When I saw the title of Jessica Hopper’s book, I thought there must be some mistake. The first? Really? Then I tried to think of another collection of criticism by a living female rock critic.
In addition to commending this book for its landmark status, I must praise its honesty, accessibility, and consistency in hitting ten out of ten on the damns given scale. It’s easy to feel put off by music writing because so much of it assumes prior knowledge, but instead of making readers feel lost, Hopper’s pieces tend to edify and inform while they entertain. The piece about the LA Smell scene is a great example of this–I’d heard the term “LA Smell” bandied about but never knew to what it referred. Is Smell a record label? Is Smell a genre of music wherein unwashed musicians celebrate their odors? No, it turns out Smell is a club that launched the careers of several bands, including one I actually know and like. In short, you don’t have to be the sort of person who would or could write rock criticism to enjoy this book; it only requires an interest in reading about rock music. Even if you’ve never heard, for example, one Kendrick Lamar song, Hopper’s book will tell you why you should listen to a whole album and do it without looking down her nose at you for not already knowing the words.
Those damns, though. Hopper gives so many! You can’t talk about this book without talking about the passion, dedication, and unabashed love dripping from the pages. From the beginning of the book, Hopper demonstrates her deep personal investment in rock music… but passion doesn’t equal popularity. Between calling the entire emo scene an onanistic boys’ club, taking Miley Cyrus seriously at a time when it was simply not done, extending Sufjan Stevens an invitation to help her steal fruit, refusing to let the R. Kelly scandal die, covering Christian Rock artists alongside popular rapper/lewd teenage upstart Tyler the Creator, and describing a record that was the indie darling of the publication where she works as “consensual, messy frottage,” she manages to disagree with almost everybody. A critic’s job, however, is not to make people in the industry happy, nor is her job to agree with fans on message boards, the Billboard charts, and other critics. Her job is to care enough to help readers discern whether they, in turn, will care about an album or musical artist. Here, Hopper gloriously succeeds.
Hopper wrote for the Chicago Reader’s rock & roll gossip column, Gossip Wolf, for a stretch. That comes through in certain places, most notably in her festival coverage, and it won’t suit every reader. Despite this, I expect readers in general will want more–more articles in the book, more pages per article, and more deep cuts from early in Hopper’s career. I’d like just a taste of her rabid zine writing, please, and I’d like most of the pieces to be as long as the in-depth Spin articles reproduced here. There are so many amazing phrases and lines here–there should be more of them! “There is a void in my guts which can only be filled by songs,” she says early in the book. Once you start this book, you’ll want to read about every last one of them.
Here’s hoping we get a Volume II.
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper (Featherproof Books | 9780983186335 | May 12, 2015)