Journalist Jessica Hopper began writing at only 16, parlaying her burgeoning feminist perspective into a career covering popular music. Since freelancing as a teen for her hometown Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, she’s continued to break new ground as a writer, editor and producer for some of the biggest music-media names around, including Pitchfork, MTV News and Spotify.
Her acclaimed 2015 book, the cheekily titled The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, was recently re-released in an expanded edition. Nearly double the length of its first incarnation, it includes more of Hopper’s incisive features, profiles and reviews from the last few years, as well as a deeply personal afterword and a new foreword by comedian Samantha Irby.
Hopper, now based in Chicago, is busier than ever – the self-described “suburban mom who loves Bad Brains” is producing a documentary film and podcasts through the production company she runs with her sister, is co-editor of University of Texas Press’ American Music Series, and is working on her fourth book (due out in 2023), about women artists’ impact on popular music in 1975.
In between virtual book-tour appearances, Hopper took some time out to discuss why it was time to reissue her collected works, how she managed to break through the boys’ club of music criticism, and how a new generation of writers and readers are bringing new life to that old form.
Why did you want to revisit this book? How did you approach it differently than the first time out?
When I was thinking about redoing it, I didn’t imagine it to be such a radically new book in many ways. But when the first edition of the book came out, I learned a lot about my readership and who my audience was, which was both gratifying and revelatory for me as a writer, to see how my work was being understood and received in the world by exactly the sort of readership that I wanted – young folks and young women who are just getting started in music and looking for things that exemplify the feminist worldview. With the second edition, I wasn’t interested in justifying my existence in the same way. That I believed the work truly deserved to be in the world freed me up to make a book for that readership. And because I had done more significant work since the last edition had come out, the book became more about including pieces that support a particular sort of vision – for example, the profile of Sleater-Kinney, or my interviews with Bjork or Lido Pimienta – writing that continues the argument that some of my earliest criticism makes.
I didn’t realize the first book would do as well as it did. I wasn’t anticipating going to seven countries on four continents to promote that book for 18 months straight. I am so phenomenally grateful it got the reception it did and that I got to go around the world and find out about people’s different struggles and experiences of music and how they build community around it. That experience fundamentally changed me as a writer and a thinker and challenged me in needed ways. So it allowed me to make a very different book.
The title alone speaks to the challenges of being a female music critic – what sort of response did you get when you first tried to publish a collection of your work?
I had talked about trying to do it for years. People would say, “There’s no precedent.” And of course it was about gender – it was like people said everything but “You know you’re a girl.” But I was so used to these arguments, and I knew they were useless – if you look at Ann Powers’s Good Booty or Amy Gentry’s book about Tori Amos, those books were huge. Reading those books … sated a long-standing hunger for the kind of music writing I was interested in – and not just now, but since I was a teenager first coming to music and being forced to read these terrible books about John Lennon just so I could find out more about Yoko Ono’s music. Blessedly, books like theirs are a lot more common now, but there are still a lot of perspectives that aren’t being allowed wide-enough aperture in music writing. I want my book to be something that maybe holds the door open for people and more perspectives.
After nearly 30 years of writing, what does criticism mean to you today?
Music criticism has always been important to me because it helps me understand and connect with history and hold my heroes up to the light and figure out why I believe what I believe. Why does this record give me a sense of hope, or sadness? As a teenager, I was going to hardcore shows in Minneapolis and it was always just dudes angrily yelling, and I was really ready to give up because I wasn’t seeing women onstage. It took seeing Babes in Toyland, who I write about in the afterword to the book, [for me to realize] there was a space for me.
The sort of canonical music journalism that I grew up reading for the most part was of the “I’m right, even when I’m wrong” variety, and there was not a lot of vulnerability to it – it was all quite competitive. These are things that are inherent to white patriarchal systems. It’s part of the reason that I think there haven’t been any sort of enduring structures that have lasted. There’s no infrastructure the way that there is in poetry or film criticism or any other kind of writing. I’m not trying to say music criticism is dying or anything like that, but it’s a really hard place to try to make a living. But one of the encouraging things is that while there are parts of it that have become much less sustainable, there’s an influx of people who feel like this is their writing home. This is one of the ways that they want to be in dialogue with their community or culture, and they have the energy and the tenacity and new ideas to help rebuild it as something that maybe it’s never been before. And I find that deeply encouraging.
You have many friends and fans here in Canada – Montreal band Godspeed You! Black Emperor even asked specifically for you to introduce them at the Polaris Music Prize gala when they won the award in 2013. From your vantage point in America, what’s your sense of how the Canadian music scene differs from its U.S. counterpoint?
It always seems like Canada has a better appreciation of its art than America does. There are so many Canadian bands and artists that I love so much – one gets the sense in some ways that there’s sometimes more community there, and also just more rungs. People tend to build the sort of infrastructure that they need, whereas in America we might have capitalism a little bit more baked in, and people look to labels and those sort of enterprises to support them because there’s no such thing as funding for the arts at all, basically.
Your next book, No God But Herself: How Women Changed Music in 1975, will include a look at Joni Mitchell’s album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Have you found that there’s anything inherently Canadian about the legendary singer-songwriter’s work?
I think in some ways the most Canadian thing to Joni, in my humble estimation as a Midwestern American, is the way that she really just forged on in her artistic travails, whether people were deeply receptive to it or not. She didn’t make a lot of fuss about things – she was very principled about it. I think that informs Joni’s artistic mettle and is just something that is fundamental to the freedom that you can hear in her records. The other part too is the buttoned-up world she came from that told her what good girls can and can’t do, which gave her something concrete to continuously rebel against – which is how we get that liveliness and also Joni pushing herself to the very vanguard of popular music as a composer.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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