I heard Jessica Hopper yesterday on NPR, reviewing the new Kelis album. I first encountered Hopper more than seven years ago, when I was working a semi-shitty desk job and started obsessively reading her blog, Tiny Lucky Genius. She was acerbic, funny, and obscene, with a no-caps, off-the-cuff style that has come to represent something like the punk rock of the blogosphere. I've honestly never seen a picture of her, but after reading one particular anecdote, I couldn't help but imagine her in dirty-blonde pigtails and kneesocks, roller skating down a grocery aisle pulling cereal off the shelves. Naturally, I had more than a slight crush on her digital ghost.
I'd heard Hopper named as a musical consultant at the end of every This American Life for years, but hearing her actual voice on NPR was unsettling. She's punk rock to the core, but she totally adapted to the deadpan, 'mature' broadcaster sound of NPR. Her review was totally straightforward, clear, professional, but without any real edge. Catching up now on her blog, it's clear her career and her life has matured likewise. She has a new family, and probably could use the two hundred bucks or so I would guess she got paid for the NPR review. She's still Hopper – and she also writes for the Chicago Reader, which lets her retain considerably more of her outsider edge – but she also seems to have learned how to get in where she fits in.
I'm at a really similar point of career transition, though for me it's without kids. I'm about to start my first post-grad school job, and as far as my writing and research, the balance between advancement and personal vision is always on my mind. In particular, I can't shake the sense that my first major publication (forthcoming in a major comm journal) was the victim of compromise. Maybe I'm wrong – about half the time I'll admit to myself that all the revisions might have made it better. But there's still that haunting sense that I've done something wrong by being successful, by no longer just being a snotnosed kid spouting off. I imagine Hopper has some of the same feelings – it's inevitable.
The passage from the wilderness into the temple is, I think, particularly likely to be disturbing if you're an academic with any sort of punk rock roots. The arc of academic careers almost inevitably leads us to think of success as compromise. Within the giant entity that is any single university or college, much less within the network of them that we call The Academy, how can there not be pressures to conform at every turn? By contrast, I'd always thought of Hopper as a consummate hustler, always on the lookout for new projects and opportunities, knitting together a living and a career from disparate sources. Hearing her on NPR – and on the whole, finding myself happy for her – reminded me that everyone so easily romanticized as free birds, from rock bands to freelance writers to gallery artists, are under various, often strong external structural pressures. Sometimes these lead to derivative work, and sometimes they guide work to a place where it will have greater social value.
In some ways, we in the academy are uniquely free in our own work – I would say that on the whole, our work is subject less to the pressure to do certain things, than to the limitations of our own abilities
to convince others of its importance. Developing those powers of persuasion and making use of the freedom that's there for the taking is preferable to getting caught up in any envy of those we imagine to be more free than us.