I’m a fan of Jessica Hopper’s music criticism, because she can bring to bear an energy, passion, and point of view that’s exciting — enough so that I’ll often look the other way about the fact that her strong point of view often extends to actively mischaracterizing others, playing fast and loose with perspectives that are not her own. (“Hoppersplaining?”)
This Chicago Reader piece about Vampire Weekend, though, is something else. Mostly it’s just Hopper riding the usual horse, tackling the usual rhetoric about privilege and cultural appropriation and “whiteness” — i.e., all the stuff that Vampire Weekend songs are already about. (More and more I think critics are flummoxed by the idea of a band writing songs about the very issues critics want to use to analyze that band — their vocabulary and their pet issues have been preempted.) But then there’s this line about Ezra Koenig, which I’d like you to look at very closely:
He bandies about the ethnic heritage of Vampire Weekend’s members (he’s Jewish, Rostan Batmanglij is Iranian), but “One of my bandmates is Iranian-American” has got to be the Pitchfork-nation equivalent of “Some of my best friends are black.”
Are you following this? “Bandies about!” What we are looking at here is a (so far as I know) white woman selectively misquoting/mischaracterizing a statement of two people’s identity so that she can cast it as some kind of bragging, or some kind of defensiveness, which the clever white critic is here to debunk. A person’s actual identity — like, say, being Persian — is secondary to Hopper’s desire to fit it into her own critical hobbyhorses about privilege and “whiteness” and the first world. The critic’s discourse is far more important than who you actually are, and any declarative statements from you on the topic will only be read as posturing. Not-being-white is posturing. It matters none to the critic. And the way you can tell this is because she refers to VW as “a white American band.”
This is not just lazy or stupid or dull — it’s actively shitty, and constitutes the first time music writing has truly pissed me off in years and years. Jessica Hopper, clever white critic, will decide who’s white and who’s not, thank you very much.
Sharing my gall yet? You’ll only be more galled if you actually look at the quote she’s mischaracterizing, keeping in mind that she’s already referred to this as a “white” band. Here’s the actual quote:
two main writers in the band are Jewish and Persian, which is a pretty broad definition of ‘whiteness’
Do you see what I mean about playing it fast and loose here? She — like everyone else — calls them white, then digs up a quote correcting this misstatement and brushes it aside as some kind of posturing: “bandying around” their ethnicity. If Jessica Hopper wants to call you white, no amount of not-being-white is going to change that. She will match lazy thinking with heroic contortions of logic to make you otherwise.
About which — even though I generally enjoy her writing — I think she should be sort of ashamed, if you ask me.
UPDATE: I later explained my thoughts on this a lot more carefully, here. I was pretty irritated with this review, but I’d hope it’s clear that I don’t think Hopper really needs to be “ashamed” about it. Or anyway I only came close to feeling that way for that impassioned hour and a half or so.