THE BEGINNING

Amy Pettifer looks at Jessica Hopper’s new book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic and recalls her personal experiences as a woman writing about music

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There are approximately three hours a month in which I feel brave and it was during one of these hours – about four years ago – that I started writing about music. I’ve always loved writing; I knew I could do it but I certainly wasn’t busting with confidence, striding around town and slamming perfect pages down onto editor’s desks. Quite the opposite. Like a lot of people stepping out of the private realm and into the public armed with something they’ve made or something they think, I was apprehensive. But it was balanced with an internal tug – a feeling that this fear would be offset by the satisfaction of seeing words I’d written, on something I cared about, rendered in print.

Obviously, I love music too; as a record buyer, gig goer, un-practiced guitar player, compilation tape maker / receiver and lifelong student. My parents had a record collection just classic and just obscure enough to hook me from an early age; I worked in big chain music shops as a teen and was nearly fired for accidentally blasting an expletive heavy Primal Scream track over the in-store stereo. A couple of years later I followed Damon Gough from gig to gig with a demo tape and almost got signed to Twisted Nerve (he was drunk); I dated someone who once had a job that paid him in records and got a different kind of sonic education – rougher, rangier. I’ve known people that put on bizarre gigs in Working Men’s clubs and relished each strange, sweaty evening listening to odd bands from Portland making noise in a remote corner of the Midlands for one night only. I once made a vegetarian lasagne for Jeffery Lewis and had fish and chips in Covent Garden with Billy Childish.

It’s my particular, skew-whiff musical trajectory, but none of it is especially unusual; half of that list are experiences that hundreds of others could own too, and the rest… well, if you haven’t made lasagne for Jeffery Lewis it’s likely you have a similarly odd tale of your own to add in its place. Music is the backbone of life for most of us; at every point of the day it can be a scene setter, a mood enhancer, a blasting surprise, a wake-up call, a relief and a euphoric escape. Whether it’s been absorbed by osmosis, leaked through the bedroom wall of an older sibling, passionately followed or heard against your will while working a shitty retail job, we can all claim a musical education. The point is that there’s no reason to buy into the image of the music critic as some God-like cabbie, jealously guarding their sonic equivalent of ‘The Knowledge’ – a brain full of obscurities and intricate folk histories weaving together to form a blistering, untouchable universe of rock machismo. If you ask me, the key to producing writing about music that people will want to read, is tapping into whatever idiosyncratic bunch of experiences have lead you to become the music fan you are. That and passion.

Music is personal. And writing about it should be personal too. Therefore it’s vital to feel represented in the perspectives and voices that bring new artists to our attention, that filter and analyse the music we know and the music we’re about to hear. In her recently published book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, Pitchfork’s Senior Editor Jessica Hopper writes: “It did not occur to me to start a band until I saw other women in one. It took seeing Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill to truly throw on the lights, to show that there was more than one place, one role, for women to occupy, and that our participation was important and vital – it was YOU MATTER writ large.”

This statement echoes loudly, its resonances bleeding into the world of rock writing that Hopper occupies and challenges with the very presence of the book. For women that write, or are thinking of writing about music, the event of its publication is a joyful, bolstering landmark. Its mission – as the preface states – is ‘to plant a flag’, to draw attention to the dearth of hardbound volumes of its kind and to herald the female critical voices that both already exist, and that will surely follow.

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Hopper’s collection of essays points to a sea change, a moment in which women in music journalism are numerous and visible, but it also highlights that the very same world – for all its inherent wonder – can be something of a boys club. At the WoW festival held at the Southbank Centre in London earlier this year, broadcaster Lauren Laverne described her early experiences of being a consumer of music, remembering “a guy in a record shop who wouldn’t sell me albums because he didn’t want to waste them on a girl.” While it’s hard to imagine such a scenario taking place today, it would be wrong to say that female artists, critics, broadcasters and producers no longer need to strive for equal representation, whether it be the gender balance of names on by-lines, facing the continued surprise that an artist might be capable of writing her own material, or dealing with the feeling that a female critical voice is not considered as authoritative as a male one. For Hopper the key is in validating and celebrating the particularities of an approach that is the polar opposite of the craggy rock journo patriarchy – an approach that might otherwise be dismissed as ‘fan-girling’ – not serious or ardent enough to carry authentic critical weight.

In recent years the Internet has been a gift, providing limitless space in which new writing can develop, artists can incubate and supportive debate can thrive. But that digital space isn’t always a safe one and being a woman in possession of an opinion and a desire to write often brings with it a barrage of comment that plumbs the depths of violent, hateful, retrogressive sexism.

It’s an endlessly depressing situation for women and non-jerk males alike – particularly if this troll behaviour ends up being the reason that anyone, with the desire and skill to do so, thinks twice about offering an opinion or a take of their own. Thankfully, the strong enclaves of feminism that have gathered momentum online have led to the creation of sites that offer much needed positivity and balance. There’s Rookie Mag – for which Hopper is music editor – that includes mix-tapes, interviews and serious appreciation aimed at an avid audience of teenage girls; there’s Glasgow’s TYCI, which gleefully marries live music, podcasting and writing with meaningful social engagement; The Girls Are… with its boundless range of coverage and Her Beats which focuses on women in electronic music, to name a very few.

I’m overjoyed by these and other similar sites on a daily basis, but I’m equally aware of the fact that they do not do away with the experience of being – from time to time – the only girl in the room. As much as these tight communities are vital, so is the notion of genuine balance elsewhere in the industry. Of being, say, in a seminar on experimental music, and not being outnumbered 10 to 1. Of ending up at the bar afterwards and not being so fully conscious of having to ‘hold your own’ that it stops being the social and sensory pleasure that it could and should be.

The power of Hopper’s book is that it exists fully within the fray and – despite the joke/truth of the book’s title – her prominence is not tied to her gender. Spanning 11 of her 20 odd years as a writer, it is shot through with a sense of in-the-moment engagement, of growing up and around the darkest corners and brightest lit stages of the contemporary music world. Via zines and independent mags, to The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune and SPIN (to name a few), the breadth of her knowledge is evident in essays that explore the phenomena of Lana Del Rey and Miley Cyrus; the origin stories of rappers in the Chicago scene and the unravelling of Grunge and Riot Grrrl mythologies. But nothing here is being proved or hammered home. Her engagement is granular, knowing, often acerbic and possessing of critical distance, but it’s also belly-deep, ventricle, emotional; ‘There is,’ she writes, ‘a void in my guts that can only be filled by songs.’

To have a positive role model like Hopper at Pitchfork’s helm is vital not only due to the quality of her writing, but also because of the way in which it may work to affect positive shifts in editorial practice and structural inequality. There are many brilliant female music writers working today, occupying bold, diverse and endlessly knowledgeable standpoints – but there can always be more. From speaking with female editors and writers that I admire for this piece, there was consensus on two counts; first, that there is perhaps an inherent difference in the way that women and men are compelled and encouraged to put themselves forward creatively; and second, that it is the role of editors to address this, to seek out and nurture writers, unlocking the world of music journalism to new voices.

But once you know it’s open… capitalise on whatever instant of bravery, rage, determination or desire compels you and power the fuck through. My own experience has been a positive one. Most of my early music writing appeared in this very paper and, while I found my feet and learned a hundred valuable lessons (more skilled self-editing; the importance of checking your work 10 times then checking again; testing that a Dictaphone is switched ON etc.), there was trust and opportunity to keep me going. Access to new music, live music and artists I was curious to interview was fitting compensation as I honed (and continue to hone) my work; I went from a capsule review to a cover feature in just over a year, and that tangible, inky achievement has made countless other things possible.

For me the pleasure and the compulsion is to continue being a girl in the room. It’s having the opportunity – alongside an inspiring and diverse group of peers – to listen first, to speak, to look deeply and reflect on the ways that music intertwines with life; to learn, to discuss, to piss people off with my writing, or to meet someone like-minded and connect.

I’m writing this because Loud and Quiet are looking for more female writers. If you are reading this with the slightest itch or the strongest impulse, then here is an opportunity to begin.

I urge you to spill your guts.

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper is published by Featherproof and is available now. dot

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