Jessica Hopper is Planting a Flag for Feminist Music Criticism

When I meet Jessica Hopper at the café attached to The Empty Bottle, Chicago’s notoriously dive-y alternative music bar, we both order root beers. I’m a little nervous; Hopper is a journalistic hero of mine. These days, she’s editor in chief of The Pitchfork Review, the quarterly print issue of music website Pitchfork (where she also runs op-ed section, The Pitch). Before that, she was music editor for Rookie, DJ for NPR darling This American Life, and an important figure in ’90s riot grrrl.

Right away, she grabs the phone I’m using to record our interview. She holds it the entire time, angling it towards me when I ask questions, as if our roles have been reversed.

We’re here to discuss her upcoming book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (out May 12 from Featherproof Books), which gathers 20 years of her insightful, unapologetic writing. She expands on everything from the cultural significance of Miley’s tongue to female objectification in the emo scene, pulling together her pieces from SPIN, the Chicago Reader, Punk Planet and a slew of other top publications. 

In feminist rhetoric there’s so much discussion about not wanting to be labeled as a “female artist.” Your title is so overt in that idea of a female rock critic. What does the title mean to you?

I made a joke to Tim [Kinsella], my publisher, about it. He was like “Wait, is that the title? That has to be the title!” We messed around with it a little bit, but we kept joking that we liked female because it sounded so clinical. It’s like “vehicle.”

In my introduction to the book, which sort of functions as a dedication as well, I touch on the idea in the world of books and sometimes in the world of publishing, that things can’t happen until there’s a precedent. In part because of how we often talk about women’s work, or basically the work of people who are not cisgender men, there’s this idea a lot of us have that we’re not the first, sometimes it just feels like we’re the only. Even if there’s a lot of us, we can be treated and handled that way. Our work can be really tokenized because of how, lots of times, women’s work is not recorded. It’s not canonized. So it becomes harder to see yourself as part of a continuum of women doing what you do. And as long as there’s been books and there’s been music, women have been doing those things, and yet sometimes we’re still considered interlopers and novices, or that there’s something novel about it.

blue book cover with The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic written in white and Jessica Hopper written in light blue

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper (Photo credit: Featherproof Books)

So, specific to publishing this book, certain people have said, “You’re not canonical.” Because I’m not Lester Bangs, I shouldn’t get to put 20 years of my criticism together. Or because I’m alive. That it’s egotistical. And it’s like, I’m literally just assembling my work. I’m not building an 18-foot tall wooden totem to myself. It’s a book. I’ve been writing for 20 years, I’ve been doing important work for maybe the last 10. Why can’t it be a book?

That’s kind of the “fuck you” aspect of that title. The second part of that is so that we can sort of mark a place. Other books by women marked a path for me, too. In that way there’s something very pragmatic and idealistic about the title. And I wanted to also call attention to the lack of books by female critics. In part because you’re told over and over there has to be a precedent. It’s both flag-waving and flag-planting.

Speaking of women who have come before you, who are some of your influences?

There’s infinity people. I didn’t go to school for journalism. I barely graduated high school. So my education was largely built on books. I have this weird hodgepodge of influences. But Didion is the big one. My author photo is sort of a nod to her very specifically in that way.

The pieces in the book span more than a decade. Do you consider this a sort of retrospective of your career?

A little bit. There was a lot of other stuff I could have put in but it wasn’t up to the same quality of my later work. I started publishing a fanzine when I was 15. I got my first check writing record reviews when I was 16. I’m 38 now.

I’ve never not written. As long as I’ve been writing I’ve been getting published. I’ve never written privately. But the kind of criticism that was considered long form for me when I was 16 was like 600 words. So we dug deep in the boxes in my garage. Every fanzine I’ve ever written I have a copy of. We really just needed to fit the rubric of criticism. It’s not quite retrospective—and I think at some point there will be something that is. Other kinds of my writing, or like a best of. I did a fanzine for 13 years. At one point we’ll put that together, but that’s a very different animal than this.

Do you think that style of zine writing shaped your later writing?

I’ve always been fairly caustic, but I’ve always had the ability to refine it into a point. My fanzine was very much of the riot grrrl era. It was very much enamored with that, and very much reacting to the music world around me and what inspired me. But it was also a way to showcase all my friends. I’ve always been an editor at heart. As much as I was interested in publishing my own writing, I was interested in making stuff with my friends.

I wrote about all the same stuff. I just wrote about it as a teenager. I was really fortunate to be starting writing at that time and place and be supported at the go. There was a lot of support and curiosity for young women self-publishing and doing zines. I knew a lot of other girls who were doing the same thing. It was just a different kind of community.

It took me months to make a fanzine, and I’d ride my bike up to Kinko’s and I’d have my $300 and I’d Xerox everything. Spend my nights saddle-stapling 11 x 17 pieces of paper. It was different—you really had to have some real dedication. Doing your Tumblr, having a website now is involved, but this was literal labor.

I saw you’re having your book release at Quimby’s Bookstore, which is kind of a Chicago hub for zines and indie comics.

When I think about doing events I think about, by virtue of working at Rookie for a few years, “Where is it easy for teenage girls to get to?” Where is it safe, where is it well-lit? Not to say I don’t care about adults, but I think most dudes—and maybe most adults of a certain age—going places is not a big deal, how you’re going to get there is less a big deal, than when you are a young woman in the city.

Accessibility is very important to me when I put together events. Everything I do, in my mind I’m doing it for Rookie girls, whether they show up or not. That’s not to say other people like me—and music critics and boy nerds or whatever—don’t need whatever enlightenment or inspiration or whatever I fantasize people might draw from my work. But there’s a lot of ways they can get that. I know what it’s like to be a teenage girl and find publications that give you a sense of permission in the world. And ultimately that is all I give a shit about.

In the book’s first piece, you talk about “rock critic behavior” and the sort of idealized notion of what it means to be a music critic. So I was wondering, what are moments when you feel like a rock critic versus moments you maybe don’t?

It’s been rare that I’ve felt imposter syndrome. The only times I’ve ever really had that are sometimes with rock criticism, when I’m around people who are real geniuses of what we do. You sort of feel dwarfed by somebody else’s great power. Those are sometimes the times where I don’t feel like a rock critic, if that makes sense.

I don’t really have that feeling of imposter syndrome because I’ve been doing this longer than I’ve done anything else in my life. It’s the primary thing I’ve been doing since I was a teenager. I have a really harsh and constantly critical mind where I’m always processing. Always making dumb connections. No matter what dumb song comes on the radio, I’m making notes on it.

I think at the time of that [rock critic behavior] essay, I had just read Nick Tosche’s anthology, and the 10th anniversary edition of Lester Bangs’ anthology, and there were two other books that came out that year that were old, veteran, canonical greats. All dudes, of course. And there was kind of this sexy, swaggering, macho idea describing riding with the band in and just being totally thrown over to this. There was something very idealized in my mind. I felt myself listing towards that. So I started writing from that idea. It’s probably the same sort of fantasy some people have about beat poets, or any girl with a guitar who kind of obsesses over Joni Mitchell.

Can you talk a little bit about your feminist journey?

That was my impetus to write. I read all the fanzines and music papers that were published in Minneapolis where I grew up. Somebody wrote an article about Babes in Toyland that I thought really missed the point. They were a very iconic ‘90s female trio based out of Minneapolis. So I was like, “They’re getting it wrong. They need the perspective of the female who this really speaks to.”  I called the magazine and I was like, “I want to write about Babes in Toyland.” The person who got the message there is a woman who’s still my friend. She was like, “We should call this girl back,” and it’s like, I was 15!

What made me want to write about music was specifically a feminist impetus, though I think I use the word less. I’ve had a lot of experiences with finding a feminist community in music, outside of it. We’re plotting the main points on my evolution as a feminist: I had a feminist mom who was a young, very talented journalist herself. Then getting into punk rock and doing my own weird thing. Very shortly after, getting into riot grrrl and discovering bands with women in them. I didn’t have a formal feminist education until around 25, 26. I started reading a lot of feminism, and I read every single bell hooks books. That softened the heart of my feminism with love. I became a more compassionate feminist. At least I hope, on my good days.

Do you find it hard to mindlessly enjoy something, or turn that inner critic off?

But I am enjoying it! For the last year and a half I’ve had this horrible, causal obsession with soft rock. It’s completely un-ironic. I think some of it comes from having kids. I don’t want to listen to hardcore anymore. I read this book Hotel California that’s a lot about the Laurel Canyon scene of the ‘70s, The Eagles, Joni Mitchell. I’ve really been listening to the entire gamut of mid-70s music. I really enjoy horrible soft rock. Eagles. Al Stewart. Mid-70s Crystal Gale. Someone who’s a senior editor at Pitchfork being like “Yeah, I listen to The Eagles all the time”—It’s kind of perverse. But I could have real vices.

I like how you point out you’re being un-ironic, too.

I’m 38, I don’t do ironic listening.

I feel like irony is a way you excuse your guilty pleasures, but people never really listen to something they absolutely don’t like.

Years and years ago I got really into Steely Dan for the first time and I couldn’t place why it was interesting to me. I couldn’t understand why I liked it. I was going to like five punk shows a week. But I think that’s why I did like it. It was completely antithetical to punk.

I like a lot of things I probably quote unquote shouldn’t. Sometimes I like listening to really horrible, mainstream country.

Have people lashed out after a bad review or a piece?

A lot of my pieces generally have a mixed reaction that shows me I’m making my point, or that I’m hitting at a truth. If I do something and I only get positive feedback, it’s like oh, that was too easy.  

People have accused me of being a shit-stirrer my entire career, since I was 15 years old. I’m pretty un-phased by it.

In December 2013, your Village Voice conversation with music critic Jim DeRogatis brought the sexual assault allegations against R. Kelly into the national spotlight. (The piece appears in the book). Can you talk a little about that conversation?

If you look at the timeline related to the R. Kelly piece, that conversation starts December 17 last, last year. The first week of January was Woody Allen. It was basically every six weeks for the entire year, we were having bigger and bigger conversations. I’m not saying, “Oh, I brought this up and started a national conversation.” I think it was an early part in a conversation that most people are still only learning how to have. It made me very happy to be part of that. If I so much as made a few thousand people a little more skeptical about their understanding of consent or power, or why we understood that situation the way we do 20 years later, I am very happy.

What do you hope people take away from the book?

That it was worth buying. I don’t have any particular designs on that. I’m happy to have the book in the world. Big hopes are not for really anything for myself. If someone who’s my peer or someone who’s inspired me, whether they feel competitive or they’re like “I can write a better book than this,” I don’t even care. All the women I know have multitudes of books in them. I want those to exist, as someone who loves music writing but also knows the value of what it means to put something into the world. 

Jessica Hopper curated this mixtape of “Blue” songs for us. Listen to the mix and check out the track list here!

by Megan Kirby
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Megan Kirby writes all over the internet and beyond. You can find her tweeting about werewolves, coffee and her public transit woes at @megankirb.

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