Photos: David Sampson

Music Writer Jessica Hopper on Her New Anthology and the Role of Women in Music Culture

The Rookie andThe Pitchfork Review editor talks about her latest collection of writings, spanning over a decade.

Those who follow music journalism very closely know that the collected works of some of the most esteemed music critics and writers are fairly common in book publishing. Among those whose works have been anthologized include Robert Palmer, Anthony DeCurtis, Chuck Klosterman, Greil Marcus, and Timothy White. But collections of writings solely devoted to female music writers are somewhat of a rarity. For example, the works of the pioneering critic Ellen Willis were assembled posthumously in 2011 for Out of the Vinyl Deeps. And there’s the seminal 1995 anthology Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap, edited by Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell, that featured writings by the aforementioned Willis, bell hooks, Margot Mifflin and Mary Gaitskill, along with performers Patti Smith, Marianne Faithfull and Kim Gordon.

Now countering the dearth of anthologized writings of female music scribes is Jessica Hopper, the music editor at Rookie and the senior editor of The Pitchfork Review; she has also written for such publications as Spin, Chicago Reader, Rolling Stone, and The Village Voice. Following her previous book, The Girl’s Guide to Rocking: How to Start a Band, Book Gigs, and Get Rolling to Rock Stardom, Hopper recently published an anthology of her writings entitled The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof Books). It may be the first collection focusing on the writings of a female music journalist/critic from Generation X.

Spanning over a decade, and divided into thematic sections, The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic consists of Hopper’s critical essays, album reviews, artist interviews, and in-depth reported pieces. The anthology begins with a heartfelt essay from 2002 for Hit It or Quit It titled “I Have a Strange Relationship With Music”, which sets the perfect tone for the rest of the collection. In it, Hopper writes: “Having developed such a desperate belief in the power of music to salve and heal me, I ask big, over and over again. I have an appetite for deliverance, and am not really interested in trying to figure out whether it qualifies me as lucky or pathetic.”

Among Hopper’s writings featured in the book are profile pieces of Kendrick Lamar, Chief Keef, and St. Vincent; a look at Gary, Indiana shortly after hometown hero Michael Jackson’s death that summer in 2009; and emo culture in an essay titled “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” about how the male-oriented genre makes its female audience nonexistent or invisible, while adding: “It took seeing Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill to truly throw the lights on, to show me that there was more than one place, one role, for women to occupy, and that our participation and vital.”

While certainly the subjects are diverse, the common thread is Hopper’s distinctive writing style, positioning herself as someone who analyze things with piercing insight and clarity—on Miley Cyrus, she writes: “Miley’s Bangerz-era story is a transformation fantasy built on proximity to what she was, how we knew her, how fast she went from supersweet to superfreak, suggesting that, yes, she was an authentic bad girl all along under that darling disguise.” At the same, her writings on certain topics show how music can provide a transformative experience, like her take on Van Morrison’s song “Astral Weeks”: “The Buddhists say hope is a trap, it’s a set up for suffering, but the hope in this song, it is free, it drags nothing with, it is only onward, onward in love and frailty.” She also makes her experiences authentic and relatable. In her 2005 essay “Louder Than Love: My Teen Grunge Poserdom”, Hopper describes her teenage initiation into grunge music to impress a boy she had a crush on: “I did things like casually wander past his classes as they got out, holding nothing but a Mudhoney tape in my hand, as if that was the only supply one needed for ninth grade.”

Hopper is a member of a growing group of established and emerging female music writers that includes among others Maura Johnston, Jillian Mapes, Amanda Petrusich, Lindsay Zoladz, and Jenn Pelly — in addition to longtime venerable critics Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell. PopMatters recently spoke with Hopper, who is based in Chicago, about her writings and the message she hopes to convey through this anthology.

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How did this book happen? Why did you wanted to start a collection of your writings?

It was something that I wanted to do for a while because I’ve been freelancing for quite some time. I just wanted to collect my work. It’s was a book that people had been asking me for for a decade. And then when [publisher] Tim Kinsella took over Featherproof, he said it was the first book he wanted to do. I was already interested in doing it, so it was a very easy ‘yes’.

I find that the title of the collection makes a bold statement. It makes me think of Ellen Willis’ posthumous collection that came out a few years ago.

In some ways, the title is true. I was told that there needed to be a gendered precedent for this book to exist. There’s been a lot of discussion about the title — in part because I wanted it to be provocative, I wanted there to be a conversation because there are dozens of women who should have collections by now and the roadblocks and arguments about why those books seemingly cannot exist are ridiculous. We are in a golden age for women in cultural criticism right now, but we are told again and again that somehow, we don’t meet the criteria of publishable. That only Chuck Klosterman gets to be in the clubhouse. And that was and is frustrating.

Did you have an idea going into the research and preparation for this anthology about how you were going to arrange the chapters/sections?

Basically when we started assembling everything, we didn’t really have sections in mind going into it. We were just looking for what was the strongest writing and what was most salient argument about a particular topic, band, genre or idea. “Does it still hold true?” “Is this still a discussion we are having?”… and beyond that looking at the ways that the pieces interacted, that is what set up the initial themes — just what were the pieces that made the final cut of 43. “Oh these pieces fit together. So what’s the overarching theme?” Finding the routes of connection through the various pieces, puzzle piecing them together from there. But, funnily enough, the groupings are the big fascinations. The “Real/Fake” section was actually a group of essays that were slated to be my next book, so those were pretty naturally cohesive. At the last minute I scrapped it and said, ‘”Let’s just put these here'” — some of the ideas and theories I had I felt like I have explored them as far as I could and felt like it would have been strange to keep that work out of the book since it’s the major theme of the last few years of my writing — the ways in which we see women’s work as inauthentic, the ways that women are set at the margins of music.

Was there ever a moment when you looked back at your earlier writings where you went, ‘I can’t believe I wrote that’, or that you realized now how much your opinion/view has changed over time about a particular subject?

Of course. We’ve read everything that I had ever written. It was certainly a strange and humbling experience. I was very grateful for it because it gave me a sort of different perspective and it just [helps] to get ego out of the way. It enabled me to see the arc my career, appreciate the progress, see the ideas that took 15 years to fully unpack. There is certainly music and albums I was like “Wow, why did I love this so much?”, but in other cases, when I was re-listening to the albums and artists I wrote about, I was relieved and a little proud when I found arguments I made as a younger writer held up.

You wrote an essay that opens the book called “I Have a Strange Relationship With Music”. I’ve never experienced a music writer explain about his or her love for music in quite that candid way, and I wanted to ask what prompted you to write that.

Around my mid-20s is when all those DaCapo collections and anthologies came out — Nick Tosches, the 10th anniversary edition of [the Lester] Bangs anthology [Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung], and then the Jim DeRogatis book about him [Let It Blurt], a few others. And of course I just gobbled all of them up, in all their irreverence and brilliance and splendor, and found my self wondering, “Where do I fit in this tradition?” I am not someone who is gobbling speed, and staying up all night writing 4,000-word treatise on Wet Willie, or like [Nick] Tosches complimenting Patti Smith on her tits mid-interview — but I really bought the romance of it. I mean, I was someone who was, at that time, up until 2am with songs and records on repeat and they were casting spells on my life and they were the frame for how I was figuring things out. That part held. But I knew from reading Rock She Wrote at 16 that there certainly was a tradition of women in music criticism and I could be part of a lineage there, but these old Creem dudes, and [Robert] Christgau and Greil [Marcus] — that was the model. So that first piece is about being in love with all of that but also going how do I fit in with this thing, because I knew fundamentally I was outside of it.

One of your essays from the collection is titled “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” from 2003 in which you discuss the absence of women in the genre. I was wondering if that speaks of a larger issue of whether young female music fans are marginalized or disenfranchised from music in general today?

I think that they are as involved as they ever been… in part because we have a changing, evolving, more egalitarian press, whether it’s through the Internet or a culture that permits women to become more active participants because we have more viable examples. I think that women have always been in these roles and have always been in bands, but more often than not we are relegated to being fans because the attitudes and culture you have to work around simply to participate is really daunting. You really have to get your mettle up and find community and find people who will support your interest in making music, or being part of it all, or even your fandom. But I think there’s more women than ever who are active participants in music and that we need to make sure that we are looking at them — seeing them — and writing about things and writing about bands in ways where we can continue to lift them up and make them visible by not writing trend pieces, by not constantly configuring them as outsiders or people who are on the margins or fresh interlopers into the scene because they’re not.

You have a chapter devoted to the theme of “Real/Fake” that includes such pop stars as Lana Del Rey, whom I’ve had a preconceived notion about until I started to really listen to her music. Why is that female pop stars tend to be more scrutinized then male artists?

Because music culture is no different than the wider patriarchal culture. We can’t separate it… There’s basically this idea of women who seemingly spend too much time on their appearance or are too attractive in the wrong way, or who seem to be cunning in a way that we read that as duplicitous. To create a persona and flesh it out and perform it — I mean, that’s Jack White, that’s Bob Dylan. Authenticity in music is often seen as basically proprietarily male. Also just anything within pop is considered to not be genuine. Because Lana Del Rey became a popular artist when she recorded under a name that is not her given name — she is subject to a different kind of scrutiny and held up to a different kind of light. Oftentimes pop performers, their primary fanbases are young people or teenage girls, or sometimes largely people of color, young queer people making up their fan bases and because we believe those fan bases really only care about image, rather than music, or that they’re really not devoted as a consumer as any 40-year-old white guy who worships the Foo Fighters and Jack White — then they do not get to count. You hear people saying pop is fake, the people who make it are fake, the people who listen to it are real fans, and thats a myth but it’s one that absolutely tamps down the value and interest of women in the picture. That basically says women don’t belong here, and young women are not true fans, young women are not true artists. It’s an idea that conspires to keep women as outsiders.

How did you get into music writing? Who were some of the music writers and publications that had a profound impact on you?

I started reading Terri Sutton. She was primarily a music critic at City Pages in Minneapolis where I was growing up when I was 16 years old. City Pages had been a hotbed for progressive criticism in the years I was living in Minneapolis. A lot of great writers came out of there. So I grew up reading incredible music criticism, whether it was Jon Dolan or Will Hermes or Michaelangelo Matos. Rock She Wrote was really fundamental. Sometimes reading really bad, sexist music writing — like the way people wrote about Yoko Ono — those sort of books were really illustrative of what I really didn’t want to be.

What do you want people to come away from this book other than serving as an anthology of your writings?

I think the main thing I want people to come away with… people who are young women or undervalued members of the music community, or people who are part of music communities whose stories have not been fairly told or documented, or their viewpoint or opinion has not been valued. I want them to see this as a permission slip, that they could claim that space at the table.