When I told people unfamiliar with Jessica Hopper’s work that I was writing a review of her new book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, they were immediately confused. “That’s the name of the book?” one of my coworkers asked. “Yes it’s brilliant, right?” I replied.
The title, part tongue-in-cheek, part instant history lesson, works so well because the reader is immediately cognizant of what they are getting into. Hopper explains in her dedication page that this isn’t totally accurate, there are less than a handful of such books that came before, but points out how wild it is that there isn’t more. Her book, she writes, “is about planting a flag,” and helping to pave the way for many more books to come.
The book opens with Hopper’s iconic essay from the now-defunct Punk Planet, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” For a time I was a teenage emo kid, but before that (and after that), I was a hardcore devotee, and you could easily substitute that genre for many of the sentiments Hopper expresses here. The realization that hits her at a Strike Anywhere show at Chicago’s hallowed Fireside Bowl floors her: that she had been to hundreds of shows over the span of ten years and that it was the first time she had ever heard a song by an all-dude band about women’s reality. When I came to a similar conclusion in my early 20s, I basically left the punk scene altogether. If I had this essay then, maybe I would have stayed.
Divided into eight sections, with themes ranging from “Chicago” to “Faith” to “Bad Reviews,” there is a wide array of topics covered. Some of her articles have already found their place in the music criticism canon, like her oral history of Hole’s Live Through This or her conversation with Chicago reporter Jim DeRogatis on the R. Kelly sexual assault allegations. This conversation, following Kelly’s 2013 headlining appearance at Pitchfork Music Festival, delves deep into a reoccurring theme in the book: how we make sense of the politics of pop music. Of course this parsing of art versus the people making the art applies to more than just music, and Hopper and DeRogatis take pains to point out how serious a question it is. “You have to make a choice, as a listener, if music matters to you as more than mere entertainment. And you and I have spent our entire lives with that conviction,” DeRogatis says. “This matters.” As virtually the only reporter covering the R. Kelly story for years, it is easy to see how he came to this conclusion. Hopper’s attention to the story is crucial; when it was first published it inspired a firestorm of much-needed dialogue both on- and off-line.
While Hopper’s words can shine a light on anything from Chance the Rapper to the commodification of Kurt Cobain, it is when she is writing about women’s work in music that she truly thrives. Whether she is listing examples of the special vitriol reserved for young women in rock (Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift) or praising the brutal honesty of Mecca Normal singer Jean Smith, her convictions are palpable.
In the hubbub following the initial press of this book, many people drew attention to Hopper’s “no bullshit” attitude towards music criticism and the music world in general. This may stem partly from her years working in public relations; she can quickly see through the hype of press releases and the inherent sexism in much of the industry. Mostly though, reading the book I was struck by the importance of Hopper’s writing, how crucial it is to have brilliant feminist critics contributing to the musings of the music world. Growing up, many girls are made to feel their opinions don’t matter. Hopper not only draws attention to work that’s important to us; her very presence in the male-dominated music scene helps boost our credibility. But she never panders to women in music; she even calls out older feminists for missing the vitality of new musicians. “How current feminist work honors older feminist work is with its progress and new paths. That is all we should ask of it as feminists. BLAZE THE FUCK PAST US,” she scolds. Hopper is a true devotee, always searching for deliverance on the turntable. “I want it. I need it, “ she writes in the introduction. “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 with songs.”