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Too often we focus on whether a review is good or bad without taking the person behind it into account. Critics are flawed, we have opinions and tastes, in the morning we have bad breath, sometimes we make grand statements, sometimes our loudest statement is not saying a thing.
Still, the creative community only stands to benefit from a critic who speaks up with some regularity. As much is revealed about the reviewer herself as is revealed about the work she’s considering.
It’s the readership’s responsibility to forge a relationship with the critic herself, to pull back the curtain. A critique is a tool, a barometer, something to provide a deeper context within surroundings, whether it be a gallery, concert or movie theater. It is an assessment, not a verdict; an offering meant to whet the palette of the community and stir conversation.
Collections of criticism offer an opportunity to build a rapport with some immediacy.
Those who would assert that criticism is “dead” are clearly unfamiliar with Jessica Hopper, whose first collection of criticism The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof, 250p) was released last year. The collection stands not just as a testament to all that the 35-year-old Hopper had accomplished in her 20 years as a critic (that’s right, she was pitching to national pubs before she even graduated high school) but to the cumulative value of a critic’s voice and perspective to its audience over time.
As the title would imply, Hopper is fond of making grandiose statements, the most notable of which is the title above. It’s a statement that she immediately detracts. Five pages in, just beyond the index, Hopper tips her hat to the women who forged the path before her: Ellen Willis, Lillian Roxon, and Caroline Coon. She made her initial statement to get our attention, to drive her point. She states her motive for doing so bluntly: there aren’t enough of us. We, women, need to speak up over the PAs and the innumerable Lester Bangses and Brian Coleys. “This title is not meant to erase our history but rather to help mark the path,” she says.
Hopper’s habit of making broad-stroke statements happens again and again, in and out of the collection, occasionally biting her in the ass. In “Conversation With Jim DeRogatis Regarding R. Kelly,” her Village Voice interview with the former Chicago Sun-Times journalist who broke the story on the multiple allegations of child molestation against the noted R&B singer, she admits her failing:
“You and I got into it over Twitter around Pitchfork, in part over the fact that you were saying, ‘If you are enjoying R. Kelly, you’re effectively co-signing what this man has done.’ At the time, I was being defensive, saying people can like what they like.”
These missteps make Hopper human — the exact kind of critic burgeoning generations need. There’s no room for ivory-towered critics from up-on-high in this era of Internet culture. The cloistered cannot be trusted. We need a critic whose experience makes her compelling. Hopper’s diverse array of experience, from her punk DIY zine roots to her work as a publicist for Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan (2000-2004), is what make her so cogent. Hopper has lived this. She was in the pits with us at Bikini Kill concerts as a teenager. She is filled with conflict over Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey, too. Hopper’s keen eye for detail brings giant arena concerts back to life (“Dispatches From the Desert: Coachella”) and makes us painfully aware of the commercialism we endured within heated parking lots (“Punk is Dead! Long Live Punk!: A Report on the State of Teen Spirit From the Mobile Shopping Mall That is the Vans Warped Tour”).
Hopper’s idols are ours as well. In her review “Nevermind Already: Nirvana’s 20th Anniversary Boxset” she holds the record labels accountable for bastardizing and making a martyr of Kurt Cobain for profit:
“Nirvana’s super-sized ghost lingers in our hearts, and every few years the corpo-coffers get to clangin’ hungrily for every last penny in the pockets of anyone that’s ever had a head-shop Cobain poster pinned to their bedroom wall.”
Most importantly, she boldly holds performers accountable for their shortcomings and places them in perspective of a greater cultural context. “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” is the masterpiece of this collection. Hopper single-handedly undermined the significance of an entire movement of music, emo, in her 2003 essay, which originally appeared in Punk Planet #56.
“Women in emo songs are denied the dignity of humanization through both the language and narratives, we are omnipresent yet chimerical, only of consequence in romantic settings.”
It’s incredible to see how far Hopper, a self-taught, self-proclaimed fangirl, has come since her early years running stories in punk zines. The First Collection . . . is her first collection but second book, following in the footsteps of her well-received The Girls’ Guide to Rocking. She’s been a senior editor of Pitchfork, the editor in chief of The Pitchfork Review, and her work has appeared in The Best American Music Writing on five different occasions.
It’s fitting that The First Collection . . . is structured a bit like an album, blocked off into “tracks,” or thematic sections. Just perusing the index makes it immediately evident that Hopper is a Chicagoan feminist product of the 1980s with roots in the punk and riot grrrl scenes with a soft spot for pop culture and a distaste for emo boys and idolatry. The sections “Chicago” and “California”partition off her regionally-focused work from more extensive reflections on the music industry as are found in “Strictly Business” and “Real/Fake.” In the latter, she offers analyses of pop icons including Lana Del Rey, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. But not without polishing it off with a criticism of herself, “Louder Than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom,” where she comes clean about faking Mudhoney fandom to impress a boy when she was in the 9th grade. (Just like we all did.)
The gamut of publications she’s pulled from are equally varied, pieces that originally appeared in SPIN, Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune and Village Voice appear in tandem with those sourced from tinyluckygenius and Punk Planet. The scope is intentional. In her 2015 interview with Salon, Hopper remarked, “I [also] wanted those to be there to show people who are young, hopeful writers too that for years, I mostly just wrote for myself. That doesn’t make me any more of an amateur — it’s a very valid way to develop and build your voice.” (Again, Hopper is unabashed about exposing her flaws for the benefit and encouragement of her audience.)
It would be easy for Hopper to stick to the stories of the music scene that would be her default: Riot Grrrl of her youth or later the heartfelt Christian anthems of David Bazan. But Hopper remains committed to showcasing the breadth of Chicago’s musical talent in her work, the good, the bad and the ugly. She offers insights into a region that only a native would notice. “. . . what you forget is the particular sound of drunken Midwestern girls with that high Cicero shine in their voices, so sharp it can cut through the sound of a downpour a half block away.”
Allegedly, when Tim Kinsella took the helm of Featherproof Books in 2014 the first book he wanted to publish was a collection of Hopper’s criticism, an idea that the critic herself had been kicking around for a while. This collection is just as much a statement for the future of the publisher as it was Hopper herself. Under founding editor Zach Dodson’s watch, Featherproof made its name in the publishing world by taking an often worthwhile risk on radically innovative authors, including Blake Butler (Scorch Atlas, 2009), Amelia Gray (AM/PM, 2009) and Lindsay Hunter (Daddy’s, 2010). It seems clear that Kinsella, himself more known for his musical history in acts such as Joan of Arc, Cap’n Jazz and Owls, was looking to make a statement on his publishing philosophy with the release of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.
In “How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock,” Hopper takes a deeper look at how music licensing with major corporations’ advertisements or ‘selling out’ has salvaged acts who otherwise would have been unable to survive in a post-Napster music industry. But really, no one in the record industry got out unscathed. Rolling Stone cut itself down to an industry-standard 8×11 inches from its 10×12; PASTE cut its print publication altogether; MTV is just now starting its transition back to its musical roots (hiring Hopper in the process) after dropping “Music Television” from its logo in 2010. New strictly-online outlets have risen from the ashes, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Consequence of Sound and 2DopeBoyz to name a few. So, too, the critics themselves have adapted and will continue to. If Hopper is any indication of what the future holds for the field, it’s clear to see that we’re in safe, honest hands.