Neha Kale text logoNeha Kale text logo
< Work

Jessica Hopper: An insider’s guide to being a female rock critic

September 13, 2015

First published in Daily Life, June 2015

Jessica Hopper knows that few things sting as much as the pain of self-erasure. In her 2005 essay “You’re Reliving All Over Me: Dinosaur Junior Reunites,” the trailblazing music journalist recounts an adolescent encounter that’s become a soul-destroying rite of passage for brilliant teenage girls.

“I’d hung out with this guy a few times, and every night was the same: as he rattled off Dinosaur Jr. minutiae, I’d nod attentively, hoping that’d charm him […] I also knew more about Dinosaur Jr. (and all his other favorite bands) than he did, but I kept that to myself,” she writes.

Hopper, who’s spent the last two decades building a career that’s a glittering antidote to a canon ruled by boy reporters chasing the ghost of Lester Bangs, no longer has patience for mansplainers or their patronising whims. Her new anthology, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, a volume that spans everything from pre-Internet era pieces that highlight the absence of women in the emo scene and the indignity of being alone on a sticky dance floor to stories on Hole, Kendrick Lamar and Miley Cyrus written for Spin, the Chicago Reader and Rolling Stone, weaves together the personal and the political in needle-sharp prose. She writes with an energy and critical dexterity that can feel like a battle cry, making a case for the female experience in an industry that casts women as groupies, muses and interlopers.

“When I was growing up in Minneapolis in the early nineties, there was a small self-sustaining music scene there and I learned very early on that people looked down on people who were just participants,” laughs Hopper, on the phone from Chicago.. “What spurred me into action was that I was a fan of [punk band] Babes in Toyland, who were playing every week in Minneapolis when I was 14, 15 years old. But at the time, people who were writing about them in fanzines and music press were calling them shrieky, amateur and vile and I thought, “Isn’t that just what punk is supposed to be?” So I called the local papers and said, ‘So, you wrote about Babes in Toyland and you totally don’t get it. I’d like to offer my corrective because I really understand them.”

This commitment to naming the spectres that would hover across music, popular culture and fandom otherwise undetected has been a defining theme in Hopper’s career. In 2013, her explosive Village Voice interview with Jim DeRogatis, a journalist who had spent 15 years documenting the allegations against R. Kelly – including sickening videos and multiple rapes of teenage girls who attended Chicago’s Kenwood Academy – sparked a worldwide conversation about the ways in which the press colludes to protect talented male artists who are known sexual predators.

“I can’t separate my moral self from my critical self,” says Hopper, who’s currently a senior editor at Pitchfork, has worked as music editor at Rookie and started filing pieces for Spin when she was 19. “I got some of my politics from music, from underground and Riot Grrl bands such as Fugazi and Bikini Kill. Those were the sort of things that informed how I looked at the world, how I approached other people’s humanity and my own. Being a feminist shapes how I receive pop music and a lot of the things that nag at me are moral – they force me to dig in and ask ‘why is this bothering me?’ Half my career is about me asking myself ‘Why is this pissing me off?'”

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, which was dismissed by editors unconvinced about the commercial merits of a rock anthology written by a female music critic (it’s now in its third printing), simultaneously documents the misogyny reserved for female musicians, a music industry on the verge of folding in on itself and the journey of a writer learning how to bravely inhabit her voice. “How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock,” a November 2013 essay first published in Buzzfeed exposes indie music’s basis in capitalism while “Deconstructing Lana Del Rey,” a standout Spin feature shows how we punish female musicians who don’t comply with what we consider “authentic.”

“Lana fascinated me because of the way people were freaking out about her,” explains Hopper, who hopes to finish her next book by the end of the year. “People were debating whether she was a construction because she had a fake name – because no man in music has ever had a different name! It just pointed to the fact that we still regard women as outsiders to music and refuse to see this entire canon of women in music that goes back hundreds of years. Or if we have an image at all of female musicians, it isn’t viewed as being part of their grand plan or their artistry. For instance, people think Lana del Rey is plastic, like Malibu Barbie, while we don’t question St Vincent for a second because she has a guitar. When I was writing that story, I realised that Lana’s career was entirely her vision but no one wanted that story because it didn’t serve their narrative. It’s about who gets to be real and who gets to count.”

Hopper, who believes that we’re in a new golden age of music writing from young women and regularly receives emails from readers who see themselves in her stories, believes that girls should never question their right to speak.

“In a lot of my early pieces, I was figuring out my voice and used “I” more than I needed to,” she smiles. “But I noticed that my male peers would never do this because their opinion was never up for debate. When I noticed this. I edited out anything that couched my authority. But once I got over it, everything changed.”

Posted on September 13, 2015

Tags: profile, music, feminism