the first collection of criticism by a living female rock critic

With the ubiquity of online shopping, I really miss wandering into a bookstore and “discovering” a new book for which I’ve never seen a review, never heard of before, and just picking it up on a whim. Do you miss that sometimes? I know I can still do that, but still. It’s somehow not the same. Anyway, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper was a rare pleasant bookshop discovery for me last year. Edited from Goodreads:

Jessica Hopper’s music criticism has earned her a reputation as a firebrand, a keen observer and fearless critic not just of music but the culture around it. […] Through this vast range of album reviews, essays, columns, interviews, and oral histories, Hopper chronicles what it is to be truly obsessed with music. The pieces in The First Collection send us digging deep into our record collections, searching to re-hear what we loved and hated, makes us reconsider the art, trash, and politics Hopper illuminates, helping us to make sense of what matters to us most.

I was initially attracted by the cover and assertive title when I came across it at A Room of One’s Own, my favorite bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, which I have to hit up every time I’m in my hometown for a visit. I admit I had never heard of Hopper before, not so much because she’s a critic that is a woman but because I don’t read Pitchfork or other music ‘zines—not regularly anyway, not enough to follow or even become acquainted with the names of certain writers. As a music reviewer in Kansas City myself at the time, I simply couldn’t resist buying The First Collection. I’m so glad I did because not only did this collection speak to me as a reviewer and critic, but also as a feminist and a woman whose adolescence was shaped during a certain period of popular music history covered here by Hopper.

Right off the bat, Hopper clarifies that she is, of course, not the first female music writer. The title serves as a call to recognize those who came before her and question why women aren’t more visible in this field. Hopper’s writing throughout the essays in The First Collection is pointed and distinctive, and I especially enjoyed her personal musings on her relationship with music. I wasn’t a Riot Grrl in the ’90s and punk isn’t my taste per se, but the feminist messaging certainly spoke to me then and Hopper’s insights on this subject affected me now, too. I don’t remember every essay (there are many), but the ones that still stand out to me a year after reading The First Collection are those about Miley Cyrus, the commercialism and corporatization of punk and alternative music festivals (Vans Warped Tour, Lollapalooza), the making of Hole’s Live Through This (even though I can’t stand Hole!), and her trip to Michael Jackson’s hometown after he died. The best and most thorough piece, though, is her interview with Jim DeRogatis about R. Kelly’s sexual misconduct and assault of underage black girls, who received no justice and whose lives were basically ruined (DeRogatis is the one who originally broke the story).

The First Collection was one of the best books I read in 2016, and I sure hope this book, Hopper, and her predecessors inspire a new generation of women music writers in the future.

Read in March 2016.

slash

Of COURSE I had to read Slash by Slash last month! I tried to finish before going to his concert in Denver for our anniversary, but ended up finishing just in time for Halloween. Blurb from Goodreads:

For the first time ever, Slash tells the tale that has yet to be told from the inside: how the legendary band Guns N’ Roses came together, how they wrote the music that defined an era, how they survived insane, never-ending tours, how they survived themselves, and, ultimately, how it all fell apart. Slash is a window into the world of the notoriously private guitarist and a front seat on the roller-coaster ride that was one of history’s greatest rock n’ roll machines, always on the edge of self-destruction, even at the pinnacle of its success. Slash is everything Slash is: funny, honest, ingenious, inspiring, jaw-dropping… and, in a word, excessive.

This book is a little nuts. I was expecting more, I guess, based on the near-500 page length—more insight into his addictions and interpersonal relationships, more about his guitars and development as a player. His Guns N’ Roses anecdotes, when he goes on tangents about his guitars, and the touring are definitely the best, most engaging parts of the book. It was great to listen along to GNR’s Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion discs as I was reading about their process in writing those songs and recording the albums. Time and again Slash didn’t seem to be deeply affected by his demons, especially his drug abuse. “I OD’d and was dead for a few minutes which sucked, but then I kicked again, NDB.” That’s how some of those stories read to me. There are a few weird moments where Slash repeats or contradicts himself (saying he doesn’t “remember exactly” what was said, and then not five words later claiming “but I’ll never forget” what was said. Huh? Maybe co-writer Anthony Bozza dropped the ball on that, or the editors).

Slash is personable and down-to-earth, considering his fantastic journey and rock n’ roll lifestyle. Slash was a fun book that was compulsively readable. The chapters are lengthy, but the sections in each chapter are not, making it easy to pick up and read a bit here and there easily. Any fan of Slash, GNR, old-school rock, or rock music biographies and memoirs would enjoy Slash. Of course, Slash has accomplished a lot since its publication (2007), and continues to write, record, and tour. Despite my wanting a little more depth in general, in the end, I felt like I was hanging out with Slash and he was telling me his stories from life and the road, which is just what you expect from a rock memoir. It was an awesome warm-up to get me pumped for the concert last month!

Read from October 1 to 31, 2015.

yes please

It’s pretty rare that I end up buying a book the same week it is released, but with Yes Please by Amy Poehler I couldn’t resist! From Goodreads:

In Amy Poehler’s highly anticipated first book, Yes Please, she offers up a big juicy stew of personal stories, funny bits on sex and love and friendship and parenthood and real life advice (some useful, some not so much), like when to be funny and when to be serious. Powered by Amy’s charming and hilarious, biting yet wise voice, Yes Please is a book is full of words to live by.

I ended up devouring nearly all 329 pages in one day, it was such a charming book and so hard to put down! I’m not sure I completely agree with the blurb above, though—”full of words to live by” and “real life advice.” Some other reviews I read accuse Poehler of being preachy with her “life advice,” but I didn’t get that sense… I suppose there is a short section about sex tips, but it’s all so humorous, it reads more like an “it’s funny ‘cuz it’s true!” type of bit rather than Poehler actually advising on the subject.

Poehler both confirms my impression of her as a person and reveals herself more in Yes Please. I loved the chapters on her upbringing and family, and I thought she showed real class and integrity when describing her divorce. Poehler’s down to earth, relatable, and endearing. I appreciated that she cops to her own foibles and errors in judgement, learning from them, admitting her privileges yet demonstrating her tenacity, ingenuity, and hard work along the way. One little grievance I have with the book, though… her repeated griping about how hard it is to write a book became tiresome.

I would love to reread this one day, preferably on audio next time, which I’ve heard is fantastic (although I’m glad I read it on paper, too, the photos really enhanced the experience for me). You’re not going to find riotous humor or the most graceful prose necessarily, but it’s really heartfelt and a delightful, enjoyable read overall. Any fan of Poehler will be a fan of this book.

Read from October 31 to November 2, 2014.

bad feminist

Back in late September (where did October go??) I ordered Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and finally got around to reading it a month later. From Goodreads:

In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django Unchained) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

I was so, so excited to start Bad Feminist. First off, though, the title is a bit of a misnomer. I don’t find Gay to be “bad” at all in regards to feminism, because it’s clear she holds its core values: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” The word feminism has become warped and demonized (“man-haters,” compared to nazis, etc.), which is really unfair to the movement and inaccurate. Feminism is about HUMAN equality and progress, social justice, for the good of society as a whole—it’s not just a movement for women because, of course, everyone benefits from women succeeding and flourishing.

Further, in the book Gay tackles feminist issues as a woman of color. Many of her essays deal with issues of gender and race, especially in relation to pop culture, like GirlsFifty Shades of Grey and Django Unchained. A few subjects didn’t resonate so much with me, like Girls and Fifty Shades (never saw/read myself), but it was fascinating to read her perspective on them and so many other topics, like The Help, for example. I both read the book and saw the movie a few years ago and enjoyed it cautiously… I remember feeling a little weird about it but couldn’t quite formalize my thoughts as to exactly why. But Gay voiced her criticisms of the film in a way that totally clicked with me. Before, I feel like I had an inkling of how poorly the black experience has been portrayed in film and TV—and again not that I can speak from any personal racial experience—but Gay really drives the point home in her essays especially about Django Unchained and the Tyler Perry movies.

There are a few essays that really stand out to me: “How We All Lose,” “Blurred Lines, Indeed,” and “Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response.” in particular. I think I might have shouted out loud YES! when I read this in the “Blurred Lines” essay:

It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. … These are just songs. They are just jokes. It’s just a hug. They’re just breasts. Smile, you’re beautiful. Can’t a man pay you a compliment? In truth, this is all a symptom of a much more virulent cultural sickness—one where women exist to satisfy the whims of men, one where a woman’s worth is consistently diminished or entirely ignored.

After a huge rush of excitement and fervent reading in the beginning, the middle third of the book started to drag just a bit for me, I think mostly just because it was super-critical essay after super-critical essay, and it just brought me down a bit one after another in succession. The ending, though, when the final two essays return to being more personal, clicked with me, too—that you can have contradictory feelings and still be a feminist. For example, I admit that my husband does much of the so-called “men’s work” around our house (garbage, car stuff, etc.) BUT, that doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist. Sometimes, gender roles are gender roles and it doesn’t mean anything. I do the majority of the cooking, and my husband and I split the laundry and dishes. So what, right?

I’m so glad I came across this collection—Gay’s writing is phenomenal and accessible—I’ve appreciated her viewpoints on social media recently regarding current controversies surrounding Lena Dunham and the viral NYC catcalling youtube video. I definitely look forward to reading Gay’s An Untamed State soon!

Read from October 20 to 30, 2014.