Brought to book
Who says the days of the rock critic are coming to an end? Not book publishers, it seems
It looks like it’s the season for rock critics to hit the book shelves. I reviewed Robert Christgau’s colourful memoir Going Into the City in the paper at the weekend. There was also a review by Tony Clayton-Lea of Another Little Piece of My Heart, the memoir of Richard Goldstein, Christgau forerunner at the Village Voice. And just to show that it’s not just auld lads who are writing books about music criticism, Pitchfork Review editor in chief Jessica Hopper’s fantastic debut book The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic has just been published.
The title of Hopper’s book speaks volumes about one of the large elephants in the room when it comes to music writing. While there have female rock critics before (Hopper lists Ellen Willis, Lillian Roxon and Caroline Coon in the book, and you can add Jane Scott, Ann Powers, Sylvie Simmons, Dream Hampton and Jaan Uhelszki to that roll-call), it’s always the old boys’ club of Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Christgau, the over-rated Chuck Klosterman and others who dominate the discourse. It shouldn’t be so and I’d certainly prefer to read Hopper’s prose than some of the more storied names listed above.
Hopper was a Babes In Toyland fan who took the fanzine route before paying work came her way. The book’s 40 pieces are a snapshot of her 20 years in the critic business including pieces on R Kelly, Lana Del Rey and Hole, ruminations on the visceral excitement of riot grrrl and a poke around the emo movement’s problem with women. Besides providing a strong throughline with her whipsmart, savvy writing, Hopper also makes you realise just how rare it is to see the work of female rock writers collected in this way.
“Sometimes you have to wave a flag around any sort of precedent in order to make a path”, said Hopper in an interview about her book. “Not to sound too Jesus-y about it, but I wanted to put this book out to create the precedent. Not so much because I want any sort of accolades or attention or whatever, it’s because I want books from Hazel Cills and Doreen St. Felix, and every single person that works at Rookie.”
But what’s just as interesting as the gender divide when it comes to rock criticism (Anwen Crawford has an excellent essay on this subject in The New Yorker at the moment by the way) is the fact that this stuff is still being produced and that there’s obviously a readership for it. Many would have thought that the days of the music critic would come to a close when Spotify and co put every new and old release within clicking distance of the music fan. Why bother reading a 150 word review of a new album when you could make your own mind up in the time it took you to work out if the reviewer had bothered to listen to the album at all?
It seems, though, that there’s still a place for a filtering system of sorts. There’s still a requirement for someone to take the time to go through the new releases or stories of the day and come up with a cogent, readable, provocative argument one way or the other to set the record straight. Good news for those of us who still earn our corn in this way.
Another interesting takeaway from the current flush of rock critic books is geography. America has always held the music writing trade in high regard so it’s no surprise that US publishers think there’s a rich seam to be mined in the shape of collections or memoirs. It’s also telling that much of the more erudite and hefty pieces on popular music criticism also appear in US-based publications, both online and offline. It’s a different matter in the Old World where film and classial are often as subjects more worthy of this sort of detail and dedication, though there are excpetions (come on down The Quietus).