The light on Mississippi Avenue was a pleasing yellow that flattered everyone who wasn’t sweating, and the air was just this side of too hot, occasionally lifted by little breezes. The kind of weather where you have to decide if it’s a perfect late spring day, and have a Good Time, or whether summer is coming too soon and it’s Too Hot (Bad). Five degrees in either direction would make the decision for you.
I was sweating before I left the air conditioning in my car. I thought I was going to be very late for a book reading, so I was rushing and worked up. I managed to find parking near a (very Portland) landromat/bar (EAT. DRINK. LAUNDRY.) and rushed over to Beacon Sound, where Jessica Hopper, editor for Pitchfork, was going to be reading from her new book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.
When I walked into the store, there were chairs set up, but no one there. I realized that I had the time wrong, and had a half an hour to kill. I thought about killing time in the store, but it’s one of those Apple Store-inspired spaces: not in the sterile, modernist furniture sense, but in the lots of space, we only sell 50 items sense. It’s an all vinyl (and a few cassettes) store, and all of the new releases from the indie blogs were up on the wall, but otherwise a really small selection.
These types of setups provoke strong reactions and counter-reactions in me, mirroring my ambivalence towards hipsterdom and my own participation in hipsterdom (and, yes, I should probably find some new words). Part of me understands it’s a different business model, curation rather than breadth, expertise rather than serendipity, becoming the best music store to a narrow channel of tastes rather than a better-than-average music store for everyone. Serendipity does matter to me, though. Heterophony is a beautiful thing. And when I’m in there, I can’t get past the idea that the music store of the future might have less selection than a Sam Goody, a Hot Topic for a different set.
I decide to walk down the street to the Asian minimart to buy some cigarettes. The mouthwatering smell of the fresh waffle cones at Ruby Jewel’s make my stomach do an ecstatic flip for joy. There’s a man playing a musical saw in front of Little Big Burger. He’s not that good, but I’m happy that he’s here. A couple of blocks down, I overhear a late 20’s bropack making fun of the guy, imagining asking him questions like, “How long did it take for you to become a master of the saw? Did you ever consider picking up sledgehammer.” I flash with disdain and hate, then think about whether the kinder thing to do would be to not lose sight of their individual interior lives, and how we say things just to make conversations, before deciding that hopefully there are other people in the world that love them and it’s all right for me to just think that they are douchebags.
When I got back to the record store, it was already starting to fill up. I chose a spot near the front, and started playing on my phone and tried to tamp down the shitty inner voice that gets insecure when I’m at events by myself. I started to look around to people watch. There were some 30’s power hipster women, which in my mind is defined by a look that mashes up traditional femme costume (floral prints, retro dress shapes, lipstick, jewelry) with edgier bodies (interesting hair, tattoos, retro men’s eyewear, severe eyebrow shaping, unapologetic curves). There were some cool kids: incredibly thin and slight young women in band shirts and mesh hats with shit I don’t understand printed on it, young men dressed like Vampire Weekend circa 2006. I ended up sitting next to a good looking tall skinny boy wearing a Breton striped shirt, looking like the one that the housewife has an affair with in a Goddard film. He smelled bad, and I had a brief internal debate about how open I was to being somebody that is attracted to boys that smell bad, whether a bad smell is an unfortunate byproduct of poor hygiene or a valid lifestyle accessory, before letting it go because it didn’t matter.
It took Jessica Hopper forever to get on. Finally, the owner of the bookstore that was presenting the reading walks up and gives a droning anti-charismatic introduction, and she walks into the room. I’m actually not that familiar with Hopper’s work: I mostly showed up for the Pitchfork connection, and because the name of the book intrigued me. I wasn’t prepared for the star power of her arch-coolness. She looks amazing. Like others that started with a more aggressive style that has tempered with age and power and position, each element–the denim jacket over a band T shirt, the dark Wayfarers–is perfect and necessary, a continuity of the style but signaling put-togetheredness as well.
It was fascinating to hear her talk. Critics, especially the good ones, have a very difficult job. There is so much romanticism required to be a critic. You have to believe that music matters enough to care about whether its bad or good. You have to believe that people are going to read your shit and maybe change their minds and that that whole exchange is worth something. You have to take real, primal responses (like, hate, don’t care) and somehow express that in a way that doesn’t stray too far from consensus and with enough intellectual justification that someone can’t just accuse you of being a fan (the worst). At the same time, a critic is also a gatekeeper, and being a gatekeeper inevitably turns people into assholes. George Clinton gave an interview on staying cool forever: “You pay attention to the ones that are just getting ready to kick you out. If you can pay attention to them, you’ll learn what’s getting ready to happen. So you can stay there. You can’t hate on them. Cause the minute you hate on them, you actually make them more popular.” That’s a really hard thing to do when “hating on” is part of your job.
I’m glad I went. I had a good time. It’s so easy for it to become a circlejerk, just name drop after name drop and snark after snark. And I’m a snarky and name droppy person! I am a total hypocrite. It’s been a while since I’ve had so strong a feeling of being the least cool person in the room, so I’ll be thinking about that experience for a little while.