Alibi V.25 No.18 • May 5-11, 2016 

Rock Reads

Reviewing the Reviewer

Hopper book is important and engaging

Featherproof Books
Print+Digital
Rock Criticism
$17.95

Jessica Hopper
Jessica Hopper
Via Twitter
Full disclosure: I’ve been a Jessica Hopper fan for quite a while. In fact, she played no small role in my decision to become a music journalist myself. Her writing proves that there is something valuable to be gotten out of music and the critique of it, and that there are things we can learn from music that we can’t learn anywhere else. As Rob Sheffield says in his blurb for her new book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, “She concedes nothing to the idea that it is dumb to care so much. The excitement in her work comes from her faith that these things are worth scrapping about.”

The essays range over the span of Jessica Hopper’s 21-year-long career writing for The Chicago Reader, SPIN, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and many other publications. She opens with the personal essay “I Have a Strange Relationship with Music,” a LiveJournal-ish title that initially made me roll my eyes. Ok, we get it, you really like music. Who doesn’t? But what follows is tear-jerking. Hopper waxes poetic on the great Van Morrison album TB Sheets, basking in the glow of her turntable’s orange light during a humid summer night and getting real about how much she learned about grief and longing from this beautiful album. It sets the tone (and your expectations) for the rest of the book: a tone of respect and unabashed enthusiasm for music.

Album reviews, which are notoriously boring to read (man, I hope this article doesn’t wind up printed right next to my album reviews in this same issue), are absolutely vital in her capable hands. In her scathing review of Miley Cyrus’ album Bangerz, she points her finger straight at us: at consumerism, at misogyny, at the Disney popstar machine that raised Miley, at everything that made her the boringly wild collage of the worst parts of our culture that she is. Hopper’s message is clear: Miley Cyrus is awful, and we made her that way. Shame on us.

In “Louder than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom,” Hopper comes clean about her Converse-wearing teenagehood. She recounts the experience that every teenage girl in America has had: listening to some boy talk to you endlessly about a band that you either 1) don’t care about, or 2) know more about than he does. But she’s not bitter—she’s glad that she became obsessed with Dinosaur Jr. just to impress some boy, because Dinosaur Jr. fucking rocks. She breaks down the barrier between poser and fan, showing us that all that matters is that the enthusiasm is there. Who among us hasn’t started listening to a band for the sake of getting attention from somebody we had a crush on? And, perhaps the better question is: Why be ashamed of that?

The section called “Strictly Business” is where Hopper’s music industry knowledge shines. Her Buzzfeed story “How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock” is my favorite piece in the book—it’s a peek inside the brutal world of making ends meet as an indie musician, a peek that really cuts through any delusions of grandeur one might have about the careers of “mid-level” musicians. The reality is that a record deal isn’t a guarantee of sustainable income anymore, and that indie bands find themselves fighting for commercial spots both to make a little much-needed cash and to get more exposure than a label could ever give them. We can’t accuse bands of “selling out” when there’s no alternative way for them to make enough money to keep making their music.

In her review for the 20th Anniversary Nirvana Boxset, Hopper rips into the money-grabbing record labels even more. She’s fed up with how much money has been bled out of Kurt Cobain’s corpse, and she’s hopeful that, maybe, this will be the last re-packaged re-release of songs that already appear on collections from previous years. With the deaths of several rock legends this year, it’s a useful reminder that the music industry has little respect for the dead. We can expect the prettily-packaged Bowie and Prince re-issues to start popping up soon.

Hopper is a fine example of somebody who loves music so much that she can’t help but criticize it. She has high standards, but also an understanding of the hype and hustle that come along with making music for a living. If music has ever given you the feels, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is a necessary addition to your shelf.

Jessica Hopper Speaks