A fresh, needed perspective from a living female rock critic
Jessica Hopper’s book, “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” goes beyond the simple story of a review or profile.
After years of music criticism, Jessica Hopper assembled her best work to plant a flag in pop culture criticism with her second book, “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.” Her dry humor and honest reviews make this “First Collection” an enjoyable read, but Hopper’s refreshing point of view on female musicians and fans really make these essays cultural criticism. She took each artist, body of work, and the overall culture to contextualize it within her own perspective.
The earliest essay dates from 2003, the latest in 2014, and in that decade of music criticism Hopper chronicles all the ways music stays the same or its lack of cultural change. For every new rapper who speaks to his community, a stereotyped rock star tries to work beyond her debut image, and a band from the past desperately wants to stay relevant. Hopper opens the book by setting the ultimate art critic scene: “Dancing in pitch-dark rooms, room illuminated exclusively by the tiny light on the turntable, is an activity which fits very well with my ideas of ‘rock-critic behavior’ (which is like normal music-fan behavior, but substantially more pitiful and indulgent).” This beginning piece and pseudo-introduction, “I Have A Strange Relationship With Music” kicks off the tone and attitude for the rest of her “First Collection.”
She breaks up the book with different themes like “Chicago,” “Faith,” and “Nostalgia,” and the book breezes by pretty quickly. Her longer, in-depth pieces like “Conversation with Jim Derogatis Regarding R. Kelly” and “You Will Ache Like I Ache: The Oral History of Hole’s Live Through This” carry readers through to the end not only for the content, but also because of the gravitas and nuance she uses to tell such heavier stories. This living female rock critic has a deep understanding of the different cultures and backstories that create the pop/ punk/ rock/ etc culture that we, the mainstream, adore and consume.
Hopper has the best understanding of music and the performers behind it, what they mean as artists and how they fit into the culture. In the piece recalling the time she spent reporting from a “concert” in a Chicago club that featured women’s mud wrestling and little to no music, Hopper wrote she must, “consume with appetite infinite — never satiable. My humanity stiffens — reporting this, writing this out means I have to process it, I have to take it all in, and it feels like a burden.” Her book reflects this service (it doesn’t always seem like burden), when she details out the commercialization of the Vans Warped Tour, the legendary Coachella, the rise and fall of SuicideGirls.com, and what faith means for the now agnostic singer David Bazan. Hopper observes everything from her immediate surroundings, cultural trends and shifts, the individual styles of every performer, and turns it all into an acute critique of the moment as she sees it.
And as the only living female author of the first collection of criticism, Hopper’s best insights come when she talks about tropes and expectations female artists and their fans deal with merely for existing. From her first essay in “Chicago,” Hopper calls out the total lack of representation in the punk-emo genre, except for the eerie idealization of girls within song topics. She ends the essay with, “Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.” It comes as a surprise to no one that female musicians get discounted or put in boxes too often by the mainstream and critics. Now for female performers to stake their claim in the music scene they must upset expectations or through do it sheer force of will. Reading her essays, I gained a better understanding of the ideas and ways female pop stars present themselves as an “image” and — sometimes versus — “artist.” Both valid views and ambitions for artists, and Hopper really digs into the double standard women face in music holding up that duality.
She spends just as much time addressing, even writing to, the female fans of music and the reputation “fangirls” earn. In a 2012 article for the Village Voice, she calls out how fangirls get discounted because of inherent sexist bias: “When it comes to music, image is believed to be the teen girls’ area of fascination and special expertise; young women’s arduous fandom is often taken as the very proof of a performer’s artlessness. The perception being that girls are so rapt with an artist’s surface image that it supersedes any sort of real connection with or understanding of the music itself.” Female stars and fans get held to unfair double standards, stereotypes, and expectations, but manage to thrive despite it. As a result of that work and loyalty, the rest of mainstream pop culture gets lucky too.
The three chapters I liked the most — “Real/Fake,” “Females,” and “Strictly Business,” — specifically addressed the ways female artists struggle with their “validity” in the mainstream, what pop music means beyond simple escapism, and how changing times means musicians need to do what they must to make a living. Hopper made each essay her own with her voice and observations, adding to the conversation instead of repeating what most others already said. “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” firmly stakes Jessica Hopper’s place in the canon of rock criticism, living or dead.