constellations #53: where the girls aren't

Hi again.

When I was in college I took a course called “Studies In Popular Music: History of Rock,” in a room on the top floor of a very old building. This was well before I ever considered that Writing About Music™ could ever be (part of) my job, and I didn’t exactly walk away from the class with a handle on the current state of the music journalism industry, or even of popular music studies in academia. But still, I think about the class often. I learned a lot.

It’s easy for me now — years later and with a little more grounding in the music criticism landscape — to see the holes in the syllabus. Like, I don’t think we ever talked about Rosetta Tharpe (a massive oversight, if you ask me!!!) and I kind of can’t believe we didn’t read anything by Greg Tate or Ann Powers or Ellen Willis. (In fairness, I personally can’t imagine trying to put together this syllabus — the whole history of rock in, what, twelve weeks? Plus, my professor also considered the development of funk and hip-hop, and a foundation in the blues, all within the domain of the class, which I think was a good call, but also makes the whole syllabus project that much more daunting.)

One thing we did read, though, was Jessica Hopper’s “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t.” She wrote it in 2003 and published it in Punk Planet. It’s a bold and unsparing and bitter and righteous essay about a genre that claimed to have eschewed toxic bro chauvinism and yet still elbowed women’s subjectivity out of the way, over and over and over. It’s about the music I truly loved at a dramatic and pivotal age (aka, as a teen) and never saw myself reflected in, a fact that I guess I never really questioned.

As much as I’d like to say that my first reaction to the essay was something like joyful feminist recognition (at that age, I was a sponge for takes on how popular culture was actually quite sexist) really I just felt defensive and confused: How could this woman come out swinging for my beloved scene when so many other subgenres were so much more sexist?! The essay was a total tonal left-turn from the more academic readings we were assigned, and I had trouble with the idea that you were allowed to write about music this way and demand to be taken seriously — that something in this informal but razor-sharp style could impart just as canonical a set of ideas as some xeroxed chapter from a scholarly anthology. No one else in class seemed particularly moved to debate the finer points of third-wave emo, so the discussion quickly moved on. But the essay gnawed at me; of course it did.

Years later, in an essay about what happens when women artists top the critical charts, Jessica Hopper reflected on how it feels, as a critic and a fan, to buy into the patriarchal logic about the inferiority of art that takes women’s subjectivity seriously. “I spent a decade as a Sherpa for patriarchal bullshit before I realized,” she says, “that in playing a ‘boys’ game by boys’ rules,’ there is no way to ever actually ‘win.’” And in a recent interview: “I see [my early writing] now as forever trying to change the minds of men with power. Writing with them as my audience. … It’s one of those really poisonous ideas that lingered in my editorial mind.” I think that’s precisely where my defensiveness came from when I took that course in college — as if the dudes in these emo bands needed me to stand up for them. In the years since, my logic has changed dramatically. I’m grateful I don’t feel that way anymore — or, to be more precise, grateful that I’m a little more aware of when I’m being the Sherpa, that I’m a little more likely to question whose perspective is seen as valuable; grateful that my ideas about worthiness and canonicity and good writing have all shifted, are all shifting.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about that essay lately because Jessica published a new version of her book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, which contains this essay, and which is really excellent and inspiring, and which I just finished reading over the weekend. And also because Jessica annotated the essay for the Music Journalism Insider newsletter earlier this week, for its pretty delightful “Notes on Process” series.

All of that to say, if you’ve never read the essay before, I recommend it.

I think that’s all for now. Thanks for reading.