Jessica Hopper (2015) | Photo: Joe Mabel
Jessica Hopper at the EMP Pop Festival 2015 | Photo: Joe Mabel (cropped) | Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Just Keep Writhing Jessica Hopper

Music critic Jessica Hopper is revivified by high stakes for the second coming of The First Collection.

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (revised/expanded) | Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Jessica Hopper
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
July 2021

Jessica Hopper was a senior when I was a freshman. We two smart-mouthed Midwestern girls did not attend the same high school. Later, she would move into a Chicago neighborhood I frequented in my youth and write an excellently poetic memoir about her years there. As she moved up a ladder of music journalism success—the Hit It or Quit It zine, the Chicago Reader, Spin, Pitchfork, MTV—I began to follow her more with my eyes than my footsteps, each of us hoboing our guts out in separate pop culture cars on the respectability politics train.

The work must keep us young because neither of us appears to have aged a day. Photos of Hopper over two decades offer an endless parade of one exquisitely broken-in jean jacket and 50 varieties of wind-swept bangs framing the shiny, suffering eyes of a woman who is forever 15-years-old inside. She’s still clambering to make space in the world for other weirdos who actually are not weirdos but simply young women who are prepared to earn equal footing in spaces run by privileged standard males who will never let them.

In 2015, when she published The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic with Featherproof Books, I was stoked even though I’d read most of the 42 pieces in it as they were originally printed here and there over the years. Just the idea of such a book taking up space on the shelf felt so good because there really was nothing else like it at the time. This is not to say that Hopper was the only female rock critic to ever have existed, but our orbits feel aligned, and her ways of thinking feel so in tune with mine that she’s always been one of my guiding lights. So it was great to see her spine holding steady next to the always big, often bloated, sometimes bad dogs like Bangs, Christgau, Klosterman, Marsh, Marcus, et al.

I’d been doing opinion writing a long while and rereading her work not as one-offs but within the context of this compendium. It sparked me to get back into doing some writing about music, and that’s how I came to pitch my first article for PopMatters, within a few weeks of Hopper’s book launch.

When Managing Editor Karen Zarker said to me, “Just in case you didn’t know it already, lesbians run this magazine,” my heart briefly leaped out of my chest with the overwhelming joy of imprinting on a new forever home. Indeed, I did know it already and I’d finally queried with PopMatters, the first online spot of its kind thanks to the unyielding brilliance of Editor-in-Chief Sarah Zupko that I had been avidly consuming since its launch in 1999, due in part to the feeling that Hopper’s collection was a boot up my butt. The First Collection spurred me to action, but it was also a stern warning: the boys’ club will enjoy the sound of your claws on the door, but they will never enjoy that door opening.

At PopMatters, I am more among my own people. Over the past half dozen years, I remain chuffed by what we’ve collectively accomplished—and also pissed that Zupko, Zarker, and our magazine never seem to get the mainstream (malestream) recognition they have clearly earned by dint of reputation, longevity, and astuteness. None of us are making time to be that bitter about it though; good people who need our voices always do find us and there is so much more work to do.

That was a lesson Ian MacKaye gave Hopper, too. Just keep your head down and do the work. The right fans eventually show up. They stick around because they agree with our particular way of thinking, a way of making light or dark fun of the jackassery that tries to hold us back, and because the space we hold open is thankfully there to refuel in when needed.

Hopper and I are both hovering around 40 now, and I continue to think of her as part of my advance team, so I am naturally super interested in the fact that The First Collection has just been reissued by MCD x FSG Originals a mere six years after its initial release. She could update the title to The Second Collection and the joke would still sadly ring true. For all the tumult of the Trump years, the state of “women in music” remains (me too) too much the same. In the new afterword, Hopper points out that this has been the case since even before Ellen Willis pointed it out in 1971.

The reissue of Hopper’s classic book adds 13 new essays, a two-page foreword by comedian Samantha Irby that is funny and nice and utterly unnecessary, and a 14-page afterword that is the skeletal bedrock of notes for a beautiful and powerful and utterly necessary memoir Hopper should write. Her way of writing about music often involves inserting herself into the writing as a contextual undercurrent of both the zeit and the geist. It’s not “gonzo” journalism or even “New” Journalism, certainly not “confessionalism” or other dog whistles for separate but (c’mon never) equal writing that women do.

Hopper has been all around the planet collecting stories under the heading of “women in music”. Having slipped past more gatekeepers than most, she is perfectly poised and plenty entitled to tell her own full story—the story that three decades of articles often point to and her Chicago memoir offers a tiny slice of.

Nine hundred words into this article you may still be asking: what is actually in the book and is it any good? Well yeah, it’s fucking good! This book has been around for six years and if you still haven’t read it, there is a canon-sized hole in your “women in music” consciousness. You can read this review/interview PopMatters published in 2015. If you already did read The First Collection and want to know if this expanded edition is worth your $18: well yeah, it fucking is!

Worth it for the afterword alone, but I’ll also give a firm shout-out to a sickeningly informative oral history originally published in Vanity Fair in 2018 that is included in the expanded edition, “‘It Was Us Against Those Guys’: The Women Who Transformed Rolling Stone in the Mid-1970s”, documenting the inception of the magazine’s Copy & Research Department. I’m sure there’s a parallel universe where these women did not implement such obviously necessary journalistic standards and the resulting libel suits against Hunter S. Thompson’s work alone quickly bankrupted the magazine into oblivion.

Another fresh delight of this expanded edition is rereading Hopper’s constantly savage take on several seminal expansions, reissues, and box sets within the context of her own expanded reissuing. The merciless hilarity with which she has always treated any misguidedly money-grubbing attempt at legacy-building is—well, let’s just say she knows the stakes are high for the second coming of The First Collection. Hopper never fails to appreciate the way her rock criticism implicates the way she herself rocks or doesn’t. Many times while rereading this updated collection I enjoyed how clearly her criticism expresses what she values about herself. This bit on Miley Cyrus, for instance: “We cut off her head and she just kept writhing, unchastened” (50). So may it go for Jessica Hopper because she is a feminist canary in the coal mine of rock ‘n’ roll.

And she knows it more all the time. When PopMatters interviewed her six years ago, she characterized the book as a permission slip. She felt more women needed to start ascending their own stairways to heaven, and that was a call I personally heeded. In the new afterword, she now characterizes the book as something beyond invitation or permission—as an endowment. Because plenty of women have always been making their way in music, and what we also need is to illuminate all those past and present pathways to preserve them for future generations.

Women in music need to know what they have inherited. We need names and stories and songs to turn toward for inspiration to keep fighting the good fight when it feels too hard or lonely or scary to carry on. Yeah, this forest has many trees and the trees have many branches. Some of them are looking super strong and thick these days—and may their glory be everlasting. Here’s PopMatters. There’s Jessica Hopper. Here’s me. There’s you.