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Review Tue May 26 2015

Girl At the Front: On Jessica Hopper's "First Collection"

jessica-hopper_-photo-by-david-sampson.jpeg

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
by Jessica Hopper
Featherproof Books, 209 pp., $17.95

It's easy to forget how unpopular it was to take up arms against R. Kelly when allegations of his predation of teenage girls first were made public. For almost 15 years, former Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis, along with his colleague Abdon Pallasch, was the lone voice for a host of women whose upsetting stories were largely forgotten or ignored. For the majority of Kelly's audience, and for the critical establishment that propped him up, it was much easier to hum along to his songs without imagining where they likely came from.

When Jessica Hopper publicly came out in support of DeRogatis's stance in a published conversation with the former Sun-Times critic for the Village Voice, it seemed like the winds had finally begun to shift. A kind of critical mass had been reached in the run up to Kelly's headlining performance at Pitchfork's 2013 festival, and the dialogue between Hopper and DeRogatis was the catalyst to a much-needed reappraisal of Kelly's career and status as the "pied piper of R&B." A much-shared essay delving into the sordid details and public apathy surrounding Kelly's assorted affairs, the conversation between Hopper and DeRogatis remains one of the landmark pieces of either critic's careers, and it has been reprinted in full as a centerpiece within Hopper's newly published volume of her own critical essays, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.

Hopper will appear at Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North Ave., to read from her new collection on May 29 at 7pm. Admission is free.

Hopper has been a singular force within music criticism for over 20 years, with bylines to her credit in nearly every reputable music journal that's been printed or shuttered since. Her formative background in turn-of-the-'90s fanzine culture, Minneapolitan indie rock, and Sub Pop minutiae runs deep by her own admission, but it's her ability to turn music industry standards on their head with a distinctly no-bullshit tone (see the title of her collection) that has given rise to her loyal cult of readers. In recent years she's juggled stints as the chief editor of Rookie magazine and the Tribune as a local music reporter (where she once interviewed me about my band) before settling into her current role as a senior editor at Pitchfork. Through it all, Hopper has emerged as a cultural critic whose singularly progressive stance and emotional immediacy has been evident everywhere from the City Pages to the Reader to her anecdote-rich Tumblr, tinyluckygenius. Without even having to look further than her new collection's title, you get a sense of exactly where Hopper stands.

And, oh, what a title! In a short introduction/explanation in the collection's opening pages, the title, she says, "is about planting a flag... for those whose dreams (and manuscripts) languished due to lack of formal procedure, support, and permission." That last word is key for Hopper: offering permission and validation to the voices and views of women in as male-dominated a world as the music industry — let alone the boys' club of punk and indie rock — is the chief mission of her writing. It's for that reason that a voice like Hopper's is so necessary and vital to the evolving discussions of gender politics, pronouns, safe spaces, and fourth-wave feminism. She's careful to tip her hat to past female cultural critics whom she admires, like Ellen Willis (whose own collection of purely music criticism was only published posthumously), Lillian Roxon and Caroline Coons. But make no mistake, there will be no languished manuscripts or barriers to entry this time around.

First Collection is divided into eight parts, each training the focus of her critical eye toward topics as diverse as the role of women, the importance of geography to an artist's aesthetic, and the push-and-pull between authenticity and posture in all corners of the music industry. Hopper speaks to the latter from her own experience, candidly opening up about her development as a "punk-identified," braces-wearing high school freshman in a piece from 2005 called "My Teen Grunge Poserdom." In it, she recalls the necessity of making your fan allegiance known in black marker on the tips of you Chuck Taylors for all the other punk-identified boys to see, and even dismisses a potential crush because "he thought All Shook Down was the best Replacements record — making him a no go." Her early trials as a teenage fangirl yearning for male validation soon gave way to the epiphanies of Kathleen Hanna's Bikini Kill zine and band of the same name, inspiring her to take self-agency and personal validation as the only way forward. If some boy doesn't approve of my Louder than Love t-shirt, that's his loss, not mine.

Her skeptical nature towards an approving male gaze has given rise to much of her best work, including a 2003 piece for Punk Planet titled "Emo: Where The Girls Aren't." Here she excoriates the woe-is-me whimpers of the typical turn-of-the-aughts emo frontman, noting that "it's evident from these bands' lyrics and shared aesthetic that their knowledge of actual living, breathing women is notional at best." The lovelorn desperation that was such a valuable currency for many of these bands results in "no empathy, no peerage or parallelisn" and its "yearning doesn't connect it with women — it omits them." Emo (and hardcore, too, for that matter) has always been male-dominated, and Hopper's choice to focus on the female audience members in this article instead of the sexless preeners on stage speaks to her unique instincts as a cultural critic. For Hopper, the question of why these girls are there in the first place is a far more interesting story.

Elsewhere, she takes aim at the corporatization of the music industry, particularly with a Reader article from 2004 about the Vans Warped Tour and its thinly veiled reality as a "mobile shopping mall" packed to the brim with adoring kids with "cash in hand, on a scale that boggles the mind." Hopper isn't the first to be irked by the perversion of punk signifiers to further the bottom line, but she may be the first to note how at festivals like Warped Tour (and, really, everything that's sprung up since) purchasing band merch and even wearing your weekend wristband long after the fest's over is "the way the kids express themselves to themselves, to the bands, and to each other."

But perhaps the most compelling portion of the book is the "Real/Fake" chapter of essays that explores artists' authenticity as it relates to their rise in the industry. It's no coincidence that the subjects of each essay in this section are about women. Authenticity, that slippery signifier of "realness" in an endlessly ersatz industry, is of primary concern for Hopper particularly because it demands so much more from female artists than anyone else. To consider the authenticity of artists like Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift or even Grimes is, for Hopper, inseparable from the unreasonable demands society places upon them as women: "Being sexy and serious about your art needn't be mutually exclusive, even when your art involves being a pop package." Instead, she regards critically polarizing figures like Del Rey and Miley Cyrus simply as they are — pop products; to engage in long-winded discussions about their authenticity is to miss the point entirely: "To be galled by these women's advances is to play the Pollyanna about how any product gets across the transom to us." You'd be hard pressed to find a better analogy that calls out the pop/rock hyper-critical echo chamber for what it is.

And she's right: the majority of the types of critical discussions that call out the lack of authenticity of women in pop music (Iggy Azalea, anyone?) or the perceived lack of ability (the Raincoats aren't just "amateur geniuses") tend to spring from the traditionally accepted framing of music's critical history, in which women have always played second fiddle — and never lead guitar — to the traditions and expectations of a male-worshiping industry. Her ability to poke holes in the clunky macho iconography and rituals of rock music emerges as one of the most entertaining — not to mention endearing — aspects of her writing.

Throughout her career, Hopper has overseen a period of extreme change in music culture, particularly in its sexual politics, underground ethics, and in the diminishing of the role of the critic as gatekeeper to taste. But Hopper has the rare ability and perspective to cut to the heart of these ongoing dialogues with a combination of incisive political commentary, punk fangirl experience and poptimist pragmatism informing all corners of her work. Hers is a voice that's reverent to the tradition of irreverence, and it warrants a place in a strong lineage of writers as diverse as Willis, Christgau, Cosloy or Coley. She's not afraid to tell us when the emperor has no clothes because, as most pop critics understand but are afraid to admit in print, he often isn't wearing any.

It's telling that Hopper begins the collection with a piece titled "I Have A Strange Relationship With Music." In it, Van Morrison becomes the catalyst for her thoughts on What It All Might Mean, here via the hard-grooving elegy "T.B. Sheets." Immersed in the "relentless humanity" of Morrison's classic, Hopper's confesses how she is "painfully aware of every single thing that I need from music, embarrassed by what I ask of it." Like Morrison at his lover's deathbed, she wants the impossible: to be comforted and loved back by something incapable of doing so. But she also wants to be at music culture's front line, to revel in its ash-flecked floors and pop-star LED sheen, to "hang at the Nice Nice w/ the eye-patch guy," to be the fangirl and prop up the one next to her at the same time.

Music for Hopper is a "language to decipher just how fucked" we might be as obsessive fans, a tool we use in vain to examine our past, endure our present, and question our future. Show me a music lover, she seems to say, who doesn't have such a strange and complex, supplicating and demanding relationship with music as she confesses to in these pages. It's a safe bet that they wouldn't be half as convincing or compelling.

 
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Mike S / May 29, 2015 3:03 PM

I would hit that and hit it hard!!!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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