The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic is the sort of reading that will suck you into a fascinating literary void forcing you to miss your stop (and the next three) on your transit commute while simultaneously compelling you to jump atop your seat on the train and pontificate with recited lines from your favorite chapter. It is required reading for any self-proclaimed rock fan. Self-described in the opening manifesto as a book “about planting a flag; it is for those whose dreams (and manuscripts) languished due to lack of formal precedence, support, and permission. This title is not meant to erase our history but rather to help mark the path,” the collection presents itself as a void-filling book by, for, and about women in music, a group most often written out of history. Penned by veteran music critic and current senior editor of the quintessential music magazine Pitchfork, Jessica Hopper, the book is a curation of reviews she’s authored for various publications over almost fifteen years.
To be fair, Hopper admittedly takes artistic liberty in the titling of her book, a reality she acknowledges in a disclaimer about other female rock authors on the first few pages. Hopper gives praise to her foremothers while valiantly continuing to march forward for women in music and for fans that are reliant on this form of progress (let alone for the sake of rock music itself, which is self-defeating in its isolation of half a population of wild talent and expertise). Such a disclaimer also reveals a style of writing that will carry the rest of the piece: one that is carefully constructed with an objective eye, heart full of integrity, nuanced mind, and forward thinking. It is exactly this form of thinking that has garnered Hopper exuberant praise and critical acclaim, and makes the book a refreshing must-read. For example, Tegan and Sara aptly describe Hopper as “A person in your life whose opinion carried colossal weight regardless of the topic being discussed. Someone who changed your mind and pushed your buttons, always ahead of the curve, and deeply entrenched in the scene with a scholar’s knowledge.” Theirs is a perfectly appropriate description that will become immediately and abundantly evident with each page turned.
The substance alone could carry this work, yet Hopper’s impeccable stylistic wit and candor make it a one-two punch, and keep the reader enthralled even through works on unfamiliar artists. One of the greatest ways she achieves this effect is through her addition of personal anecdotes throughout. For example, from the ground of Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary concert which she covered for Rolling Stone, Hopper offers this sarcastic quip: “PJ fans who totally only cared about PJ but soon might be drunk enough to give into something sort of pop-heavy as Queens of the Stone Age because they were bored (and they did).”
Aside from being amusing, these personal asides also offer a light-hearted, candid, and honest sense of personality to her writing, as well as a reflexive acknowledgement that Hopper is as much participant as observer in the scenes she covers. Another surprisingly thought-provoking stylistic approach she takes is to incorporate an interchanging timeline of her articles rather than a chronological ordering. In doing so, she illuminates the fluidity, flexibility, and evolution of the music industry, demonstrating how while some aspects may change, many others remain the same. To illustrate, while one piece ends quoting Courtney Love spewing “Girls don’t make angry records as much,” the next piece begins with the hook, “Older-generation female rocker ladies making uninformed judgement calls about women making music today, and how no one is angry anymore. . . IS REALLY F****** UNPRODUCTIVE.” Or there is the piece Louder Than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom found a quarter of the way through, where Hopper recounts in a vicarious-embarrassment inducing way her adolescence spent sporting all the Soundgarden, Janes Addiction, and Butthole Surfer gear she could muster to obtain the romantic attention of her male peers before receiving salvation from the goddesses of Bikini Kill and L7. Not only is it a refreshing tale, but it implicitly helps to underscore the rest of Hopper’s writing, specifically her opening piece wherein she observes many a 16-year-old girl standing in her old shoes like they are Cinderella and navigating the trenches of the phallocentric punk community, before discovering the empowered feminist niche punk community is the glass slipper.
The entire book is designed in a way for Hopper to constantly force the reader to interrogate the excruciatingly important philosophical and at times moral questions of who is represented (or not) in music, who is doing (or not doing) the representing, and how that representation looks. It is a pivotal point of discussion as it begins to unravel the heavily interwoven relationship of music and politics. Opening with Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t from Punk Planet #56 printed in July 2003, Hopper provides a prompt example of this questioning and asserts herself with explicitly feminist punk roots. Hopper summarizes the subservient position of girls/women in the emo genre with the question, “I wonder if [girls] see themselves as participants, or only as consumers, or – if we reference the songs directly – the consumed.” While this piece does focus on the emo genre, the philosophical questions reach far past any such musical boundary, which the author brilliantly dissects throughout the rest of the book. In response to the inevitable question, “If you have a problem with emo, you have a problem with all of rock history,” her answer is the succinct, “I know. I do.”
Throughout the collection, Hopper mercilessly takes on every genre, capturing the good, the bad, and the ugly, and providing both an educational and entertaining experience of the music industry. The book takes the reader through a brilliantly wild ride from start to finish, never staying the obvious course, but rather twisting and turning through unexpected perspectives, undiscovered stories, and at times, uncomfortable truths. From dissecting the mythology surrounding Lana Del Ray, correcting Tyler the Creator’s attempted appropriation of a homophobic slur when he has no title to it, re-evaluating the capitalist founding of the Warped Tour, the annual homecoming for the supposed anti-commercial, DIY punk rock community, the political and musical evolution of M.I.A., and literally everything in between. Each of these excerpts point to Hopper’s well-rounded expertise, demonstrating her unbiased reporting while simultaneously providing a balanced inter-genre perspective on the issues she discusses in a way that is accessible to understand, no matter where you stand on the musical preference spectrum.
One of Hopper’s greatest strengths as a journalist is her concerted but honest effort to reveal gritty but significant truths of the seedy underbelly of the music industry that are too-often written out of music history. Her willingness to bite the hand that feeds, if you will. This includes the 1997 hailstorm of R. Kelly’s sex crime allegations. Hopper ultimately asks a question of utmost importance, which forces the reader on a social and moral query: why have we allowed R. Kelly to continue on to new heights of fame, and do we have a responsibility to the survivors every time we listen? From a 2013 interview in The Village Voice, Hopper converses with Jim DeRogatis, the journalist who originally broke the story almost 20 years ago, to discuss the original accusations, the aftermath, and the question of responsible and ethical consumption of music. Again, Hopper is able to starkly demonstrate the inseparable connection between the music industry and it’s impact on real world social issues. Further, she reveals the industry as a self-protecting institution that will compromise and even exploit young girls’ welfare in the name of profit.
Hopper brilliantly underscores her observations by drawing evidence from R. Kelly’s continued release of albums with names such as Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, which she argues subverts and capitalizes on his assaults, and much to Derogatis’ chagrin, perhaps even gains a small segment of an audience interested in his work only because of his previous charges. Returning to her original question on what responsibility listeners as consumers have to survivors, Hopper and Derogitis leave this question open-ended, only differentiating between personal choice and commercial endorsement. However, the question posed is impactful itself, revealing that active consumption can often mean passive participation in larger, much more serious social issues, whether the listener is aware of it or not. It is this hard-hitting, intimate, and frank interview on an event and social issue that still remains largely unreported and continuously ignored that makes Hopper’s voice necessary in a world, musical and otherwise, that still sees wide gulfs of inequality. Furthermore, for her forwardness in demanding that readers as music fans cross-examine themselves and the role they play in supporting or opposing the social, political, and economic issues that are packaged in with the artists and albums they consume, Hopper truly exemplifies how much of a bold rarity she remains, and why her work needs to be distributed en masse.
Another undeniable gem that readers will be hard pressed to see paralleled anywhere else is Hopper’s 2014 sit-down interview from SPIN magazine with the musicians, producers, and record reps that put together one of grunge’s most highly acclaimed yet easily forgotten albums in the re-printed You Will Ache Like I Ache: The Oral History of Hole’s Live Through This. It has been nearly 30 years since Hole’s origin, yet to find any writing on Courtney Love that isn’t part of a witch-hunting camp is truly few and far between. An album that was hijacked before it even took flight by the suicide of Kurt Cobain four days prior, at the height of his career, and by the notorious Vanity Fair exposé revealing Love’s heroin use during pregnancy, Live Through This barely made it out alive. Hopper’s group interview reveals the inside workings of this album and confidently reminds the reader why they should never mind Never Mind and instead revive its spousal counterpart.
Without excusing the constant spectacle that is the frontwoman, Hopper makes it a requirement for readers to pause, reflect, and understand her real talent. With this rare interview, Hopper is able to identify and give recognition to Courtney Love as an individual and as an artist, which strongly differentiates her take from everyone else who has an overwhelming desire to place her relationally and secondarily as wife or mother. It is a refreshing and relieving perspective. Even more, it is Hopper’s motivation for female representation in the rock genre translated into direct action through her interview methodology. To be fair, Hopper does recognize that the internal process of the album was just as susceptible to Cobain controversy, but the interview includes this mention solely as an aside rather than as a dominating narrative. In spite of all of the external controversy and internal competition, Live Through This still persevered, and Hopper’s raw interview beautifully unearths a much greater sense of significance for the album for readers and fans than the platinum certification and ‘best-of’ lists ever can.
While I want to give rave reviews to anyone who gives high praise to Courtney Love, an artist I have long-loved and preferred over the immortal Nirvana frontman ever since my always-much-cooler older sister deposited a box of her hand-me-down punk albums into my possession, the entirety of The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic is an objective masterpiece for much more than that, garnering respect and praise from start to finish. It’s an impeccably well-written, and engaging time lapse through rock history that at times quietly – and other times loudly – demands the female perspective be observed. Although seemingly missing a few predictable heavy-weights (Laura Jane Grace seemed a noticeable absence for a book birthed on the crux of feminist punk, and could we hear more from women artists of colour for whom the intersecting axis of race and gender still demand a higher tax for legitimacy), Hopper still weaves a thorough, complex, genre-bending mix of reviews to entertain and educate all. It is a book best read in a single sitting for the mood and spirit will capture and engulf you entirely (though be prepared for the second half to include longer, heavier reads). And be prepared to be left satisfied yet still wanting more, perhaps a second collection.
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