Jessica Hopper

“While Hopper’s words can shine a light on anything from Chance the Rapper to the commodification of Kurt Cobain, it is when she is writing about women’s work in music that she truly thrives. Whether she is listing examples of the special vitriol reserved for young women in rock (Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift) or praising the brutal honesty of Mecca Normal singer Jean Smith, her convictions are palpable.” — Kerry Cardoza reviewing Jessica Hopper’s book “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” (2015, Featherproof Books)

The article referred to appeared in the Chicago Reader circa 2006.

It was subsequently re-published

in the book “Best Music Writing 2007”

(Da Capo Best Music Writing)”

October, 2007.

by Jessica Hopper

In Jean Smith’s hands, a concept album

about Internet dating becomes an unsparing

investigation of what it means to be an

independent woman.

Mecca Normal
The Observer
(Kill Rock Stars)

Mecca Normal’s new album, The Observer, is

hard to listen to. Not for the usual reasons–I

don’t mean it sucks. What makes it tough going

is the same thing that makes it great: subtitled

“A Portrait of the Artist Online Dating,” it’s so

mercilessly honest and personal it’s hard to

believe it can exist in the pop-music marketplace.

A concept album about Jean Smith’s romantic life

as a single woman of 45, it develops a grim,

intimate picture of the solitary struggle for

connection that doesn’t go easy on anyone–not

Smith, not the men she dates, and certainly not

the audience. The pop canon is full of songs

about romantic longings and failures, so that

we’ve been conditioned to expect certain story

arcs, delivered in each genre’s codified language

–blues and its back-door men, hip-hop and its

baby mamas, rock and its lonely motel rooms.

There’s pleasure in having our sufferings and

hopes reaffirmed, however approximately, by such

archetypes. But Mecca Normal, the Vancouver duo

of Smith and guitarist David Lester, have spent two

decades hammering away at the musical and

social conventions that mainstream culture goads

us toward as listeners and as people. They’re

overtly political artists–anarchist-feminists both,

they’ve developed a traveling workshop called “How

Art and Music Can Change the World”–and their

loose, abrasive, drumless songs don’t rest easily in

any genre. And even coming from them The

Observer is startling.

When we listen to music it’s natural to try to relate to

the singer’s experience or inhabit it as our own, but

getting invited along on Smith’s blind dates and

hookups is discomfiting to say the least–as a

storyteller, she skips the niceties and just plunks

everything down on the table. “He tries to put the

condom on / He curses / I try to see what he is

doing,” she sings in her low, acidic croon. “But I’m

pinned beneath him / I hear him stretching the

condom like he’s making a balloon animal.”

All but a couple of the album’s 12 songs are

connected to its basic theme of relationships

between the sexes, and half are diaristic synopses

of actual dates Smith went on with men she met at She’s a keen, literate lyricist, prosy

rather than melodic–right now she’s at work on her

fourth novel–and her attention to detail and

detached, acerbic tone make The Observer a

particularly apt title. Though each diary song is a

separate scene, with each man allowed his own

particulars, they’re unified by Smith’s blunt portrayal

of herself–we learn about her as a date, not just an

artist, and she makes a messy, inconsistent

impression, veering from cynical and judgmental to

petulant and needy.

On the album’s centerpiece, the 12-minute “Fallen

Skier,” she skips between snippets of dinner

conversation and an internal monologue about her

date, a 47-year-old student and recovering addict

who describes himself as a “fallen waiter/ski bum/party

guy.” From the moment she says “guy,” drawing it out

and accenting the word, you can tell she’s mocking him.

She repeats his story without sympathy, sounding

frustrated, almost disgusted: “I feel I’m with a boy,

a very young boy / He’s only been away from home

for 27 years / Only 27 summers, 27 winters / Partying

and skiing / I guess that’s why he hasn’t gotten

anything together yet / I don’t think he realizes it, but

his life has gotten away from him.” When he seems

concerned that her band might play hardcore punk,

she makes a half-indignant aside that lightens the

mood: “I stand, a middle-aged woman in a

fantastically subtle silk jacket / Hush Puppies / Curly

hair blowing in the wind / And this guy’s fretting over

the possibility / That I’m actually Henry Rollins.” But

almost immediately her complaints begin to

boomerang, telling us as much about her as they do

about him. “He never asked the name of my band,”

she says, “never tried to touch me.” Suddenly she

sounds vulnerable, even wounded–though her date’s

clearly wrong for her, she can’t keep herself from

wanting to be interesting and desirable to him. When

she hugs him good-bye at the end of their chemistry-

free evening, it’s unclear which one of them she’s

trying to console.

The Observer is a harsh toke, but it’s compelling on

all fronts–Smith’s lyrics force you to think about

loneliness, need, and bad dates, but the songs are as

engrossing as they are exhausting. Her voice flits and

dips like a plastic bag in the wind, moving from a

moany sort of sing-speech to a deep, silky quaver to a

thick shrill trilling, and she often drawls her words like

she’s trying to fill the room with distended consonant

sounds. The self-explanatory album opener, “I’m Not

Into Being the Woman You’re With While You’re

Looking for the Woman You Want,” is a glowing

 example of the interplay between her vocals and

Lester’s guitar, which is equally distinctive and


On “To Avoid Pain” the duo toys with early-60s pop

country as Smith hee-haws like a half-drunk Brenda Lee,

trying to talk herself down on the way to a first-time

hookup: “Take a city bus / To a downtown hotel / I don’t

feel weird / I don’t feel weird / Ask me / Ask me / Ask

me if I do.” Then, as a dark, discordant synth tone

rises out of the music, she eagerly proclaims a

dubious victory over her own unease: “Soon enough

it’s true-ooo!”

On “I’ll Call You” Lester’s buzz-saw guitar gallops

around Smith as she reads a fake personal ad–her

version of what a truthful guy would say–that sounds

like it was placed by a member of the Duke lacrosse

team. “Attraction Is Ephemeral,” which provides the

most complete picture of Smith and what she’s

about—the way she begins to doubt her own doubts,

wondering if she’d be able to spot genuineness in a

man even if it were there–is also the most musically

moving track on the album. It’s the most romantic

too—or rather, it’s most explicitly about romance, or

at least the yearning for it—though in typical Mecca

Normal fashion, it opens up from there, addressing

gender and class inequality, patriarchy, and how

they can really ruin a date.

In press releases and online materials, Smith

provides links to photos she’s used in her dating

profile, including shots where she’s posing in her

underwear and others where she’s wearing nothing

but the ribbon in her hair. But given how unpleasant

The Observer makes her dating life out to be, it’s hard

to argue that the pictures are just Liz Phair-style

exhibitionism–if you’re gonna use sex to sell records,

you don’t usually linger on the vulnerability that

intimacy requires.

In the band bio Smith notes her reluctance to make an

album about dating–as evidenced by the fallout late

last year over the book Are Men Necessary? by New

York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, romance is a

loaded topic among the feminist cognoscenti, perhaps

because it’s considered unseemly or irresponsible for a

feminist to openly admit to wanting or needing

something from men (or caring enough to be

disappointed with them). Dowd claims that successful

men don’t want competition from their partners, and

thus tend to date or marry down, choosing women who

are younger, less educated, and less accomplished.

Though she makes her argument largely with

generalizations, as opposed to Smith’s nuanced

particulars, both writers are suggesting the same

thing–that independent women wind up alone.

Smith is forthcoming about the concessions she makes

for intimacy–while she holds to her standards with men

who aren’t good enough, she swallows her pride and

sells herself out to others who don’t have much idea

who she is or much interest in finding out. But her

artistic integrity never wavers, and throughout it’s clear

she knows herself and understands the choices she’s

making. It’s a brave act for her to admit that she quietly

shushes the “difficult” parts of herself in order to

connect with men: she is airing a common secret of

women’s lives.

 Cover design and self-portrait by Jean Smith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: