IN OTHER WORDS
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic byJ essica Hopper ,F eatherproo fB ooks, 250 pages What’s the difference between rock criticism and rock ’n’ roll itself? The former is men writing about music written by men. The latter is music written by men about women. Jessica Hopper protests the second premise while obliterating the first in The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. The book brings together some 40 of Hopper’s essays, published since 2002 in newspapers, magazines, and blogs including the
Village Voice, Spin magazine, and BuzzFeed and on her own blog, tinyluckygenius. Hopper’s feminist take, built on youthful devotion to the band Bikini Kill, the riot grrrl movement, and a longing for punk’s early authenticity, can be seen as a generational product. But it also speaks to the entirety of rock ’n’ roll and its decades-long history, filled with sexist tropes and out-and-out misogyny.
Rock’s gender stereotypes — boy guitarists and girl groupies — were set long before Mick Jagger sang “Under My Thumb” in 1966. Early rock ’n’ roll was about girls who were “heartbreakers,” “run-arounds,” and “teen angels.” Songs were mostly about the suffering these female conventions caused boy rockers. Hopper finds that things haven’t changed that much. In “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” a 2003 piece she wrote for the now defunct magazine Punk Planet, she’s challenged by a boy she knows on a Seattle dance floor who declares that if she has a problem with emo (emotional music that Hopper describes as “myopic ... relational eulogies”), she has a problem with the entire history of rock music. “I know. I do,” is her answer. She goes on to explain, “I simply cannot substantiate the effort the effort it takes to give a flying [expletive] about the genre/plague that we know as emo or myopic songs that don’t consider the world beyond boy bodies, their broken hearts or their vans.”
Hopper’s admission that she has a problem with rock’s entire history doesn’t preclude her love of the music. Her declaration about music that is narrowly focused on masculine emotion comes in a moment when music asserts its power in her life. She’s at a show hearing post-punk band Strike Anywhere’s “Refusal,” a song, she writes, “that offers solidarity with the feminist movement and bears witness to the struggles inherent to women’s lives.” She’s brought to tears by the song. “I’ve been going to three shows a week for the last decade and the number of times I’ve heard women’s reality acknowledged or portrayed in a song sung by a male-fronted band was at zero and holding. This song was the first.”
Hopper, like many of us, no matter the generation, grew up fascinated with the music of her times, even if that meant loving Michael Jackson. “Thriller had taught me what it meant to have music be your whole life, to be a devoted fan; Thriller was the first album that was all mine, not my parents’,” she wrote in a 2009 piece for the Village Voice that chronicled a visit to Jackson’s boyhood home of Gary, Indiana, after his death. She admits that as a teen in 1991 she had the names of her favorite bands scrawled on the toe caps of her Converse high tops — “Fugazi” on the left, “Dinosaur” (for the band Dinosaur Jr.) on the right. Hopper grew up when punk and the riot grrrl movement were giving new voice to female musicians. As a sixteen-year-old high school student with her own fanzine entitled Hit It Or Quit It, she had garnered enough attention that she was featured in a 1992 Newsweek magazine piece, “Revolution, Girl Style” that called the riot grrrl movement “a new feminist voice for the video-age generation.” Hopper’s contribution was about the male backlash her enthusiasm for this music had generated, from having slurs like “feminazi” scrawled on her locker to getting accosted by a guy in the high school newspaper’s darkroom. Now a senior editor at Pitchfork, a popular online independent music site, Hopper has been on the promotional and performance side of the music as well. In 2009, she published the music business how-to The Girls’ Guide to Rocking: How to Start a Band, Book Gigs, and Get Rolling to Rock Stardom (Workman).
Despite her feminist views, or maybe because of them, Hopper is one of our most astute observers of rock culture. Her pieces do the things that great rock writing does: personalize its energy and emotion, identify with its innocence and its arrogance, and cry foul when sensing something inauthentic. In addressing everything from Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” to Los Angeles’ storied all-ages performance venue The Smell, she sees overarching cultural themes represented in the music and its followers. She writes from the perspective that music fills our needs, be they distraction or salvation. She recognizes that our attachment to music is about identity — identifying with experience, sensation, and emotion — and that it’s also about fandom, the ability to personally connect with musicians through their music no matter how different or distant their lives may be. Even as she takes down Miley Cyrus’
Bangerz disc, she recognizes that Cyrus’ metamorphosis from clean teen to sex-driven adult is a result of our having “goaded her” into what we want her to be.
Hopper admits the title of her collection is not quite accurate, citing a very few women critics with books before her. Declaring that she’s the best female rock critic of the last few generations, though true, misses the point, as does putting her in the company of Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Greil Marcus, and other male critics whose work is something of an art in itself. Her idea of “rock-critic behavior,” she says, is “like normal music-fan behavior, but substantially more pitiful and indulgent.” It’s this emotion and indulgence, both authentic as any true love, that make Hopper’s words so easy to identify with, regardless of our gender. — Bill Kohlhaase
Pedigree byP atrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti ,Y ale Universit yP ress, 130 pages
Paris Nocturne byP atrick Modiano, translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans ,Y ale Universit yP ress, 160 pages The first few pages of Pedigree, a short memoir by recent Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano, read almost like a pointless exercise. Modiano gives a dry recitation of names of the people his mother and his father associated with in Paris during the Occupation. Gradually, a connection emerges between this litany of names and the obsessions in Modiano’s fiction, notably in Missing Person and in the recently translated
Suspended Sentences and Paris Nocturne. Modiano’s fiction often features a young man walking through a maze of seemingly elliptical Paris streets, in search of the past. Some names from his fiction even show up in the memoir.
In Pedigree, Modiano occasionally writes down a name, because that’s all that’s left of someone his father knew — he can’t find out any more information about the person other than their name. Modiano apologizes for throwing so many names our way. “I hope I can be forgiven all these names, and others to follow. I’m a dog who pretends to have a pedigree. My mother and father didn’t belong to any particular milieu. So aimless were they, so unsettled, that I’m straining to find a few markers, a few beacons in this quicksand.” He doesn’t stop doling out the names, but he makes another confession: “I’m writing these pages the way one compiles a report or résumé, as documentation and to have done with a life that wasn’t my own.”
A turning point comes when Modiano abruptly mentions the death, in 1957, of his ten-year-old brother, Rudy. He writes that his brother’s death is the only thing that “truly matters” to him in this book. Naturally, we expect him to return to this subject, but he never does, except in a devastating image. Years later, his father, now remarried to the “ersatz Mylène Demongeot,” demolishes the inner staircase that connects his fourth-floor apartment to the third-floor apartment that Modiano lives in with his mother. In the rubble, a teenage Modiano finds childhood books and postcards, which were once sent to his brother, all torn up.
Modiano’s mother was a theater actress who was mostly absent during his childhood. He describes her as “a pretty girl with an arid heart.” When she shows up during his late teenage years, she nags him to ask his father for money. The requests don’t usually work, and Modiano’s father begins to confine his meetings with him to increasingly remote cafés very early in the morning. In order to survive, Modiano and his mother occasionally steal things they can pawn. Modiano asserts, however, that after he began writing his first novel, he never stole again.
What began as an exercise in compilation gathers emotional power as the book progresses in this crystalline translation by Mark Polizzotti. After enduring a number of boarding schools and the pennilessness of living with his mother, Modiano considers leaving his poor parents and Paris behind. His father isn’t done with him, however. He wants his son drafted into the army. The inclusion of letters from his father, and one final reply from the son, adds brutal force to a narrative that is otherwise written matter-of-factly.
Literature, not surprisingly, provided an escape for Modiano from his dreary personal life, eventually becoming his vocation. For decades, he remained obsessed with the elusiveness of the past. He went on to win the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature, according to the Academy, “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Reading Paris Nocturne not long after Pedigree ,Iwas struck by how Modiano’s life story informs his fiction and gives it depth. The memoir is a map, and once you’ve read it, you are no longer a tourist walking in the strange land of Modiano’s fiction — now there are landmarks and familiar places you can revisit from a fresh angle.
In the novel, a sea-green car hits a young man, not yet twenty-one, walking on a road. He spends some time recovering in a clinic, and on his way out, an older man pays him off for the injuries and the inconvenience. Instead of continuing with his life, however, the narrator views the accident as a break from his old life and spends his days looking for the driver of the sea-green car. The driver, an enigmatic woman named Jacqueline Beausergent, reminds him of someone from his childhood. The narrator also wants to return the money to her, even though he could clearly use it.
The “saddest event” in the narrator’s life, when his father tries to have him arrested, is referenced in both this novel and in the memoir. From the memoir, we know what precipitated the event. Modiano’s mother needed money and urged him to knock at his father’s door. I wondered if the aftermath led to an estrangement with his mother as well. One of the most haunting episodes in Paris Nocturne is when the narrator sees an old woman standing outside his apartment building on a number of evenings. One night, she approaches him and tries to scratch his face. In a dream, a police superintendent tells the narrator that this woman claims to be his mother, but that her papers say otherwise. There is no further mention in the novel of who this woman is, but there are clues in these two phrases: “beneath this aggression there was something false, like the lifeless performance of a bad actress”; she has “overplayed the part.” We can’t escape the feeling that this character represents Modiano’s mother in her penury.
It’s common in Modiano’s fiction for a person to “vanish without a trace.” In Paris Nocturne, the narrator’s father has vanished. All that’s left are some names, with which he tries to resurrect a lost world, much as Modiano tries to tease out his personal history in Pedigree. The narrator of Paris Nocturne tells us that when he was a boy, his dog died, but he had no place to bury him — not a plot of land, not even a garden. It is in his fictional landscape that Modiano puts the memory of that dog to rest, thus giving him a proper burial and an immortality of sorts. In Pedigree, he does the same for his mother and his father. — Priyanka Kumar