May 2015

Brian Nicholson

nonfiction

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper

Considering the axiom that most music critics are failed musicians, one quietly revelatory moment in Jessica Hopper's book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, the title of which describes exactly what it is and why it is important that it exists, comes from a piece about Pearl Jam, where the author describes watching a documentary by Cameron Crowe about the band.

The part where his bandmates explain that a few records in he seized control of the band and essentially tried to turn the band into Fugazi and that it pretty much almost broke them up was pretty much my favorite part because THERE IS ALWAYS THAT GUY IN EVERY BAND. I was always that guy in all my bands.

Ignore the repetition, part of the enthusiastic stream-of-consciousness journaling approach so omnipresent in the sort of rock writing that the rest of the book bears out as not really Hopper's métier. The band in question being Pearl Jam, and the band member being described being Eddie Vedder, it can be understood that trying to turn the band into Fugazi does not mean wanting to sound like Fugazi. Rather, it means wanting to act as an exemplar of ideals of punk and feminist integrity, perhaps to the detriment of making money, or even having fun. Hopper identifying as "that guy" suggests that she is not as interested in the act of music making as an end in itself so much as she is invested in the musician's ability to mean something to the culture they exist within, which speaks more truthfully to the distinction between the critic and the performer than any question of talent or technical prowess.

Her essay "Emo: Where The Girls Aren't," which pretty much starts the book, describes female audiences participating in a scene where they do not see themselves on stage, voicing their concerns about an ostensibly "punk" subculture that does not empower its audience, but where they exist only as a disembodied abstract subject which men use to talk about their own feelings, and the potentially destructive effect this has. "We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us," she ends her piece. This essay, which I remember reading on the internet close to ten years ago, kind of blew my mind, in that it articulated what was politically off-putting about music that I merely felt intuitively to be aesthetically disagreeable.

Despite this, I never really followed Hopper's career because, in many ways, a critic's name is only as notable as the commonalities of taste held with her reader. So even as she made incisive points about punk scene politics, the very fact that that was where she was coming from meant I pretty much would never look at a best-of-the-year list she wrote and seek out any record I hadn't heard. (My own musical tastes lean more towards the experimental hippy shit she looks askance at in various pieces and disparages as lacking in meaning.) Seeing the work collected here, it is easy to see how her tastes sort of blurred into the morass of music writer collective consensus. Included here are essays written to accompany Village Voice "Pazz + Jop" year-end poll results, where it is assumed everyone agrees on the subjects worth speaking about as the best records of the year, whether it be Sufjan Stevens in 2006 or Taylor Swift in 2012. The least interesting pieces here are these contributions to the thinkpiece economy, that offer opinions on the likes of Miley Cyrus or Lana Del Rey, the conversational topics of the month when they were first published.

My conception of what a critic does, forming a connection with her audience to inform them of what new (or old) music is worth investigating, doesn't square with Hopper's, where she is a conduit for an artist's ability to inspire their audience to create. She achieves this end through journalism. Backstory takes the place of myth: to make the process of bringing work into the world seem attainable, art is seen as a series of human decisions. The longest piece here is an oral history of the recording of Hole's Live Through This, which is strange in the context of the book as an anthology of one writer's voice, but for the fact that Hopper isn't interested in her voice taking precedence as some sort of testament to her own ego. In the context of the alt-weeklies where some of these pieces originally appeared, writing about how a lesser-known band like Coughs is great live is meant to encourage people to see them perform for themselves. Reproduced in a book, appearing many years after they've broken up, the description of a singer's stage presence is documented as something for future generations to aspire to. This sense of what it feels like to be watching a performer is a different feeling than what you get from listening to a record, and so Hopper's book is distinguished from a book of record reviews by the likes of Lester Bangs or Richard Meltzer, where the reader confronts what is basically nonsensical prose poetry.

The work of journalism, and the sense of being one critic among many, takes on a moral dimension in the light of music writing's generally uncritical acceptance of myths of male genius indifferent to any human failing. Reprinted here is an interview with Jim Derogatis about the heaps of evidence pointing in the direction of R. Kelly being a serial rapist of young women. Derogatis was essentially alone with his questioning of the public's acceptance of Kelly as a public figure, until Hopper interviewed him and they discussed how much evidence there really was, and dove into the issue at the root of public disinterest: That society at large does not care about black women. This piece succeeded, where Derogatis hadn't, in making many people think twice about doing anything that would put money in R. Kelly's pocket.

Towards the end of the book there is a piece about the music business, after record sales have largely dried up, "How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock" which, with cultivated objectivity, reports on trends of placing songs in commercials that would seem to go against what I would assume were Hopper's circa-2003 ideals. It's a further demystification of the work that goes into music, to show anyone empowered enough to attempt presenting their own work to the public just what it takes to get that work before the eyes of people who might be able to provide you with the living you feel you are owed. It appeared on Buzzfeed, a place with a different set of goals than Punk Planet, where "Emo: Where The Girls Aren't" originally ran. Taking the book on the terms it holds musicians to, where things are meant to serve as a guide for future generations, we see what it means to be a female rock critic, a freelance writer, where some pieces are personal and others aren't. With a journalistic skill set, one can go further than they would were they spouting opinions on a blog, attempting to be a tastemaker. Documenting over ten years' worth of activity and shifts in thought towards being more pragmatic makes for a weird record. To take it seriously is to implicitly agree that something like it should have existed sooner.

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper
Featherproof Books
ISBN 13: 978-0983186335
250 Pages