I will admit it: I listened exclusively to emo music in high school, although I took it—and maybe still do—more seriously than the genre implies. Brand New were my first foray into that immature-sounding genre, and I still offer up ridiculous displays of loyalty to them. Case in point: I spent a solid twelve hours outside the downtown Reckless Records this past Record Store Day to be second in line for the repress of Déjà Entendu, and in a wildly lucky ten-minute game of Internet Browser Refresh Roulette scored tickets to their Lollapalooza Aftershow. So when Jessica Hopper—in the initial essay of her book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic—points to them as an example of emo’s self-indulgent “vulnerabile [sic] front,” I reflexively dug my heels in.
Critiquing that knee-jerk reaction of mine, though, is the crux of this piece, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” On the third track of Déjà, Jesse Lacey practically spits alliterative phonemes: “I would kill for the Atlantic / but I am paid to make girls panic while I sing”; Hopper worries that emo will most affect these self-same girls at shows, “for whom this is their inaugural introduction to the underground.” Each track, she argues, is “a high-stakes game of control that involves ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ possession of the girl,” and does nothing to give them anything as complicated as a backstory or, often, as simple as a name. More than fair, this argument; it certainly wasn’t an issue I was considering as a freshman when I first heard them on Your Favorite Weapon, though I’m old enough to hear it now.
But what make this collection complex and worthwhile for both serious and casual listeners is that Hopper is well aware of how we always teeter between what we want from our music and what we can get. Nor does she claim exemption, stating plainly in the collection’s introduction: “I am painfully aware of every single thing that I need from music, embarrassed by what I ask of it.” In the aforementioned essay, she readily admits that “men writing songs about women is practically the definition of rock ‘n’ roll,” that criticizing this one genre inevitably precludes answering an eclipsing, daunting question: “Who do you excuse and why? Do you check your politics at the door and just dance or just rock or just let side A spin out?”
Hopper’s pretty open about her political stances, but her writing merits it. Whether she’s interviewing Jim Derogatis about his involvement in breaking court records of R. Kelly’s predatory behavior, detailing her take on the state of feminism in contemporary punk, looking at what we talk about when we talk about Tyler, the Creator and homophobic slurs, or simultaneously coming down on Miley Cyrus for a year of lasciviousness and flippancy while admitting that the whiplash into post-Disney Miley was inevitable (and then, later in the collection, absolutely ripping Bangerz a new one), Hopper is commanding in her knowledge without being a snoot. Unfortunately, there are a ton of typos you have to overlook in the process, but it’s worth it.
She’s also great at her most self-deprecating, detailing in one essay how she tripped hard on the laces of her adolescent shoes (Converses, with band names written around the soles), attempting to navigate the turbid waters of grunge for—what else?—some boy’s affection, only to flounder and later find more worthwhile shores. This collection, however, never wanders into look-how-far-I’ve-come territory, not that it needs to; her record (no pun intended) speaks for itself. And even when she is speaking of herself, like in “Vedderan: Notes on Pearl Jam’s 20th Anniversary Concert,” there are these little moments—her “AND THEN THEN” and “AND THEN THEN THEN”—that scream, in caps lock, the song of an earnest fan doing what she loves and doing it well.
Listening to criticism about what you love doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning those things, but you can’t ignore what’s been said. It also means you can’t disown who you were when you first were drawn to a scene or artist. One of her later essays on the 2004 Vans Warped Tour made me think about my first Warped Tour, in ’09. If it was as obnoxious to Hopper as it was to me reading now, I had no clue back then. I probably still don’t, but Hopper sure as hell does, and it’s a pleasure to read about what she knows best.
Publisher: Featherproof Press
Release Date: May 12, 2015