Authors: Jessica Hopper
Tags: #Music Criticism
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
Copyright © 2015 by Jessica Hopper
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except for review.
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2014959066
ISBN 13: 978-0-9831863-6-6
Edited by Tim Kinsella and Jason Sommer.
Cover Design by Michael Renaud.
Interior Design by Zach Dodson.
Author photo by David Sampson.
Printed in the United States of America
Set in Mercury
Table of Contents
The title of this book is not entirely accurate. There’s Ellen Willis’
Beginning to See the Light
, though it wasn’t all music writing, and then her posthumous collection that was. Of course Lillian Roxon’s
from 1969, Caroline Coon’s crucial
1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion
and the collective, life-changing
Rock She Wrote
. We should be able to list a few dozen more--but those books don’t exist. Yet.
The title of this book is about planting a flag; it is for those whose dreams (and manuscripts) languished due to lack of formal precedence, support and permission. This title is not meant to erase our history but rather to help mark the path.
This book is dedicated to those that came before, those that should of been first, and all the ones that will come after.
I HAVE A STRANGE RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC
Hit It or Quit It
#17, Spring 2002
I have a strange relationship with music. It is strange by virtue of what I need from it. Some days, it’s the simple things: distraction, entertainment, the sticky joy garnered only from Timbaland beats. Then, sometimes, usually early in the part of the morning that is still night time, most especially lately, I am painfully aware of every single thing that I need from music, embarrassed by what I ask of it. Having developed such a desperate belief in the power of music to salve and heal me, I ask big, over and over again. I have an appetite for deliverance, and am not really interested in trying to figure out whether it qualifies me as lucky or pathetic.
The stereo is just past halfway to as-loud-as-it-will-go, the rolling bass of Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets” (the first song on side two of the album of the same name) is moving throughout the house, its punctuating bump’n’grind ricocheting off the parquet floor, sound filling every room. This makes the fourth night in the last five that I’m doing this same routine—lights out, alone, in a precarious emotional state not worth explaining, dancing, though in a way that is barely dancing, because lying down is out of the question on a night as hot as this, and lying down means motionless, and there’s really no being still right now.
is a great album on which seven of the eight songs are about Van Morrison and a girl he loves, who is dying of tuberculosis. I can count on one hand the times that I have made it through the entire album without crying. It’s brutal and never fails to deliver in its relentless humanity. Some songs detail the recent past, a golden reminiscence of some then-average day (“Who Drove the Red Sports Car”) that now will have to be enough for a lifetime; he’s asking her, “
Do you remember?
” insinuating some intimate exchange, some forgotten little secret. He needs her to remember. “Beside You” is a fierce, rambling pledge—he’s pleading for her confidence, in a torrential cadence of nearly unintelligible half-sentences that sound like they could be directions someplace, before the decimating crescendo. He sounds drunk, a little off-key, hysterical, now saying everything he ever meant to say to her and didn’t, confessing himself, as if this act of deathbed desperation, this unbearable love, this compassion to the point of oneness with her, if she knew it, if she could really understand it, and take it in—it might just save her. All of this is cast out amongst ominous, trilling B3 sustain and repetitive guitar, droning off into bottomless tension. (A version of this song appears later on, a version which is totally chardonnay and mystic gamelan flutes and angelic production, in comparison to the decidedly drinkin’-straight-from-the-bottle, succulent, lo-fi, four-bar, party-blues hip sway of the original.)
The title track, “T.B. Sheets,” is nine minutes and 44 seconds of Van rending an exquisite topography of bleak human expanse, an outline of him collapsing under the weight of incontrovertible mortal pall, in a dialect too casual and acrimonious for how well he knows her. He’s unable to be of any use—unable to get far away fast enough from his fear, evading the knowledge of exactly what all this means, the finality of it. Details give way to a much deeper reckoning: “I can almost smell / The T.B. sheets.” Audibly choking for air, and again repeating, with frail cogency, “I gotta go” over and over, like a mantra of absolution, seeking another set of chances, burdened by survival.
But it’s too late, he’s in for all he’s got.
It’s a song of failure. It’s realizing that sometimes the best you’ve got to give isn’t much of anything at all.
Dancing in pitch-dark rooms, rooms illuminated exclusively by the tiny light on the turntable, is an activity which fits very well with my ideas of “rock-critic behavior” (which is like normal music-fan behavior, but substantially more pitiful and indulgent). It’s behavior that comes from an inextricable soul-entanglement with music that is insular, boundless, devoted, celebratory and willfully pathetic. It’s my fantasized notion of what a REAL rock-critic scenario is like: a “special” manual typewriter, ashtrays full of thin roaches, an extensive knowledge of Mott the Hoople lyrics, a ruthless seeking for the life of life in free jazz sides. May also include: a fetishizing of THE TRUTH (which always turns gory, no matter what records you listen to), detoured attempts to illuminate the exact heaven of Eric B. & Rakim or Rocket from the Tombs with the fluorescent lighting of yr 3 a.m. genius stroke prose; and, most of all, an insatiable appetite for rapture that cannot be coaxed by any other means. And oh what motherfucking deliverance when you find it! It’s exhaustively chronicling what it is that artists possess that we mere mortals do not; what it is that they offer up that we are unable or unwilling to say ourselves. They offer a connection to the disconnected, they make our secrets bearable in their verses and choruses: ornate in their undoing, gambling with their happiness, their personal irredemption, their humility, using failure to build a podium to reach god, their faked orgasms amid in-between-song skits, their solos, their clever rhymes, their crippled expectations, their spiritual drift, their still-unmet Oedipal needs, their fuckless nights, their not not-so-gradual disappearance from reality, their rodeo blues, their ghetto living/ghetto dying, their unflagging romantic beliefs, of being an outlaw for your love, Reaganomics, the summer they’ll never forget, the power of funk, hanging at the Nice Nice w/ the eye patch guy, American apathy, taking hoes to the Cheesecake Factory, getting head in drop-top Benzes, isolation, the benefits of capitalism, screwing Stevie Nicks in the tall green grass, the swirling death dust, the underground and none of the above.
I want it. I need it. Because all these records, they give me a language to decipher just how fucked I am. Because there is a void in my guts which can only be filled by songs.
PART ONE: CHICAGO
EMO: WHERE THE GIRLS AREN’T
#56, July 2003
A few months back, I was at a Strike Anywhere show. The band launched into “Refusal,” a song that offers solidarity with the feminist movement and bears witness to the struggles inherent to women’s lives. It is not a song of protection, there is no romantic undertow, it’s just about all people being equally important. Everyone was dancing, fanboys and girls at the lip of the stage screaming along—like so many shows at the Fireside. By the first chorus of the song, 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. This song was the first.
It’s no wonder why my girlfriends and I have grown increasingly alienated and distanced from the scene, or have begun taking shelter from emo’s pervasive stronghold in the recesses of electronic, DJ or experimental music. No wonder girls I know are feeling dismissive and faithless towards music. No wonder I feel much more allegiance to MOP’s “Ante Up” than any song by an all-dude band about the singer’s romantic holocaust. 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. Meanwhile, we’re left wondering—how did we get here?
As hardcore and political punk’s charged sentiments became more cliché towards the end of the ‘80s and we all began slipping to into the armchair comfort of the Clinton era—punk stopped looking outward and began stripping off its tough skin only and examine its squishy heart instead, forsaking songs about the impact of trickle down economics for ones about elusive kisses. Mixtapes across America became laden with relational eulogies—hopeful boys with their hearts masted to sleeves, their pillows soaked in tears. Punk’s songs became personal, often myopically so.
Perhaps we lost the map, or simply stopped consulting it. There was a time when emo seemed reasonable, encouraging, exciting—revivifying in its earnestness and personal stakes. These new bands modeled themselves on bands we all liked: Jawbox, Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate. The difference was, in those bands’ songs about women, the girls had names, details to their lives. Jawbox’s most popular song, “Savory,” was about recognizing male normative privilege, about the weight of objectification on a woman (“See you feign surprise / That I‘m all eyes”). In Jawbreaker songs, women had leverage, had life, had animus and agency to them. Sometimes they were friends, or a sister, not always a girl to be bedded or dumped by. They were unidealized, realistic characters.
And then something broke—and not just Mr. Dashboard’s sensitive heart. Records by a legion of romantically-wronged boys suddenly lined the record store shelves. Every record was seemingly a concept album about a breakup, damning the girl on the other side. Emo’s contentious monologues—these balled-fist, Peter Pan mash-note dilemmas—have now gone from being descriptive to being prescriptive. Emo has become another forum where women were locked out, observing ourselves through the eyes of others.