By David Nilsen
Jessica Hopper feels music in her bones, in her blood, in the soles of her shoes and the tips of her fingers. This is one of the two requirements for being a good rock critic. The other is to be a damn good writer. Jessica Hopper is that too.
Hopper is a senior editor at Pitchfork and the editor-in-chief of Pitchfork Review. Her music writing has appeared in Spin, Rolling Stone, and just about every other music publication that matters over the last decade. And now, as indicated in the book’s title, she’s done something no other living female rock critic has done–she’s collected the best of her writing about music into a book. It seems impossible she’s the only one, but aside from a handful of qualifications Hopper provides in the book’s preface, it is sadly true. When it comes to published volumes of rock criticism, we have Hopper and a bunch of bros.
This, of course, needs to change, but as long as we have Hopper we will have a woman at the very top of the rock criticism talent pyramid. Her writing on rock music is the perfect mix of unpretentious accessibility and effortless cool. She knows her shit, and she knows she knows it, but she doesn’t feel the need to offer us her resumé with every piece of writing, a trait far too common among music critics. Not every album review is an essay question on an entrance exam for the job you already have if you’re writing it, packed with obscure references and gymnastically verbose homages to the adjective as an institution. You need to know music, yes. I’d prefer you know it better than I do, which Hopper quite clearly does. But I’d also prefer you don’t rub my nose in that. Hopper is among the best I’ve seen at striking the perfect balance of erudite observation and confident restraint.
What sells Hopper to me more than anything (and this book is, for the most part, a marketed exhibition of her prolific and ongoing writing online as much as it is anything else) is her visceral passion for music. She feels it. She needs it. She breathes it, sweats it, weeps it, and puts it all on the page for us to take in. The opening piece in the book is aptly placed and addresses the role music plays in her life:
“I have a strange relationship with music. It is strange by virtue of what I need from it. … Having developed such a desperate belief in the power of music to salve and heal me, I ask big, over and over again. I have an appetite for deliverance, and am not really interested in trying to figure out whether it qualifies me as lucky or pathetic.”
The essay concludes:
“I want it. I need it. Because all these records, they give me a language to decipher just how fucked I am. Because there is a void in my guts which can only be filled by songs.”
Hopper knows what it is to lie on the floor at night, surface-breathing in the dark, the record player spinning a scratchy memorial to what you once imagined your life would be. She knows what it is to be bored and to be surprised, to be disappointed and to be shocked. She knows the urge to transcribe song lyrics to a friend or lover in place of a letter. These things make me trust her. Her extensive knowledge of music allows me to learn from her as well.
There is a conscious and informed feminism at work in her writing, and as you might expect from the bold positioning at work in the book title, this sensibility is on display in many of the selected essays here. She takes a stand in defense of the varied feminisms of Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, and Claire Boucher of Grimes. She writes insightfully about Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent). She pens an affectionate ode to the strange career of The Raincoats. She remembers riot grrrl and relates the oral history of Hole’s greatest album. She writes with palpable excitement about the aggressive female leads of new bands playing in sweaty club basements. And perhaps most poignantly, she writes about the unique and often threatened position she finds herself in as a female rock fan up and out past dark in a scene that caters to the boys.
Her writing on Lana Del Rey is particularly refreshing given the journalistic circle jerk we’ve been enduring over that singer for the last three years. Lana Del Rey is tremendously talented, and she’s strange enough to make that talent fascinating. Possessing, as she does, female chromosomes, male music writers in America cannot seem to take her at talented and fascinating and leave the issue there, but instead feel the need to interpret her for us, and every goddamn one of them has taken it upon himself to explain to us all exactly who Lana Del Rey is and is not and how we should feel about that. These pieces are generally as perfunctory as they are pretentiously pejorative. There have been more masturbatory thinkpieces about Del Rey in the last thousand or so days than about any other musician in a three-year period as long as the internet has been around. I don’t think Gaga even received this kind of exhaustive, self-satisfied vivisection from every corner of the blogosphere. We have reached the point at which someone needs to write a fussy, self-assured thinkpiece about the male writers penning fussy self-assured thinkpieces about Lana Del Rey, turning the Lana Del Rey discussion into one big Matryoshka doll of fussy, self-assured analysis, closing the circle for good. Hopper’s piece on the singer was one of the first (January 2012) and is still probably the best. She perfectly summarizes Del Rey’s bad girl/good girl dichotomy: “In short, Lana Del Rey is Amy Winehouse with the safety on.” You can read Hopper’s and forego the rest.
Hopper has a gift for clever, catchy summary sentences that actually say something rather than just serving as pull quotes. In reference to Miley Cyrus, she offers this spot-on analysis: “The entertainment value of Cyrus’ work is more than simply typical pop pleasure: it is the slow-motion horror of watching toxic sleaze replace toxic purity.” In writing about the countless homemade commemorative shirts and hats she saw worn by teens at the Vans Warped Tour, she says, “That public display of affection, that preemptive sentimentality pivoting on this exact moment, is what emo has instilled in the culture of punk fandom: advance nostalgia for the peak experience.”
One essay I found particularly intriguing was Hopper’s treatment of David Bazan, former leader of Pedro the Lion. Bazan left the Christian faith a decade ago, and I have found so much of my own angst, fear, wondering, and, at times, flippancy echoed in Bazan’s reflections on his life before and after deconverting. Hopper writes this piece with a level of intimate understanding about the process of questioning and leaving a faith tradition that seems to indicate she has a more than journalistic familiarity with the experience. As this is a topic dear to my heart (it’s all over my writing for this site if you dig a little) I’d like to sit over drinks with Hopper and talk about this more. Preferably with some very good music playing.
The First Collection is an excellent introduction to Hopper’s writing, and a great stand-alone collection of rock music writing. Take it as an injection of excitement if your love for music has waned of late, and an arrow pointing the way toward a music journalism that is both achingly personal and sharply incisive.
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is available now at Greenville Public Library.