This idea that there is a right way to like music and a right music to like and a right way to express that—it all works together in this prescribed idea of how women are supposed to participate in music. Decades and decades of women being told we like music in the wrong way. It’s all just a myth.
There’s still very much this stereotype, especially within the music industry and even just within the music scene, that teenage girls are not serious consumers of music, even though they are the number one purchasers of music-of CDs especially, oddly enough. Teenage girls are the number one consumers of music, they are the number one drivers of taste, and yet they are still not considered serious music fans [….] you [can] like One Direction and the Carter Family at the same time.
-The Current’s “Jessica Hopper on Minnesota, local scenes”
Let me start this by confessing that at age fourteen, I was obsessed with Chuck Klosterman. Mid-twenties me is embarrassed that I was so willing to use men to define my identity, but I didn’t know of any females at the time getting shout outs in Entertainment Weekly for publishing pop-culture manifestos. In Klosterman’s writing, I found someone who made a living doing what I couldn’t put a name to then, he wrote about the convergence and importance of music, television and film as a means of categorizing our collective life experience. He took products my parents maligned—The Real World and porn—and examined what those cultural images said about us as a whole. He synthesized, manipulated, expanded upon ideas. At fourteen, this was revolutionary to me. In some ways, it still is. I reread Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs yearly. Klosterman’s words feels like an old friend, the pages worn and annotated. We’ve been having an ongoing conversation through his books for ten years about John Cusack, Mad Men, and KISS.
I’d already purchased Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic when she told Newsweek, “I’ll be Chuck Klosterman for girls. Maybe I’ll be four rungs down from Klosterman, or I become bigger than Klosterman. But he doesn’t get to be the only barometer anymore.” I flushed with embarrassment reading. Hopper’s insistence earlier this year while promoting the collection that she could be the new Klosterman for girls is apropos. (Author’s aside: Chuck Klosterman followed me on Twitter for 24 hours on September 21, 2015. I have to believe he unfollowed me post-One Direction’s appearance at Apple Music Festival and my subsequent stream of tweets. Hey, Chuck. I’ve read at least 123,765 of your words on KISS. The least you could do is read 10 tweets.) At fourteen, I was so happy to have found Klosterman that I didn’t even question whether or not there were female writers being shut out of publishing for writing similar content. At twenty-five, I’m happy to have found Hopper and her contemporaries—Maria Sherman, Ariel Lebeau, and Brodie Lancaster—writing thoughtful pieces on important music followed, consumed, and curated by young women. If Klosterman’s work now feels like an old friend, Hopper’s is—as a female rock critic—a mirror for my own experiences. Hopper’s book opens with her asserting, a paragraph that stands on its own before the collection truly begins, “I want it. I need it. Because all these records, give me a language to decipher how fucked up I am.” Hopper knows us, because she was and is one of us.
Hopper’s first essay in her collection is an essay published in 2003 about emo music, and the toxic community the men in the scene created. I saw Hopper speak earlier this fall at the Brooklyn Book Festival at a talk entitled “The Critic As Creator,” and she mentioned this early essay. It is hard to read Hopper’s indictment of the emo scene because it’s still so relevant in 2016. Hopper states, “Because as it stands in 2003 I simply cannot substantiate the effort it takes to give a flying fuck about the genre/plague that we know as emo or myopic songs that don’t consider the world beyond boy bodies, their broken hearts or their vans.” Hopper offers insight into the trouble women experience finding a space for themselves in the music world as performers or fans. Writing in 2003, Hopper emphasized, “Girls in emo songs today do not have names. We are not identified beyond our absence, our shape drawn by the pain we’ve caused. Our lives, our day-to-day does not exist, we do not get colored in.” It is perhaps for this very reason that I have become a fan of pop in the current decade as pop has readily embraced female performers.
Hopper references Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, a book that I read at thirteen because, as I’ve always been, I was greedy to get my hands on any book that could define, critique, examine, illuminate my obsessions. I wish I’d known that Hopper was herself analyzing the lyrics and perspective of rock critics and musicians. Teenage me could have used a young woman to help her make sense of the Bright Eyes tracks she found refuge in and the lanky, lithe boys that couldn’t find the time of day for her opinions. As Hopper laments, “Men writing songs about women is practically the definition of rock n’ roll” but that doesn’t mean that there currently is not a real demand to broaden the definition of rock n’ roll. While emo is a great place to define this particular issue, I would say this comes up personally for me in the One Direction fan base every day where all of us young women are maligned for devouring their songs, interviews, hearts. Much like Hopper describes with Bikini Kill, I’ve found refuge in a community that is a safe haven for women like myself who adore music. I quite frankly don’t care if Zayn Malik doesn’t think One Direction’s music is “cool shit,” because I do. That’s all that matters. Teenage me could have used a woman as intelligent and articulate as Hopper to help me understand this back when I let boys drone on about how music made them feel. As she so deftly writes in “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t,” “Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.”
Hopper’s collection hinges on her critical essay of R. Kelly, an essay in which she herself confronts her earlier dismissal of rape allegations made against R. Kelly. The essay establishes how Hopper is unafraid of counteracting popular mainstream music criticism. There’s a critical examination of females in pop, including Taylor Swift’s identity on Red. Hopper’s music knowledge covers decades and genres. The collection includes reviews of Miley Cyrus, St. Vincent, and Chance The Rapper.
An essential essay in The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is “Louder Than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom.” There is nothing more me than dressing up like my crush to garner their attention (Hopper writes, “I am not sure why I thought dressing exactly like Andrew Beccone might lure him to me”). I guess I was not alone in that. It made me think back to my unwavering crush on Nick Schmaltz in middle school with the swooping fringe, scuffed Converse, and permanent scowl. My affinity for pretending to like Slipknot to get his attention. I walked to the bus stop each morning and changed into torn-at-the-knees Gap bell-bottoms, picked at the frayed edges of the hole to make it larger, more authentic, inserted a studded white belt from Kohl’s into the loops, and adjusted a sweatband from Hot Topic onto my wrist away from the lurking eyes of my mother. It was only later that I would seek comfort in Jenny Lewis, Debbie Harry, Imogen Heap, Carole King and Regina Spektor long after my crush had ebbed. These articulate, fierce women helped me to understand what my identity could be. I ripped their magazine spreads out of Nylon, wrote their lyrics on my trapper keeper, and sang—off-key—along to their exquisitely spun narratives. Hopper writes, “Bikini Kill songs taught me something that neither Mudhoney, nor Andrew Beccone ever could—that my teen-girl soul mattered. That who I was mattered, what I thought and felt mattered, even when they were invisible to everyone else.” It took me a while to find “my girls,” the female singers who spoke to my life experience, passions; but once I did, there was no going back. Goodbye Nick, goodbye Hot Topic, goodbye music that didn’t represent me.
I implore you – if you’re a fan of witchsong – to pick up a copy. I read the book immediately the first week it came out, and I’ve reread it this year as I seek to find better ways to catalogue, confront, and love music.