The title started out as a joke, but it wasn't, so it stuck. "When I was having a hard time getting through the slog of it, I would go to the Amazon page for, you know, the 100 best-selling music books out right now," says Jessica Hopper, author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, "and to motivate myself I would count the women, and I found that always kind of set me back to work."
Hopper is senior editor at Pitchfork and the editor-in-chief of The Pitchfork Review – she has as much influence as you can have, really, in contemporary music criticism. "Female" is an iffy descriptor for talented people, especially in music, where gender is too often a qualifier (there are bassists and there are female bassists; bands and girl bands). But Hopper's gender matters, not just because the world needs more female rock critics, but because women have been drawn so grotesquely in rock music.
"Men writing songs about women is practically the definition of rock 'n' roll," Hopper writes in her essay Emo: Where the Girls Aren't, nominally about the emotional strain of punk rock that emerged and mutated from the 1980s onward. Some men sing about doing harm, others of having it done to them, but Led Zeppelin's dick vision is Dashboard Confessional's, too. "Every record was seemingly a concept album about a breakup," Hopper writes, "damning the girl on the other side."
There's that line in High Fidelity where Rob the record-store owner wonders what effect thousands of songs about "broken hearts and rejection" might have on kids' minds. The implied kid is male, obviously – High Fidelity is about a guy who tracks down his ex-girlfriends in order to interview them about himself – but I wonder what it does to the developing female brain, to hear yourself described as either prey or villain, and connect so intensely to the description.
"I think about being quite young and hearing songs on the radio that men sang about women, and wanting to be the sort of girl that someone would sing about," Hopper says. Over time, an impression becomes a role. "I had to see other women writing about music, I had to see other women up on stage, to say, 'Ah-ha! I can do this.'" Seeing riot grrrl bands such as Bikini Kill and Babes in Toyland showed Hopper that she could have an active role in music – girls need musicians such as Bikini Kill, Nicki Minaj and Kehlani; they need writers such as Hopper and Safy-Hallan Farah of Pitchfork, and Rawiya Kameir of Fader.
Hopper has served as the music editor for Rookie, a magazine that builds on the legacy riot grrrl began. Bikini Kill formed in 1990, and a new cohort has discovered them every year since. Hopper got into riot grrrl the first time around; I found it through a listserv called womyn-are-beautiful, and it made my life better. If I had daughters, I'd foist it on them.
Riot grrrl has its problems. Some of them are serious, and connected to the scene's whiteness – if you're interested in the movement, Laina Dawes's essay for Bitch Magazine, Why I Was Never a Riot Grrrl, is essential reading – and some smaller, matters of taste. Personally, I always wished the bands had played better, because it seemed to me like competent musicianship made a better point about female strength than raw messaging. (I liked Bikini Kill, but I loved Sleater-Kinney.)
Hopper feels differently. "One of my big initial impulses to be a writer was because growing up as a young teenager in Minneapolis – Babes in Toyland were coming up, and [people would] write about how they were caustic, and amateurish and screechy like it was a bad thing," she says. "And to me that was liberation writ large." In her view, music and identity are inextricable. I'd like to disagree, because I want to just dissolve into the music I love. That's part of why feminist criticism is so important to me – I can't.