-punky attack. But it's just as true that Hole -- Ms. Love, bassist Melissa Auf der Mar, guitarist Eric Erlandson and drummer Patty Schemel -- work in a musical form that offers women-led groups very little latitude. Ms. Love's deeply personal lyrics speak of pain, motherhood and isolation, and of female self-image, something rarely discussed in rock 'n' roll.
Carla DeSantis, publisher of the monthly magazine Rockrgrl, believes there's an overt misogyny at work behind Ms. Love's public perception. "America likes supermodels. They want their women pretty and quiet. People who shake things up like Courtney and Roseanne rub against the grain," said Ms. DeSantis. "I think men are judged on their art first and their persona second. I think women are treated oppositely. People are concerned more about whether they're pretty, or thin enough to be onstage leading a band."
Even the perception of Ms. Love's background is polarized. She's often portrayed as a trust-fund brat whose stipend from a rich relative fueled her global liaisons with budding rockers -- path that eventually intersected with the rising Kurt Cobain. Persistent rumors, especially among some Nirvana fans, claim that Hole got a record deal only because Ms. Love married Kurt Cobain.
Another take on Ms. Love's pre-Hole days: She grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Eugene, Ore., the daughter of a Grateful Dead hanger-on, Hank Harrison, and psychotherapist Linda Carroll, who counseled Katherine Ann Power.
After watching her parents' marriage crash and burn, and enduring the multiple remarriages of her mother, Ms. Love declared herself an emancipated minor and supported herself with her trust-fund money and by working a string of jobs. She and Mr. Erlandson started Hole in 1989.
For about a year, she was nightclub stripper in the Far East, a once-dumpy girl who grew into her body and learned how to control its power. Much has been made of the way she frequently exposes herself to audiences. It fuels the carefully sculpted bad-girl image, of course, but it's also a symbolically self-destructive gesture. Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop used it along the journey to rock godhood; Ms. Love, however, is often scorned for similar actions.
"Guys have been trashing hotel rooms and exposing themselves for years and that's looked at as part of the machismo of rock and roll. When women do something like that it's frowned upon," Ms. DeSantis said.
Hole's ascent has given hope to many young women looking for more than the usual images of women-led rock acts. They include:
* The unthreatening sweet thing who could be anyone's girlfriend (Tanya Donnelly, Sheryl Crow)
* The gutsy one-of-the-guys woman (Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Kim Deal)
* The flaky kook with a pretty face (Cyndi Lauper, Bjork).
Ms. Love is none of these.
A brilliant analysis of Ms. Love's role in rock is found on Crystal Kile's World Wide Web electronic 'zine. Ms. Kile, 27, is a graduate fellow in American culture studies and women's studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
For a while, the growing women's rock movement (often labeled "riot grrrl") embraced Hole as the band to open the door for more unrepentant, forcefully woman-focused bands such as Bikini Kill, L7 and the Lunachicks. But Ms. Love's persona has generated friction within the movement, Ms. Kile said, and that split was widened by the July 4 incident with Kathleen Hanna.
The tour fight
Bad blood existed between the two for several years before the fight, after which Ms. Hanna charged Ms. Love with assault. America Online subscribers got two versions of what happened, one from Ms. Love and the other from Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. Their Lollapalooza tour journals provided fodder for still-raging discussions over whether Ms. Love had gone too far or if Ms. Hanna was wrong to criticize Ms. Love about her newfound fame and to press the issue in the courts. Sisters should stick together, many said.
"But infighting in feminist politics is some of the nastiest fighting around," Ms. Kile said. "Kathleen Hanna does a lot of work on the ground. She's not just an artist, but an activist. She's invested a lot of time in really trying to make the world safe for girls and women."
With Hole generating so much exposure on MTV and elsewhere, some activist musicians may resent Ms. Love for not doing more for the cause, Ms. Kile said. "There's still a lot of stigma attached to 'selling out.' "
The music industry is as split as the public where Ms. Love is concerned. In a medium accustomed to loose cannons, she's considered one of the most dangerous -- even though her exploits are no more incendiary than most.
Tim Sommer, an artists and repertoire representative for Atlantic, said a sports expression is the perfect description of the singer: "You can't stop Courtney Love, you can only hope to contain her."
Music executives have the same sources of information as everyone else, so their perceptions tend to reflect what they see -- all the drunken rampages, or the episodes such as chasing singer Mary Lou Lord down Sunset Boulevard. (Ms. Love accuses Ms. Lord of trying to concoct a career out of one night spent in the back of a van with Cobain before he was married to Ms. Love.)
Despite her offstage behavior -- or because of it -- Ms. Love is considered a valuable commodity.
"I think that 80 percent of the people hate her for the wrong reasons," Mr. Sommer said. "They hate her for all the sexist insecure reasons. The bottom line is that when the tape rolls in a recording session, she delivers the goods. She makes incredible records."
There are the right reasons to hate Ms. Love, Mr. Sommer said. "She's become the waitress-hating, hoi polloi-hating person she used to condemn before all this. It's almost as if she's become Axl," he said, referring to widely despised Gun N' Roses singer Axl Rose.
With each week, Ms. Love seems to be pushing the envelope, but often provoked by people who know she has a notoriously short fuse.
Ms. Love made headlines earlier last week when Hole walked offstage during a tour stop in Pittsburgh. A person in the front rows had thrown an empty shotgun shell at Ms. Love's feet.
At the Lollapalooza stop in Great Woods last week, someone repeatedly screamed "Who's your next victim?" Ms. Love was visibly angered; she walked away from the stage front, almost as if mentally counting to 10. In other cities, fans wearing shotgun-print T-shirts have placed themselves close to the stage where Ms. Love is likely to see them.