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Two living female rock fans on The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

October 22nd, 2015     by Nyala Ali and Laura Friesen     Comments

Image: Jessica Hopper

With roots as a ‘zinester in the Riot Grrrl scene of the early 1990s, Jessica Hopper is a longtime music critic and writer who often tackles her subject matter from a feminist viewpoint that has been sorely lacking in music criticism. The highlights of her career are collected in the tersely yet effectively named The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, published this May by Featherproof Books.

The book begins with Hopper’s earlier work, reprinting her reviews for alternative rock gigs and records, and then moves into her later essays, including coverage of cultural phenomena such as SuicideGirls and Gaga ‘n’ Miley. Hopper’s viewpoint as a woman rock fan and writer - as well as many of her subjects - gave us a lot to talk about. We picked out a few essays and reviews of hers that connected strongly with us. These pieces yielded interesting talking points on gender, sexism, and authenticity in music.

Before reading Hopper’s book we had our own assumptions about what this work might represent. Passionate rock fans and feminists ourselves, we conceived of Hopper’s writing for this collection as a survey of pop music’s cultural landscape from the viewpoint of a passionate observer. We expected the writing here to reflect to readers the intellectual and emotional stake Hopper had in her subjects, which we thought would be apparent and engaged across its pieces.

What became clear to us on a piece-by-piece basis was that Hopper’s personal stake in either the scene she was discussing or its politics determined the extent to which each piece was successful. Using Hopper’s personal investment as this type of gauge led to some insights on the functions of rock criticism, specifically rock criticism from a woman’s perspective, based on the framing of the book’s chapters.

Laura: So what’s your impression of this book?

Nyala: I feel as though it’s uneven because it’s a collection, but the highs are high, they’re really good. For starters, let’s talk about that emo piece!

Emo:// Where the Girls Aren’t” is the essay that firmly established Jessica Hopper as a feminist music/cultural critic. In it, Hopper discusses the lack of female voices and the reductive portrayal of females by male musicians in emo, and in rock culture more generally.

Nyala: This piece works so well because she breaks it right down, directly addressing women’s invisibility in the emo scene. What’s interesting here is that you can tell that she’s not super passionate about this music genre, it’s the politics that she’s interested in.

Laura: Right. Is she speaking on behalf of actual female emo fans or is this appropriation?

Nyala: Can speaking for a group/subculture be a good thing in this case because she has the power to do it and it obviously needs to be said?

Laura: Does it work? Is it a good piece in spite of her distance, her detachment? I’m inclined to say yes.

Nyala: Me too. And if we’re wondering what her stake in this is, to me, it absolutely feels like she’s writing this for her younger self. She’s thinking of the ways in which she and teenage girl fans like her have been and continue to be excluded.

Laura: True, she doesn’t have to be super passionate about this particular genre of music because it’s so obvious she cares about its female fans. That’s important.

Nyala: Emo is so weird too because it lacks a lot of the traditional machismo of other genres and that’s what makes its misogyny so insidious. It’s essentially “nice guy rock”, which of course still totally functions as a boys’ club. I think Hopper recognizes this and her care for the fans comes from the same place that her writing does: from a female fan place.

Laura: “Nice guy rock” is never about “nice guys” - that is the oldest trick in the book. Emo is about romantic hopes and subsequent letdowns…

Nyala: …and I see this piece contrasting and relating to the grunge pieces about her younger self, and how complicated the whole thing can get. “You’re Reliving All Over Me: Dinosaur Jr. reunites” frames teenage music fandom through its romantic rites, or more accurately, uses romance as a foil to the type of (usually male) camaraderie that comes from bonding over a love of the same bands.

Louder Than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom” also explores that type of fan camaraderie through Hopper’s attempt to leverage her music knowledge to join the elite “boys’ club” of music fans at her junior high school. Those pieces really show how clear it is that you can only have one or the other – you can try to get the guy or you can try to be part of the club, and you will probably fail on both counts because everything is terrible for women in music fandom.

Laura: It is for straight teenage girl rock fans, certainly. And while becoming a music fan is usually an individual, solitary activity, teenagers in particular become music fans publicly as well - it’s all about the signs, signifiers and social rites of the boys’ club. Like, band t-shirts as signifiers - as entry points into a scene - for example.

Nyala: Oh yeah. When dudes wear band t-shirts, the shirts are cultural capital that signals automatic, implicit knowledge. When girls wear band t-shirts it’s almost like an invitation to question them on their taste or knowledge to find out what they don’t know. The t-shirt is like a dude sign signifying the type of dude turf where girls should fear to tread.

Laura: I feel like so many girls try to invade that boy-space as teenagers, to be part of that club, and it never works. Even when differences come down to matters of opinion or feeling, which are as arbitrary as each individual, these are conflated with fact and can become deal breakers for girls trying to access that space. It’s brutal, and not restricted to music.

Nyala: For girls, our knowledge and the power that comes with it is almost never implicit, it never boils down to what we do know (and have to show that we know); it boils down to that one detail we don’t know, or that one detail that boys chalk up to us being flat-out wrong about because we don’t agree with their opinion on it.

Laura: This is true over and over again for me. For boys and girls who aspire to be included in male-dominated social groups, I think there’s a directness and immediacy about whether you’re accepted or not that’s often perceived as more upfront and refreshing. It can seem so uncomplicated and sure.

Nyala: Yeah, it’s just another reflection of our patriarchal culture and boys being socialized to be self-assured. The confidence and sureness with which boys socialize is so seductive, not necessarily even (or at all) romantically, but in the way that it can make you think that its directness, its sureness, will make it easier for you to navigate, easier for you to get in. But then you find out that that’s not the case, that it’s still so gender exclusive.

Laura: True, it’s no less subjective or arbitrary than any stereotypical “girls’ scenes”, but the dominant perception of the way boys socialize as somehow more straightforward and direct makes us think, as teenagers, that we’ll be easily and painlessly included in it. Not so.

Of all the boy-genres (to use a Hopper-style portmanteau), emo seems like it’s built upon exclusive signifiers, more so than other rock genres. And it is: emo in particular is about no facts; all feeling.

Nyala: Again, it speaks to the insidious nature of the scene, where male emo fans are perceived as being non-threatening and always in the right because they’re the ones who were wronged. Allegedly, anyway. And that’s what Hopper is saying, hey, where is the other side to this, why aren’t women’s voices encouraged or invited here, what might be discovered?

She demonstrates how these scenes (emo and grunge) are equally uninviting with her framing of the three essays: the grunge pieces are about her own teenage romantic story that is disappointing in all of the expected ways with the additional stake of her burgeoning fandom, and then the emo one is her viewing of these social rituals from an outsider’s perspective and looking back on that fandom with her younger self in mind.

Hopper comes from a relatively inclusive, feminist scene and, maybe I am projecting, but I get the sense she’s always wanted to infiltrate the dude scene. Like, she knows that her voice is even more valuable in that context, and she’s tired of preaching to the choir. I am so on board with that.

And We Remain (Outliers and Onlookers.)

And We Remain, Ever So Faithfully, Yours” sees Hopper attempting to report on a ladies mud wrestling event. She writes about her role as an outsider, and reflects on the consumptive nature of the event and its attendees as well as her own passive and reluctant participation in it.

Laura: So speaking of being an outsider to a scene, what’d you think about the essay called “And We Remain, Ever So Faithfully, Yours”?

Nyala: It’s such a good and effective piece of writing. She’s basically observing the mating rituals of a scene that she feels utterly foreign in.

Laura: It’s about the male gaze without being about the male gaze.

Nyala: It totally is! And there’s this really strong sense of unrest…

Laura: …that comes from immersing yourself in a different and probably quite hostile scene. The event that she went to feels very toxic.

Nyala: You can pretty easily tell what went on here. She was assigned to cover this apparently women-centric event. She went thinking it might be one thing [women-centric for feminist reasons], it ended up being the other [women’s mud wrestling for a largely male crowd], and she had to write about it. She winds up writing about her alienation, and it becomes a reflection on her past, angrier self.

Laura: She watches men watching women and she feels more and more like an outsider, both to the surrounding crowd and to her younger self, as the evening goes by. There’s a sense that she feels she’s letting her past feminist self down even though she makes no attempt to identify with the objectified women at this event. She compares herself to them, but she remains separate.

Nyala: She’s basically in awe of her own past recklessness, and she concedes that there are different kinds of female recklessness. You know, she thinks, these women get into this pit to wrestle, but I used to spit in men’s faces when they catcalled me. She knows the similarities and differences in their danger now that she is more aware of how to navigate spaces that are potentially unsafe for women.

You Know What? (Blaze the Fuck Past Nostalgia!)

You Know What” is Hopper skewering ‘90s nostalgia. According to her, it’s unproductive, does a disservice to bands and scenes past and present (especially female-oriented ones) and becomes regressive because it forces audiences to look backwards instead of forwards for social progress in pop music.

Nyala: On the subject of spaces that are safe for women though, let’s try to unpack that essay about nostalgia and riot grrrl and progress in music and how narratives around cultural spaces are told.

Laura: YES. This is such an important piece. Thanks for writing this, Jessica Hopper.

Nyala: Yup, she knows. You have to go into non-inclusive spaces in order to blaze the fuck past the riot grrrls and the other famous movements. She also talks around how it’s also really convenient and lazy to frame riot grrrl and other similar political movement-oriented rock music as scenes that just happened, like little blips, and then stopped. This is not what happened, and really illustrates why nostalgia is so dangerous – we don’t keep up to date on the important, revolutionary things that are happening now.

Laura: It’s why everyone knows about punk and thinks it was a one-off scene, everyone died, and then nothing interesting happened until, like, new wave and college rock. And they classify it and romanticize it like that. What about post-punk? Post-punk arguably had way more amazing bands, albums, songs, and ideas come out of it than punk ever did.

Nyala: The most dramatic narratives are always the ones that get idolised. The Boys (and Girls) Who Lived (after first wave punk happened) don’t hold the same appeal as what came before them. Drama seems to dictate a certain type of lasting authenticity that quieter but equally important or pioneering stories aren’t afforded.

Laura: It’s also the start of the change that makes a quantifiable splash in the eyes of the mainstream media. The subtle permutations in the work that comes afterward isn’t apparently worthy or different enough for the press - or those who control the dominant narratives - to acknowledge. So even if they don’t get completely missed, these shifting scenes can be deeply misunderstood.

Nyala: Another important thing is how lineage plays into this, how nostalgia functions as a continuation for men but as a stoppage or limit for women. Men’s scenes evolve and shift and are allowed to do so without having defined specific narratives or names; women’s scenes are viewed as short-lived exceptions that then end up being pigeonholed to fit in with dominant narratives.

Laura: Women had to start small, their scenes were tiny, whereas men had audiences built into what they were doing. The rate of growth, and then marketability, was kind of unprecedented. I’m thinking about grunge in this case. Men had a built-in audience of themselves. Women had a built-in audience of themselves too, but the difference was that it was a fraction of the size because they weren’t nearly as prevalent in rock scenes.

Nyala: Right? Plus men didn’t have to convince the culture at large to pay attention because they were the ones dictating the larger culture. There was already space for them – space didn’t have to be carved out for them to get their scene off the ground.

Laura: Women had to prove something, men had to prove nothing. This is a metaphor for literally everything ever.

Nyala: And as is also often the case, it boils down to the question of “Fuck it, let’s try!” vs. “Don’t try, it’s not worth it, nothing will ever be as good or important or influential.”

Laura: Narrative definitely shapes our understanding of the past and makes nostalgia what it is - these events and happenings are neatly packaged up and marketed on that nostalgic basis.

Nyala: But the funniest thing is that regardless of gender, the scenes all started out as grassroots/DIY and really, none of them had neat, tidy origins at all, but it’s easier to attribute that lack of a grand design to women, as an unorganized thing. That’s what women’s history is in the view of mainstream culture - a lot of little seemingly random blips. It kept going and evolved into different and equally interesting events and developments, but the patriarchal larger culture doesn’t want to tie that together or care to document it.

Laura: It comes back to that idea of men’s scenes immediately having an audience and therefore a voice. And there’s a lot of outliers too. These individual people who operate outside of what we currently understand a movement or a scene to be about or complicate our understanding of what feminism is. They could be included in it on the basis of their work, but if they don’t self-identify as feminists or whatever, we don’t think of them as part of the movement, never mind thinking of them as pushing the movement forward or expanding it. We think of them as outsiders. It’s how important viewpoints get missed or glossed over.

Nyala: This is why I never really identified with third-wave feminism, even though every narrative was telling me that I should or that it was relevant to me. Third wave feminism’s synonymousness with riot grrrl misses SO MUCH of what third-wave feminism is about. It’s just that it’s so neat and easy to tell the story like this.

Laura: The dominant, or most dramatic or news-worthy, narrative gets totally collapsed into one right or knowable version, and people feel alienated from it. They don’t see themselves in it and and don’t look further. It’s why we sometimes feel disjointed individually and as part of a bigger movement.

Females: A Fitting End.

Hopper’s section Females collects her reviews of female musicians who, in different ways, shake up listeners’ expectations of what women performers should represent.

St. Vincent: Strange Mercy” is an album review that emphasizes Annie Clark’s specifically crafted St. Vincent performer-self versus her more candid side.

SWF, 45: Mecca Normal’s The Observer” is an album review that reflects on The Observer as a confessional narrative, and how it plays with and against expectations of what a 45-year-old single white female should sing about.

There is no Guyville in Sweden: Frida Hyvönen’s Until Death Comes” contrasts Frida Hyvönen’s confessional, sexually explicit narratives with Liz Phair’s similar Exile in Guyville. Hopper finds Hyvönen’s attitude towards sex and men notably (and refreshingly) different from American pop music’s usual reflection of gender politics.

Nyala: If we’re thinking about dominant narratives of both feminism and femininity and how those get deployed, maybe we could talk about the Annie Clark/St. Vincent piece? St. Vincent seems hyper-aware of the idea of constructing femininity as a performer (and, I’d argue, as a feminist). She uses this kind of construction to allow herself some degree of control, I think. We’ve also talked about sureness with respect to male music fans, but St. Vincent’s sureness as a woman performer is interesting as well because A) it’s refreshing/feminist-as-fuck given many dominant narratives of women being less sure or less assertive than men and B) it comes across as not only purposeful but sincere to me, it doesn’t seem like bravado.

Laura: On that note of her sureness not coming across as bravado, it seems to me that her onstage restraint, as well as her relative privacy as a public figure, have a lot to do with it. While candid and (somewhat) forthcoming about her music and career in interviews, Clark’s stage presence is full of secrets; it’s rigid. She withholds a lot; it’s that control you mention. But her bravado is also specifically assigned to her stage-self. She comes across as humble and modest, even self-deprecating, in press. It’s about that cultivation of her stage-self. She looks people in the eye as she shuffles away from them. It’s not weak; it’s exact.

Nyala: Also aspirational! But you’re right, she’s very aware of the gaze and I would go so far as to say that she consciously weaponizes her own to-be-looked-at-ness, if we want to use the technical term.

Laura: Exactly, that conscious and calculated use of femininity to fuck with an audience is one of the best things about many of my favourite performers. The aspects of femininity Clark chooses to either emphasize or subvert are the keys to her appeal, at least for me. We are invited to look at her and her almost sci-fi stylizations, but she deploys that gaze. She invites us to look at her in the first place and she controls what we see.

Nyala: Another thing I found interesting is how Clark treats confessional narratives almost the same way women’s history has been treated; as snippets. Her approach here contrasts heavily with some of the other artists that Hopper profiles in the Females section – for example Mecca Normal and Frida Hyvönen.

Laura: My interpretation of Clark’s songwriting is similar to how I see her performance style and stage presence: we’re permitted to see glimpses of a whole. Her songwriting does tend to deal with women’s lives on a micro as opposed to macro level - she doesn’t make sweeping judgements or grand gestures on behalf of women, or even tell women-centric stories. She lets individual characters and feelings tell bits of a bigger and indefinable story.

Another thing that strikes me is the comparison of women’s songwriting in this chapter with the examples elsewhere in the book, most notably in Hopper’s Real/Fake section. Even though she often ends up arguing in defense of artists such as Lana Del Rey or Lady Gaga, there is a clear divide between the interesting, smart, “serious” artists here and the banal and overexposed - they’re always contrasted that way - female musicians elsewhere in the collection.

Nyala: Hopper does seem really interested in ideas surrounding women’s songwriting – I’d say that all of the artists in the Females section are invested in rewriting not only the content but the purpose of confessional narratives. St. Vincent consciously refuses to give us the whole story, whereas Jean Smith of Mecca Normal turns these stories on their heads to expose the vulnerabilities of the people she’s singing about, these deficient men that she’s met through online dating. I really appreciated that she didn’t really internalize any of their shit, so to speak. In the same way, Frida Hyvönen has refused to internalize any of the guilt or vulnerabilities associated with sex; it was, as you’d previously mentioned to me, a thing that was just there without all the baggage/insecurities that are usually front and centre in confessional narratives.

Laura: I think these three artists also rewrite the confessional narrative by playing with stereotypes of overly emotionally attached or cold and detached women. Whether they’re aware that they’re occupying the liminal space between poles of how women are “expected” to engage with their own lives doesn’t even matter, because they’re writing their own experiences.

Nyala: And in doing so, they are, in Hopper’s words, getting what they need from music, by using it to process these experiences in a way that feels authentic or cathartic to them. The irony here is that we can see their coping mechanisms, the vulnerability is still there to an extent, it’s just a different kind, or a different approach than we’re used to, especially with Jean Smith, I think.

Laura: The Jean Smith/Mecca Normal essay also aligns with that observer role we keep revisiting. But here we can’t really split it down that passionate observer/neutral or detached observer line. This is Smith’s own romantic life, so of course she’s invested in it. But she keeps a healthy amount - whatever that might be - of psychological distance from it. The weird and shitty things that happen to the women in this section are what might connect them, perhaps. This last section, Females, actually comes across how I expected the whole book to read when I first got it.

Nyala: This whole section was so good and provided such a fitting end to the book because it just affirmed Hopper’s stake in writing from a female place, both through her subject matter (content) and her own writing (form). I think she was really effective in exploring different ways that she and other living female rock critics (and performers and fans) were able to get what they needed from music and/or from a culture that has largely excluded women, even though, as Hopper mentions, rock music has always been about women, but from a male perspective.

Laura: It really is a great example of what looking at women’s and men’s music (and music scenes) across decades and genres from a critical feminist perspective can yield. Hopper exposes sexist double standards succinctly and without bullshit. She mentions in the emo piece that yes, being a fan of most pop music is pretty unsettling and gross from a woman’s perspective (“‘…you have a problem with all of rock history!’”). While we readily acknowledge that, how can we move past it? This collection and the motivation and passion behind it is a good start.

Nyala: There’s that great line in the Raincoats piece (on the legacy of the all-female post-punk band), about how Kurt Cobain served as a boy bridge to girl culture - I really hope that this collection of work can serve as the opposite (as a girl bridge to boy culture) for girls who might want to get into music but feel intimidated for a bunch of the reasons we’ve talked about. I hope reading this book makes girl fans (or would-be fans) feel like someone does care about them. I hope they can use that kind of affirmation to blaze the fuck ahead – to start a blog or a band and become culturally engaged with music.

Tags: gender, media savvy, music

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