A few weeks ago I signed up for an online essay class where we learned and wrote in different styles. Our first one was list, and one of the prompts was to write about someone we knew really well. I decided to write about Jonghyun, and to think about that dynamic celebrity creates: we feel like we know these people, but really we don’t.
Jessica Hopper’s book, “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” goes beyond the simple story of a review or profile.
After years of music criticism, Jessica Hopper assembled her best work to plant a flag in pop culture criticism with her second book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Her dry humor and honest reviews make this First Collection an enjoyable read, but Hopper’s refreshing point of view on female musicians and fans really make these essays cultural criticism. She took each artist, body of work, and the overall culture to contextualize it within her own perspective.
The earliest essay dates from 2003, the latest in 2014, and in that decade of music criticism Hopper chronicles all the ways music stays the same or its lack of cultural change. For every new rapper who speaks to his community, a stereotyped rock star tries to work beyond her debut image, and a band from the past desperately wants to stay relevant. Hopper opens the book by setting the ultimate art critic scene: “Dancing in pitch-dark rooms, room illuminated exclusively by the tiny light on the turntable, is an activity which fits very well with my ideas of ‘rock-critic behavior’ (which is like normal music-fan behavior, but substantially more pitiful and indulgent).” This beginning piece and pseudo-introduction, “I Have A Strange Relationship With Music” kicks off the tone and attitude for the rest of her First Collection.
She breaks up the book with different themes like “Chicago,” “Faith,” and “Nostalgia,” and the book breezes by pretty quickly. Her longer, in-depth pieces like “Conversation with Jim Derogatis Regarding R. Kelly” and “You Will Ache Like I Ache: The Oral History of Hole’s Live Through This” carry readers through to the end not only for the content, but also because of the gravitas and nuance she uses to tell such heavier stories. This living female rock critic has a deep understanding of the different cultures and backstories that create the pop/ punk/ rock/ etc culture that we, the mainstream, adore and consume.
Hopper has the best understanding of music and the performers behind it, what they mean as artists and how they fit into the culture. In the piece recalling the time she spent reporting from a “concert” in a Chicago club that featured women’s mud wrestling and little to no music, Hopper wrote she must, “consume with appetite infinite — never satiable. My humanity stiffens — reporting this, writing this out means I have to process it, I have to take it all in, and it feels like a burden.” Her book reflects this service (it doesn’t always seem like burden), when she details out the commercialization of the Vans Warped Tour, the legendary Coachella, the rise and fall of SuicideGirls.com, and what faith means for the now agnostic singer David Bazan. Hopper observes everything from her immediate surroundings, cultural trends and shifts, the individual styles of every performer, and turns it all into an acute critique of the moment as she sees it.
And as the only living female author of the first collection of criticism, Hopper’s best insights come when she talks about tropes and expectations female artists and their fans deal with merely for existing. From her first essay in “Chicago,” Hopper calls out the total lack of representation in the punk-emo genre, except for the eerie idealization of girls within song topics. She ends the essay with, “Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.” It comes as a surprise to no one that female musicians get discounted or put in boxes too often by the mainstream and critics. Now for female performers to stake their claim in the music scene they must upset expectations or through do it sheer force of will. Reading her essays, I gained a better understanding of the ideas and ways female pop stars present themselves as an “image” and — sometimes versus — “artist.” Both valid views and ambitions for artists, and Hopper really digs into the double standard women face in music holding up that duality.
She spends just as much time addressing, even writing to, the female fans of music and the reputation “fangirls” earn. In a 2012 article for the Village Voice, she calls out how fangirls get discounted because of inherent sexist bias: “When it comes to music, image is believed to be the teen girls’ area of fascination and special expertise; young women’s arduous fandom is often taken as the very proof of a performer’s artlessness. The perception being that girls are so rapt with an artist’s surface image that it supersedes any sort of real connection with or understanding of the music itself.” Female stars and fans get held to unfair double standards, stereotypes, and expectations, but manage to thrive despite it. As a result of that work and loyalty, the rest of mainstream pop culture gets lucky too.
The three chapters I liked the most — “Real/Fake,” “Females,” and “Strictly Business,” — specifically addressed the ways female artists struggle with their “validity” in the mainstream, what pop music means beyond simple escapism, and how changing times means musicians need to do what they must to make a living. Hopper made each essay her own with her voice and observations, adding to the conversation instead of repeating what most others already said. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic firmly stakes Jessica Hopper’s place in the canon of rock criticism, living or dead.
What does it mean to go from one of the most validating years to its most heartbreaking.
2017 was the year that put Korean pop (K-pop) on the map. And not in a mocking, other-ing way, like how “Gangnam Style” swept pop culture in 2013. No, this year K-pop, specifically boy bands, hit mainstream America and made an impression. As a fan since 2012 (I came late to the game, I know) watching K-pop’s rise was both one of the most amazing things to see… and eventually one of the most heartbreaking.
Let’s start with the one, the only, BTS. Wow. What a year. Historic is just the start of it. Their meteoric rise to fame really began earlier this year when they won the Billboard 2017 award for Top Social Artist (and beat Justin Bieber’s 6-year record), but this year changed everything when they were invited to perform at the American Music Awards — the first Korean boy band to ever do so. As a part of their time visiting Los Angeles, the group appeared on The Late Late Show with James Cordon, performed a mini concert on Jimmy Kimmel Live , and took over Ellen. Then of course the AMA performance itself was legendary.
There were fan chants, light sticks, people dancing —it was the best part of the AMAs (but admittedly it was the only part I watched.) After that I heard BTS on the radio, my friend heard it played at her work, and mainstream American celebrities on Twitter were declaring themselves ARMY (their official fan name.) I’m not even a big BTS fan, but I could feel the change they brought to the game.
And it was so validating. For all those times in high school I felt like an idiot fangirl (which, to be fair, I was pretty obnoxious) for liking K-pop, I finally saw it becoming the next big thing. Not to dismiss Psy and the work he did with “Gangnam Style.” But the entire time he was promoting, it always felt like people were laughing at him, and I was never sure what part of the craze was the joke. For many people, Psy was as far as their knowledge and care for K-pop went. At least, until this year when BTS brought “DNA” into the mainstream to be celebrated.
But still not fully understood. K-pop brings a whole new culture and its own context to American/ Western standards. I’m not saying K-pop gets a pass for its problematic practices —issues best pointed out and discussed by Sandra Song in Teen Vogue— but there are different standards and learning curves at play. Fans, idols, labels, and agencies from both sides need to reconsider and re-educate themselves on what they think pop music and culture means. And in the wake of the hyper-consumption of BTS, I wonder what that means for new fans coming to K-pop at one of its most tragic times.
On December 18, 2017, lead singer of Shinee and angel too good for this world Kim Jonghyun passed away. It’s most likely a suicide. He was 27.
If you’re going to be a fan of K-pop, either the whole genre or just one person, you need to understand its place as a part of larger context. Part of larger cultural contexts of South Korea (parts I don’t fully understand as an outsider) K-pop can be brutal and that causes real damage to its idols.
“The 27-year-old’s passing highlights South Korea’s alarming suicide rate, which an October 2017 report from the Berkeley Political Review says claims the lives of 40 people every day and is the fourth-most common cause of death in the country,” Jeff Benjamin in NPR.
Talking about mental health in Korea does not happen. Again, it’s part of a greater Korean cultural context I’m not qualified to talk about. But it needs to be start getting discussed by those who can affect change. Reading Jonhyun’s final letter shows how much pain he felt, how it was clearly unaddressed, and that he never found the help he needed. I can’t offer answers or guesses for what will happen in the future of the industry, but all I know is that it can’t stay the same. I can only hope that maybe the new (buying) power BTS brought to K-pop will be that catalyst.
This genre, fandoms, and performers are valid parts of the music industry. We’re way past my days in high school when I when tried to explain K-pop to some of my friends, and no one bothered to try and listen to songs or watch a music video. Now we’re hearing BTS on the radio, K-Con is a massive concert in New York and Los Angeles every year, and idols are starting to collaborate with big-name musicians here and abroad. That means fans, artists, and labels need to recognize all aspects of the industry. Because blindly following the next glittery thing only perpetuates the system, when it’s time to change it.
Please remember there are always people to talk to, if you need to reach out. Here’s a list of international hotlines to call, and if you don’t see a country listed please call your local emergency number.