The thing about critical assessment of criticism is the near inevitable meta nature of it, the way our response is both a response to the critic and the subject. We admire, because we feel validated by, the critic who shares and articulates our views. Jessica Hopper, writing as fan and pro separately and together, hints at recognition of this as she interprets art, packaging of art, marketing of art and personal/group response to art in one review after another.
The pieces collected in the admittedly hyperbolic, misnamed but justified banner raising The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic appeared first in venues as diverse as Punk Planet, Spin, Pitchfork, The Chicago Tribune, and Hopper’s TinyLuckyGenius blog. They cover the likes of Kendrick Lamar, MIA, Springsteen, Pearl Jam (then and now), Rollin Hunt, Chief Keef and Mecca Normal. The approach, style and subject matter varies therefore but, for most of this collection there is a consistency of theme and developing worldview on show. The title stresses a feminist aspect typified by a scathing without ranting assessment of the male dominated emo scene and references to Guyville and Riot Grrrl, but equally crucial in this is that titular Living. A long quote from the blog post “You Know What?” lays out both Hopper’s attitude and her credibility:
“Older-generation female rocker ladies making uninformed judgment calls about women making music today, and how no one is angry anymore, how the ‘90s were so much better, when we had Liz Phair and Hole and Belly and L7 on MTV (a.k.a. the blinded nostalgia trope of the aging rock ‘n’ roll feminist) IS REALLY FUCKING UNPRODUCTIVE. It also shows they are not digging deep enough, or seeing the forest for the trees. If you think “angry women in punk” is a faction that has somehow receded, or that L7 in its day was some how better than the generation of women now in all manner of metal bands, you’ve gotten too far removed from the action. Go browse the 7” new arrivals like you did last in 199X and you’ll see a lot more women in the bin now than you ever did then. Spend 11.4 minutes online and catch up. It never disappeared, we just missed it because we were so busy clinging tight to copies of Guyville; we refused new ideas as relevant or good enough. Riot-grrrl wasn’t the end result, it was the catalyst. That’s what it was supposed to be, that’s what it was meant as— not a static thing. It didn’t have to stick around forever to count as successful— movements come in waves— it did its job perfectly. So much is different post-RG, so much permission and power and inspiration was funneled down steadily— whether it’s to the league of young girl shredders, or rock camps, or queer show collectives whose tether to RG was simply catching the tail end of Sleater-Kinney. Feminism has to move on, salute new icons, be excited by the varieties of archetypes of women in music that are self-directed, self-produced, not operating under the shadow of a Svengali hand. To not appreciate the difference in agency, or appreciate the different struggles of women now, turns it to a game of radical one-upsmanship. Our battles are not to be hung on the necks of the new waves of girls like an albatross.”
For me that is where Hopper is strong, when she writes with a controlled passion for her subjects. Occasional pieces here are overly descriptive, insufficiently evocative and slightly less weighted insight. Given the glossier commercial venues commissioning here some compromise may be expected as the price of getting 17 year old rapper Chief Keef into the Tribune, perhaps. Mostly though Hopper writes with an edge that is personal and feels genuine. Her punk roots are openly displayed as she questions the ‘community’ of Lollapalooza and large festivals, a sort of Woodstock myth shared with Glastonbury in the UK, and contrasts a range of gigs with double digit attendance. She challenges yet another Nevermind reissue with the cutting lines
“if you squint, you can see the “Heart-Shaped Box in an Actual Box Shaped Like a Heart 25th Anniversary Boxset” and “Nevermind in Mono” galloping this way on the horizon.”
“Revisiting Nevermind is like flexing a phantom limb made up of Nirvana records that never were. That’s all it means now, all that’s left— fantasy. The tomb is empty; let the dead buy the dead.”
Hopper revisits her early years in the punk scenes of 1990 with clear eyes and humour. An aside on her early school crushes notes that one boy was unsuitable because of his subtly wrong choice in music:
“[He] wore a Jane’s Addiction T-shirt; he thought All Shook Down was the best Replacements record— making him a no go”
Rock criticism, the good stuff, tends to a few strands, the more rarefied almost academic sociological analyses of Greil Marcus, the rants of Lester Bangs, the personal depth of the great Paul Williams, and the sensational biography of, well, too many really. Jessica Hopper at her best combines Williams ability to convey how music you’ve never heard feels, with a mainstream awareness of trends and commercial pressures. She can deconstruct Lana Del Rey and M.I.A. and provide context for Springsteen and Mecca Normal alongside more personal perspective on Eddie Vedder.
The First Book of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is uneven, unsurprisingly so given its chronological range and sources, but is frequently stimulating in its politics, its evocation of new to me music, and its new insight into the more familiar. Mainstream rock criticism is frequently bland but by maintaining feet in several camps Jessica Hopper remains interesting and this is a welcome volume.
Note: Thanks to former Willard Grant Conspiracy/Walkabouts/ Transmissionary Six guitarist Paul Austin for pointing this book out on Facebook.