Outtakes from Two Living Female Rock Fans on The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

A little while ago my friend and fellow music obsessive Nyala Ali and I sat down and chatted about Jessica Hopper’s recent book, The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic and wrote about our responses for Shameless Magazine‘s blog.

Because we wrote about eight million words and had about as many thoughts, we had to scale back the piece for publication, but we still wanted to air the rest of our discussion that the book and its essays prompted.

Here are the bits that didn’t make it into the final publication. It’s probably best if you read the Shameless piece before you read this one, but I won’t hunt you down if you don’t. I won’t do anything; I can’t even force you to read our brilliant and, uh, rather irreverent work.

• • •

Jessica Hopper’s essay on David Bazan (“The Passion of David Bazan“), formerly of Pedro the Lion and a former Christian, is a moving piece on the role of the musician and the musician’s authority on such delicate life-or-death matters as faith. Bazan recounts his career before and since he became an agnostic and reflects on how his role has shifted in the eyes of his fans.

Nyala: That statement about one right version of a thing and how narratives can get collapsed makes me think of religion, which can cause similar kinds of pressure and have the same kind of constraining effects on narrative as gender, or genre do.

Laura: That David Bazan/Pedro the Lion piece (“The Passion of David Bazan”) surprised me with its awesomeness. I don’t know if it had any right to be that good. Hopper’s definitely invested in this one though – I wonder if it’s because she used to work as Bazan’s publicist? [She mentions this in the piece]. I have no idea if she is or ever was a Christian.

Nyala: I think it’s successful because it equates music fan indoctrination with religious indoctrination. And yes, you can tell she’s emotionally invested in it.

Laura: Yes, and then the loss of faith. It’s like, if you’re going to be a Christian, and if you’re going to continue being a fan of Bazan’s music, you have to be in denial to a certain extent.

Nyala: And faith in god and faith in music/your favourite band can be very similar. They can both save you.

Laura: Yes, they can both save you. In that way I associated this piece with the opening essay in the collection, called “I Have a Strange Relationship with Music”, about music and its lifesaving power to Hopper.

I also think this one was effective because of the fan engagement angle of it. I think that’s what hooked me. I found that Bazan’s views on his own music and his own faith were insightful, but that particularly in comparison to the fan responses were hugely resonant.

At least to me…I am unfamiliar with Pedro the Lion and I’ve never been a fan, but I could have been. I was a Christian teenager and I was on that path or whatever. That realization felt weird.

Nyala: I had listened to this band, was a fan around the time of their last album [2004’s Achilles Heel], and I didn’t even realize they were Christian. Although now that I think about it, the person who introduced this band to me did have really strong ties to Christianity.

Laura: I found it strange and touching that the fans believed in Bazan like they believed in any other god figure. He almost filled a prophet-type role for them.

Nyala: …but also they thought of him as infallible, even wrong about his own doubts.

Laura: It’s like a tiny little encapsulation of the Christian faith and the people who break away from it: if you have doubts but are surrounded by people whose covenant it is to, like, keep you in the fold. Forgive you. Keep going.

Nyala: As not having grown up particularly religious, I also aligned this piece with the idea of seeing your favourite punk band or whatever sell out. It’s so damning to fans because they feel like the band doesn’t belong to them anymore.

Laura: Yeah, but in this case the fans are in total denial about it! And there’s so much drama, yet subtlety, in the lyrics that are included as part of this essay. Many of them summarize thoughts I’ve had about being a Christian and not being a Christian anymore. The songs are about those first realizations of doubt, before anything is public, where you first start to admit to yourself, “Oh, I’m about to wreck my whole life.”

Nyala: I honestly thought this story was being set up, was going to lead to the fans being really brutally let down by their favourite musician’s loss of faith, but they refuse to be. It doesn’t go there at all.

The problem with faith shows the fallibility of both – when a person’s faith in a thing is bigger than the thing itself.

Laura: Going back to the “I Have a Strange Relationship with Music” essay: Hopper writes about getting into music criticism and being a fan in order to have “…a language to decipher just how fucked up I am.” I definitely equate that with Bazan’s faith and subsequent loss of faith.

First his faith gave him that language to speak about his own fuckedupness. Then his agnosticism gave him that language, and a more accurate one. The difference between acknowledging your own fuckedupness as a Christian and then again without that faith, is conceding that you are quite literally irredeemably fucked up – there is no savior anymore.

Christian rock, in my opinion, is pretty notorious for sidestepping how fucked up and messy life is. Rock music is about how irredeemably messy things are. I don’t know if Christian rock can even be categorized as rock by that reasoning. But even before his loss of faith, Bazan focused on the messy and fucked up – his critical thinking skills were clearly well-developed even as a Christian, which makes him an outlier to begin with.

Nyala: It becomes clear that some of the fans have positioned him as a god figure, and maybe they think that his loss of faith is a test for them? There’s a lot of contrasting real/fake stuff going on here too, in addition to the whole chapter with that title and its focus on authenticity/artifice.

• • •

One essay in particular in Hopper’s collection – about Suicide Girls and its cultural impact – struck us as out of place. Not being about music and without a clear connection to an issue that Hopper felt strongly about, it didn’t have that personal investment that made many of her other essays so successful. Ostensibly about women’s media and its role, Hopper shies away from taking a firm stance here, undermining what could have been an effective piece.

Nyala: Ugh, so this Suicide Girls piece (“Nude Awakening: Suicide Girls”, co-written with Julianne Escobedo Shepherd).

Laura: Seriously, why the fuck is this here? Okay, I get why it’s here, but you know what I’m saying. This is probably the piece that annoyed me most in the Strictly Business chapter.

Okay, so at the time [2003-06, roughly], there was a template for what “alternative” girls and boys were supposed to look like. For girls it was Suicide Girls…

Nyala: …and for boys it was Warped. It’s true. I felt so outside of the emerging feminine version of alternative glamour or whatever.

Laura: I knew that I felt outside of it and had little interest, but I was aware that it was positioned as some kind of ideal. I didn’t have that critical thinking apparatus yet at that time, so I just felt shitty about myself. In hindsight the marketing behind it is super transparent, though, but I couldn’t really see it for what it was.

Nyala: Its harmfulness was definitely percolating for me.

Laura: I know it also has to do with the fact that I was very much on the periphery of popular/internet culture at this point, so I think that also contributed to me feeling like an outsider to this thing that was positioned as a “phenomenon.”

Anyway, I love how Hopper is juuuuuust shy of being openly disdainful of the Suicide Girls phenomenon.

Nyala: That’s the issue I have with this essay. It’s supposed to be positioned as an exposé but it comes across as super rote.

Laura: It’s weird that she comes to no firm conclusion, that also seems to undermine it as the exposé it’s positioned as.

Nyala: Yeah, I wish she had written about the impact that these events had on the other girls observing and participating in it.

Laura: Totally, and we don’t know what happened to all of these sketchy people involved. If she’s mature enough as a critic and as a writer to be disdainful of these events, or probably more accurately to establish herself as an authority on these kinds of issues, then she needs to take a stance on them.

Nyala: I absolutely think that not taking a stance here is borderline harmful and I really don’t trust it.

Yeah, I wish she had written about the impact that these events had on the other girls observing and participating in it.

Laura: Totally, and we don’t know what happened to all of these sketchy people involved. If she’s mature enough as a critic and as a writer to be disdainful of these events, or probably more accurately to establish herself as an authority on these kinds of issues, then she needs to take a stance on them.

Nyala: I absolutely think that not taking a stance here is borderline harmful and I really don’t trust it.

Laura: YES. Like the tone of the Jim DeRogatis and R. Kelly piece.

Nyala: It’s like the Jim DeRogatis and R. Kelly piece is near the beginning of the book and established that she’s absolutely capable of effectively doing an interview on a moral/ethics issue like this and taking a stance. So why didn’t she do it with the Suicide Girls one?

Laura: Maybe the stakes are higher? I don’t know much about Jim DeRogatis, but he seems like a really good guy. I don’t doubt that he actually is a good guy, but part of that is due to her writing too. Honestly it’s a bit weird how this piece really ends up being about two men: the good guy and the bad guy.

Nyala: Absolutely, it’s a reflection of the types of people who have the power to shape dominant narratives. It’s about the truth-teller role.

Laura: She attempts to take on this role for the Suicide Girls piece but never gets around to doing any definitive truth-telling. It’s really an unfortunate wasted opportunity.

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