The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
By Jessica Hopper
[Featherproof Books]

OK, I’ll begin this review by going out on a limb to criticize the title of Jessica Hopper’s excellent The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. If I were writing about Sleater-Kinney or Joan Jett or the Screaming Females or Kathleen Hannah and I framed the article as an analysis of “women in rock,” that would be reductive and retrograde, right? They’re all talented musicians who just so happen to be women – and that’s all. If I classified the late Pauline Kael’s film criticism as “women’s film criticism,” that would be reductive and retrograde, right? Kael was a great film critic (probably the best ever) who just so happened to be a woman – and that’s all. And with her choice of titles, Hopper has likewise committed a cardinal sin that she herself and a bastion of other women writers and women rockers have crusaded against for decades on end.

But it’s really just not that simple.

Let me make this perfectly clear: My comment on the title was in no way intended to troll, goad, pick scabs, pick fights, pop zits and/or provoke for provocation’s sake. That Hopper is a woman should not be a criterion upon which her critical work is judged, right? Well, yes and no. That the rock ’n’ roll scene is [like it or not] a male-dominated, (hetero)sexist hierarchy doesn’t mean that Hopper’s female/feminist standpoint(s) make her analyses that much different from those of Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau or, for that matter, Patti Smith, right? Well, yes and no. I’m sure that Hopper is well aware of the inbuilt ironies of the title and chose it for those very reasons. Factors of sex, gender, race and class are inevitably interlocked. It’s messy, complicated and kinda gross, even – a bundle of binds, as it were.

And furthermore, the book is indeed the first collection of criticism by a living female rock critic, goddammitt. (Whew! Now that that bit of nastiness is over with, let’s get on with the review.)

Hopper is an editor at Pitchfork (both the website and The Pitchfork Review) who earlier served a long tenure as music critic for the Chicago Reader and whose work has been published in umpteen alternative newspapers, music mags and zines, including the late, lamented Spin and Punk Planet. Although I’m not exactly buckwild about Pitchfork, Inc.’s content and focus (and whatever “indie rock” has become these days, for that matter), I’ve gotta begrudgingly admit that the bulk of that publication’s writing ranges from well-executed at the least to inspired at best. Hopper’s work, of course, belongs in latter range.

The First Collection spans around 12 years, beginning with 2003’s “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t” from Punk Planet. You might recall this provocative piece which (rightly) interrogated emo’s sensitive-boy/heartbreaker-girl dialectic. Looking back, it seems a given that emo’s wounded boy narrative (and the emo scene itself, for that matter) was nothing new – only the slightest, all-surface, no-substance variation on the timeworn trope of the sensitive rebel boy who only cedes his vulnerability to, aargh, “get chicks.” The funny thing is, at the time of the article’s publication, emo kids seemed to really believe their scene was progressive – and in a way it was, I guess. Not that much progress has been made since then, for that matter. Still, “Where The Girls Aren’t” spurred a lot of debate, and rightly so.

Much of The First Collection covers artists I’m not really interested in (such as Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan, Kendrick Lamar and Cat Power), but Hopper artfully manages to make it all interesting. Basically she uses artists/songs/albums as signifiers for overall trends in (youth) culture – kind of a micro to macro thing. Hopper’s strength as a writer is not as much her passion and appreciation for rock music as her ability to identify pop motifs as portents of where the culture in general is going. In this way, Hopper’s focus is more on sociology than the vagaries of subcultural aesthetics – and this is a change for the better.

Oddly, there’s not so much rock in The First Collection. The very best pieces are actually about prefab dance/pop divas like Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Ray and Lady Gaga. For me, these pieces are the most telling for the following reasons: 1.) I admittedly live in something of a middle aged rock guy vacuum and spend the bulk of my time thinking about men with guitars, the performativity of men with guitars and the cultural products produced by men with guitars, and 2.) I know very little about the Auto-tuned musical world where dance-pop and hip-hop overlap.

Hopper is a relatively young critic who lives in the world of today. This means that Hopper is for all intents and purposes a pop critic, and that’s AOK.

Truthfully, rock just isn’t happening for the proverbial “kids” these days, and the dance-pop/hip-hop netherworld is where the girls are. (By “girls,” I don’t necessarily mean all women – I mean tween to teen females.) So, for me (and I daresay for many readers of Stomp and Stammer) Hopper’s analyses of the music of the Auto-tuner generation offer glimpses of what is on one (micro) level an unknown world (dance-pop/hip-hop) and on another (macro) level a major component of teenage life – this is to say a glimpse of the future. As such, The First Collection is a journey well worth taking.

So forget about the ironies and semantic inconsistencies of the title and get on with your assigned reading, class. We’ll be referring back to this volume quite often. The First Collection will surely (really) become part of the canon, and rightly so.