GA Book Club #4: ‘The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic’ by Jessica Hopper

Welcome back to the Girls Against Book Club! For the month of October, we’ve been reading ‘The First Collection of Criticism By A Living
Female Rock Critic’
by Jessica Hopper, a title that, on the first page, she
states is not entirely accurate. The title of this collection of essays is what drew to me to it though. The lack of music criticism written by women perhaps reflects the disproportionately lacking amount of women in the music industry generally, or perhaps the amount of women who are given opportunities rather.

Sexual assault at gigs, from my experience, affects women at a much larger rate than it does men and perhaps the domination of men in the music industry is the reason why the issue was largely ignored before campaigns like Girls Against. I chose to read this book as part of our book club in order to learn more about the experiences of a woman in a male-dominated industry and to amplify the voice of a talented female music critic.

I thought parts of this book were great but others, I didn’t enjoy so much. This is in no way a criticism of Hopper’s writing style, which is engaging, humorous and honest; it’s purely because some of the artists she writes about I’ve never heard of and some of the essays were originally written when I was 6 years old, making it difficult to understand some her points of reference. Obviously, this book is not handmade for each and every reader, ready to go with artists they like and cultural references they can understand and so I really don’t feel justified in criticising the text for this reason. But personally for me it made it a little bit less of an enjoyable read and someone who is perhaps a little older than me with a better general knowledge of music would have enjoyed it much more I’m sure. I do think the text would have benefited from a structural change in terms of grouping the essays by date rather than category as the essays at times were loosely grouped by category anyway and it was a little disorienting reading essays one after another that jumped from 2003 to 2013 to 2007 etc.

Anyway, with my little moan out of the way, I’ll move on to some of the essays I enjoyed.  The first essay I liked is titled ‘Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t’. It explores the distorted portrayal of woman in emo music, in which Hopper states woman are ‘denied the dignity of humanization through both the language and narratives, we are omnipresent yet chimerical, only of consequence in romantic settings.’ I don’t listen to much emo music and so can’t comment on whether this has changed since when the essay was first published in 2003 but this representation of women is present in many music genres that I do listen to and I think Hopper explains it nicely here. A line from this essay that really resonated with me is ‘men writing songs about women is practically the definition of rock ‘n’ roll’ as it seemed to explain to me why I unconsciously shifted to listening to so many more female fronted bands. A lot of the male-fronted bands I used to listen to, and admittedly still listen to now at times, do often just write songs about romanticized versions of women and I’m as bored of this in 2017 as Hopper was when writing this essay in 2003.

Another essay that I enjoyed, one of Hopper’s artist-specific essays, was ‘Deconstructing Lana Del Rey’. Lana Del Rey has been one of my favourite artists since ‘Born to Die’ and Hopper’s commentary on, what she describes as, the ‘Authenticity Debate’ surrounding Lana was really interesting to me. Hopper indirectly mocks those who ‘don’t understand’ Lana Del Rey and are determined to get to the bottom of ‘what she is’ and outlines the debate surrounding this. In response to this she simply states, ‘Being sexy and serious about your art needn’t be mutually exclusive, even when your art involves being a pop package.’ A simple statement like this portrays how unfounded the questions surrounding Del Rey’s image are and for me, this ‘debate’ just goes to show that society is still a little bit afraid of women who do not perfectly fit into it’s mould of what a woman is and should be.

Hopper’s essay on Courtney Love and Hole was definitely one of my favourites to read. ‘Live Through This’ is such a great album (that you should go and listen to right now if you haven’t already) and her conversation with the band is really interesting. The essay is titled ‘You Will Ache Like I Ache: The Oral History of Hole’s Live Through This’ and Hopper describes ‘Love’s surety of her band’s rightful place in the hierarchy’ as a sort of rite of passage for ‘every girl with a guitar’, describing the album as ‘the portrait of a woman claiming her power’. Listening to this album feels incredibly empowering and I couldn’t have summarised it better than Hopper does here. There were so many lines like this one in the collection where Hopper put my long and confused thoughts into a well-written and simple line and I always think that having the ability to do this makes someone a really great writer.

It is clear in all of these essays how truly passionate Hopper is about music and this along with her vast and extensive knowledge of the music industry makes her the ideal music critic. She put together this collection of criticism to, in her own words, ‘help mark the path’ of music criticism written by woman, dedicating the book to ‘those that came before, those that should have been first, and all the ones that will come after.’ This set of essays was my first real look into music criticism written by anyone of any gender and I can vouch for the fact that it sets an amazing example not only for women but for everyone and I sincerely hope that more women are given the opportunities to become music critics. I only wish that my knowledge of music was more extensive generally so I could fully appreciate every essay in this collection and essays to come- I will work on that!

For the penultimate book of 2017, we will be reading Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of poetry ‘Feminine Gospels’. I really wanted to incorporate some poetry into the book club before the year was over and who better to begin with than the first female and LGBT British Poet Laureate? She’s even Scottish which is where our campaign’s roots lie with two of the three current founders being Scots too! In this poetry collection Duffy focuses on the theme of female identity and explores it historically, archetypically and in various other ways.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in then please join us in reading it during November! If you have already read ‘Feminine Gospels’ or are planning to then be sure to join our GoodReads group here so you can keep up to date with the book club and contribute your views on the text. Alternatively, if you’d rather contribute your views anonymously or privately you can email us at
girlsagainstbookclub@gmail.com
with your thoughts. The next book club post will go up on Sunday 3rd
December so be sure to tell us what you think of the text by then for a chance
to have your views included in the post.

Written by Alice Porter (@aliceporterx on Twitter).