The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)
The personal is not the critical. All criticism is personal, of course, coming out of values and ideas that are meaningful to us, but there should be a line that delineates where personal feelings and critical thinking fall. Good criticism means making one’s own sensitivities, our instinctive emotional reactions, clear so that the critic—and the critic’s audience—don’t confuse animus for analysis. Liking something doesn’t mean it’s good, those are two different things, and a good critic can dislike something (Italian handles it well by rendering that as “it displeases me”) while also pointing out that it is well made and works on its own terms.
This balance is not hard to maintain as long as one starts from a point of self-awareness and is transparent to the reader, but the kind of passions that music inflame work against those habits. Jessica Hopper misses that balance often enough in this collection that there’s a two-steps-forward, one-back feeling to reading through it. But that just means there are things to argue over with this book, which makes it worth reading.
This new edition has substantial heft over the original 2015 one, published by Featherproof Books. That one barely topped 200 pages, this updated tome has over 400 pages of Hopper’s essays, reviews, profiles, and interviews, plus an extensive, new afterword from the author. Notable additions include an angry and wise piece for MTV News, posted in the aftermath of the 2016 election, that was a brilliant antidote to the privileged glibness of Amanda Palmer; an interview with Lido Pimienta, first published in The Believer; a Vanity Fair article about the group of women who transformed Rolling Stone on the editorial side in the mid-1970s; and, for Elle, an article titled “How Nashville’s Women Are Fighting Country’s Bro Rule.” Those last two are from a subsection of the book titled “She Said,” and underline Hopper’s status as being close enough to the “First … Living Female Rock Critic” that the title can be both tongue-in-cheek and affirming, both in a positive sense.
The title is also a key part of the critical transparency. Hopper has been working for two decades now in a field that, until recently, was essentially exclusively male. Pointing this out to the reader, pointing out what it means, runs through this collection and is, over and over again, important. That means not only explaining how punk rock was vital to the teenage Hopper, helping her find her own tastes and values away from the influence of boy crushes—and punk rock helped her both get into those crushes and beyond them—but showing how having women editors made Rolling Stone a better magazine, and how fighting the “Bro Rule” makes for better music.
She writes more perceptively than anyone about Miley Cyrus, and she profiles Lana Del Rey in one piece and reviews her album Honeymoon in another, and here is one place where Hopper’s perspective knocks her slightly off balance. The profile is excellent, Hopper has a perceptive eye for how pop culture views Del Rey and how Del Rey shapes herself to exploit that—Hopper gazes at the gazing men—and, musically, the critic is very much in the singer’s corner. But explaining Del Rey’s calculation, sans judgement, doesn’t extend to hearing the same calculation in her music, which is often deliberately cynical. That is part of the package, Del Rey challenging people to call her on what she’s doing, and that provocation has a thrill, but cynicism is still cynicism.
To interpolate an old line about sports, fans hear with their hearts. Hopper is a critic who, like all of us, is originally a fan, and that delineating is often hazy and, in the space of this book, self-contradictory—not in the way that happens to us all, having an opinion about a thing and then later changing our minds, but in terms of values. She dumps on the 2007 deluxe reissue of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, excoriating the band’s commercial exploitation of their earlier material and the general transformation of punk and early-post punk into nostalgia capitalism. But she offers sympathetic understanding and implicit approval to indie musicians trying to earn money (and often get out of poverty) by selling songs, or making original ones, for commercials. She gives the kicker to an ad executive, who explains that “These big companies are the last people paying musicians what they are worth.” And after admitting her awe over a band counting their money from selling t-shirts on the Vans Warped Tour, it seems she could also begrudge Sonic Youth making money selling their albums to fans, new and old.
This could just be this reader’s fandom talking back to that of the writer, of course. And as a guide to how to look at rock and pop from the perspective of half (at least) of the country, Hopper is sincere and true.