Local Current Blog

The Current’s Rock and Roll Book Club: Jessica Hopper’s ‘First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic’

Jessica Hopper is right on, thinks Andrea Swensson. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

At The Current, we love music and we also love books about music. In partnership with MPR’s The Thread, we’ve started a new series we’re calling The Current’s Rock and Roll Book Club. Each month, we’re picking a book about the music we love, and one of our staff members is sharing his or her take on the book. We hope you’ll read along with us, and share your thoughts both in the comment section and via social media: #RockandRollBookClub. For our inaugural pick, Jade wrote about Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon’s new memoir. This month, Andrea Swensson writes about a new collection of music criticism by an author with Minnesota roots.

Between its bold title, its stark black and white cover, and its gilded pages (!), Jessica Hopper’s new collection is presented to readers as a Very Important Book. And you know what? It absolutely is.

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic begins with a declaration: “This book is dedicated to those that came before, those that should of been first, and all the ones that will come after.” Hopper is quick to note that there have been other books published by female rock critics—most recently, a posthumous collection of Ellen Willis’s music writing earned a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism—but the fact that you can count up all the similar books by female rock on one hand feels discouraging. There should be more. And the idea that Hopper’s book could kickstart a whole new generation of music books by female authors is exhilarating.

In the context of all of this history, Hopper’s already trenchant writing style takes on even more weight. In rock terms, this book is her greatest hits collection—although while reading it, it comes across more like a live album. We’ve read these pieces before, and most are still readily available online, but they take on a new significance bound together in this way, printed in permanency, with 12 years of work condensed into 201 pages. The format begs the reader to slow down, spend some time with her words, and revel in her twists of prose and the buoyant rhythm of her voice. Online, some of these pieces could have easily been scanned over as yet another piece of internet content. In a book, they are given the space to breathe, and to sing.

As a woman who is also a rock critic, and as a woman who is a rock critic who also plans to publish books in the immediate future, this whole collection is so up my alley that I can practically see it out my window. So I’m not going to pretend to review this book at an arm’s length. How could I? I spent half the time I was reading it with my heart in my throat. It means a great deal to me, this book, and I couldn’t be happier that it’s now out in the world.

For me, a sign of a good book is when you get to passages that ring so true to you that you have no choice but to gasp, set the book down, pick it up and read the passage again. It occurred to me that this is something that we can do much more easily with writing than we can with music; how often have you sprang up out of your chair to rewind a song so you can hear a lyric again? This book had me lifting the needle off the record over and over again, stopping to go get a highlighter and re-read and scribble reactions to my little revelations in the margins.

There are many thought-provoking themes coursing throughout The First Collection (as emphasized by chapter headlines like “Real/Fake,” “Faith,” and “Nostalgia”), but the one that leapt out at me and hit me right in the gut was this idea that finally, after years of being raised in a male-dominated world and fed music created by men, about men, and for men, that a young woman can be treated to such a thrilling, validating, and beautiful rush when we discover that there are artists out there willing to sing about the female experience, highlight our struggles, and validate our hard-fought victories. Women matter. Our hearts and minds matter. And I’ve never been reminded of that so vividly as I have while reading Jessica Hopper’s prose.

I could say so much more about this, but these ideas have already been communicated so eloquently in this book that my words would merely be an echo. Rather than attempt to paraphrase all of Hopper’s best and brightest lines, I thought it’d be fun to assemble a list of some of the passages that got me nodding my head and scrambling for my highlighter. And as Hopper says in her introduction, I can’t wait for all the other books like this that will come after.

10 Boss Quotes from Jessica Hopper

“I want it. I need it. Because all these records, they give me a language to decipher just how f***ed I am. Because there is a void in my guts which can only be filled by songs.”
From “I Have a Strange Relationship with Music”

“I was in tears with a sudden awareness: I’ve been going to three shows a week for the last decade and the number of times I’ve heard women’s reality acknowledged or portrayed in a song sung by male-fronted band was at zero and holding.”
From “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t”

“We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.”
From “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t”

“It is sometimes strangely lonely doing stories, out by yourself, glued to the makeshift notepad, noticing, noticing, scribbling blindly, looking for the point of interest.”
From “And We Remain, Ever So Faithfully, Yours”

“Being sexy and serious about your art needn’t be mutually exclusive.”
From “Deconstructing Lana Del Rey”

“No girl escapes teenhood without a keen awareness of exactly how the world sees her, what it expects of her; she knows the weight of the world’s desire for her down to the ounce.”
From “Taylor Swift, Grimes and Lana Del Rey: The Year in Blond Ambition”

“Bad girls are infinite. Miley possesses us in a way that fully clothed Lorde never will.”
From “We Can’t Stop: Our Year with Miley”

“Kurt Cobain died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
From “Nevermind Already: Nirvana’s 20th Anniversary Boxset”

“Kathleen Hanna’s rebel yell posted the bail from my teen grunge prison; I had found music that meant everything to me.”
From “Louder than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom”

“Bikini Kill songs taught me… 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.”
From “Louder than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom”