No Man’s Land Reading Project – The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

[This is the seventeenth instalment in Ashley Thomson’s No Man’s Land Reading Project.]

Reviews of Kendrick’s debut album, contemplations of Lana Del Ray, treatises on the state of Coachella, dispassionate and analytical tear downs of Tyler, the Creator. Those are specific (and to this book relevant) examples, but you can switch the names and topics in and out and music journalism goes on. In fact, you must if it’s to go on being read. Every street press and music website and magazine, including the one I worked for, runs on it, and prays that if it stumbles onto a high-functioning junkie like Jessica “there is a void in my guts that can only be filled by songs” Hopper, it gets to keep her for as long as possible.

Because there are a lot of part-time music junkies. And some of the full-timers are mediocre writers. The first-class junkies who can mainline music by the gallon and write fast, clean and clever, the ones who tastemake from places like NME, Pitchfork and SPIN, are rare. And even those ones can start talking to their own addiction more than to the people who count on them to translate their trips into something relatable: a star-rating, points out of ten, an interview or think-piece that understands its reader may be topic-uninitiated.

There is no reason a music writer should not bind and sell their life’s work in book form, but the specificity of the vast majority of music journalism (Hopper’s work inclusive) makes it not only quick to date, but also unusual to care about in the first place. Even someone well across the music industry would probably find a piece like Hopper’s on Los Angeles non-profit venue The Smell a little outside their area of interest, but Hopper’s knack for capturing the intensity and poignancy of music and its personalities is continually rewarding, turning what might have been myopic abstractions into vivid, enlightening vignettes. When so many pieces in this book (which is divided into eight themed sections, such as ‘Real/Fake’, ‘Strictly Business’, ‘Faith’ and ‘Females’) are reviews or interview-based features, Hopper’s writing talent is what consistently justifies their collation. To borrow one of her turns of phrase, her writing is “so sharp it can cut through the sound of a downpour a half block away.”

But what ultimately differentiates the Jessica Hoppers from even the first-class junkies is perspective. Writing about music is a relentless and insular pursuit, but having perspective on the “human condition”, how music and the music industry reflects it, is what leads a reader like me, who has spent more than enough time weekending with this particular needle in his arm, to sit forward and really think about music, its multiplicity, its benefactors, and those it shuns and cripples.

Hopper dedicated this book to “those whose dreams (and manuscripts) languished due to lack of formal precedence, support and permission … those that came before, those that should of [sic] been first, and all the ones that will come after.” I loved New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, but in his book, music, once it had sprung from a person and place in history, was examined in its own right. While it is often Hopper’s job to do the same, she tellingly uses the dedication (and many subsequent pieces) to put context and subject neck and neck, elevating the fact that the way music is created, the way society engages with it, is as important as music itself. The music industry, and by extension music journalism, right down to Hopper’s review of Miley’s Bangerz, is a function of a flawed and nuanced society, and has the potential to reflect its capacity for prejudice and wrongdoing.

So the best pieces in here are the ones that speak to this thinking, and the thinking behind the book’s creation. They include a piece on R. Kelly, wherein Hopper interviews Chicago Sun-Times music journalist Jim DeRogatis about the long list of rape allegations levelled at Kelly, and Kelly’s well documented (and equally well overlooked) penchant for sex with minors; her piece on Hole’s debut album, Live Through This, where through interviews with Courtney Love and her guitarist, drummer, engineers, producers and A&R, Hopper compiles a history of the creation of an album she clearly believes to be one of the most overshadowed, tragic and misrepresented masterpieces of her time; and her self-explanatory piece ‘Punk is dead! Long live punk!: A report on the state of teen spirit from the mobile shopping mall that is the Vans Warped Tour’. In each of these, a certain quote – like DeRogatis on Kelly: “some percentage of fans are liking Kelly’s music because they know” – or sentiment – Hopper on Live Through This: “a portrait of a woman claiming her power” – sings out to signal a topic’s greater significance.

Music journalism is unlike ordinary journalism in a number of regards. The line between writer and topic is not only blurred, its blurring is partway expected. The passion for music, investment in artists and preferences of the writer are embraced and even encouraged in music writers from the get-go. In Hopper’s case, this works in her favour, because she takes you with her – high and low. This is perhaps her greatest talent: the high, thunderclap compliment-cum-life lesson, where she marries music to the world you know in a single devastating phrase. After an Abe Vigoda basement gig, and in praise of basement gigs generally, she writes, “In the basement, you can feel the band’s humanity as well as your own.” And that’s what Hopper is to music writing: she writes such that you can feel the music’s humanity as well as your own.

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