Ian F. Blair interviews music critic Jessica Hopper on zines, fangirls, and being consumed by records.
Author photo by David Sampson.
When Jessica Hopper answers the phone to chat about her new book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, it feels as if we are old friends. She greets me with a somewhat muffled voice, perhaps drowned by the stacks of unpacked boxes scattered throughout her new home just outside Chicago, where she has relocated with her husband and two small, energetic children. But a familiar excitement ripples through the mounds of carefully packed chaos. Hopper, a Senior Editor at Pitchfork and Editor-in-Chief at the Pitchfork Review, speaks affectionately and candidly, and with the same enthusiasm that has become a hallmark of her criticism.
Our conversation drifts pleasantly away on more tangents than I have questions jotted down in my notebook. Hopper is infinitely curious—about everything. In her anthology, she explains that her insatiability is powered by a belief in music’s possibility to save. “I have an appetite for deliverance,” she admits. At other times, Hopper treats music as a vessel for healing: “All these records, they give me a language to decipher just how fucked I am,” she continues, “because there is a void in my guts that can only be filled by songs.” Hopper wonders how close she can get to music and what she might be able extrapolate from the work. She answers the former by searching for the latter: she flips songs inside-out, backwards and forwards, examining them from countless angles.
What emerges from Hopper’s catalogue, an interrogation of music and the pop culture landscape from various vantage points, is a robust portrait of life—as a woman, mother, obsessive fangirl, and rock ’n roll critic. Indeed, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is about reminding us women have multitudes—from Frida Hyvönen and St. Vincent, to Miley Cyrus and M.I.A. But there’s a “fuck you” in the title, too, she tells me, as if to say a storm is brewing and has been building for years. Women are talking, and they’ve been having these conversations, filled with big ideas and passion and rigor, with or without men noticing. Perhaps that explains her prefatory note, a powerful edict on the “flag”—as she calls it—planted in our present moment: “This book is dedicated to those that came before, those that should of been first, and all the ones that will come after.”—Ian F. Blair for Guernica
Guernica: Your writing has a very frank, witty style, which makes the title of your book, The First Collection of Criticism from a Female Rock Critic, fitting. Tell me about the title of the book and where it came from.
Jessica Hopper: I think part of the reason I wanted to write this book and was inspired to do this and thought that I could do this, is because when I was fifteen my mom, who was an editor at the daily paper in Minneapolis, brought me a galley,
There are so many reasons and whys and agendas within the title. There’s definitely a straight “fuck you” in the title. I’d say that’s the spirit of it: the feminism, the punk rock, the amount of stamping my foot down that I do over the course of this book. What other title would have been [fitting]? It applies itself in a very particular way. I’m a writer with an agenda, and it puts my agenda across completely.
The other thing, too, is that I’ve wanted to do this book for ten years and been told over and over and over again why it couldn’t exist or why it would be a failure or all of these things. I was told that criticism doesn’t sell. Feminism doesn’t sell. And music criticism doesn’t sell. So that was kind of the “fuck you” in the title. And you know? It does sell. It’s in the third printing. They were wrong. The nebulous they that told me no, were wrong.
Guernica: I assume the they you’re referring to is the book publishing industry. What other things were they saying?
Jessica Hopper: We know this from music, and in a lot of art, that you have to have a gender precedent for success, unfortunately. You have to see a woman do a thing really successfully. And then it’s like, “Oh, we can let women in this door!” That’s the fucked up truth of it because I was told that you only do anthologies when people are dead—or I was told that I wasn’t a canonical writer. All of those things. So let’s create the gender precedent then. Or attempt to, so that no one can tell any of the young female critics that I love [and whom] I need a book from that it can’t exist. I want somebody to go, “Okay, well now we need second, third, fourth, fifth.” Because people want this.
Guernica: Women are certainly held to a strange and somewhat impossible standard. Someone on Twitter once asked you what it was like to be a “female rock critic,”swhich seems reductive.
Jessica Hopper: The title [The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic] even fucks with it in the way that Kim Gordon’s thing [Girl in a Band] does. But I know that I can’t be too sensitive when I put “female critic” in the title. Let’s just claim “female critic.” Let me just eat it, chew it up. Somehow we’re set apart, but some of the earliest and most important critics were women. I don’t want to [say] there’s a constant erasure… But that’s basically my number one fear with the title and approaching [it] that way is that I don’t want people to think I am sort of [saying], “I am the first of this thing.” Because I don’t want to erase anybody else’s words.
Guernica: In the beginning of the book you wonder whether or not you are asking too much from music, almost as if you’re looking for music to save you. Do you think that’s possible? How does that idea influence the way in which you grapple with music as a critic?
Jessica Hopper: I think in a funny way the thing that you’re saying is kind of the overarching theme in the book. That’s the big question: Is this too much to ask? And trying to ask: how much can we extrapolate from this? How much can we put into it? It’s like with, anybody who has ever been compelled to make art—you have to have a faith that whatever form you are taking can hold it. I think that’s one of the beautiful and naive and hopeful thing about music, especially with young artists—that we trust songs and albums as a form enough, and say this is a thing that I can stuff all these unsayable, un-deal-with-able, complicated shit into and other people are going to get it. And we don’t always have that issue—if somebody else is going to get it. But I feel the same way about criticism. After my interview with Jim Derogatis—the R. Kelly piece—I went in with a cynical hope that maybe 10,000 people will read this—maybe some of my editors or people I know who have some power in this world, maybe they’ll read this, maybe they’ll consider this. Or my friends that defend R. Kelly on Facebook, maybe they’ll read this. That was my cynical hope right there. Then what happened was eighteen hours in, I get a call from the editor: “We’ve gotten three million hits.”
“I read a Riot Grrrl fanzine and it changed my life and I still live my life by radicalized principles that I got out of these bad Kinkos—fresh-from-Kinkos—pages twenty years go.”
Guernica: I was one of them.
Jessica Hopper: And then getting frantic DMs saying “R. Kelly’s on the radio talking about this in Atlanta, like they’re asking him about this and all of these things. Then you’re like okay, yes. Music writing! Every once and a while something happens and you can change your mind. And relative to music it can… I don’t know how to tie these two things together because for me it’s more. It’s a feeling and it’s a pathos and it’s my whole goddamn life. But you have that hope. I read a Riot Grrrl fanzine and it changed my life and I still live my life by radicalized principles that I got out of these bad Kinkos—fresh-from-Kinkos—pages twenty years go. It impacts what I do on a daily basis.
Guernica: What was the name of the fanzine?
Jessica Hopper: Bikini Kill number 2! The iconic document of punk rock feminism, radical punk rock feminism. I don’t know if my record review of Cat Power’s Sun is going to alter the course of somebody’s life, and I’m not out there trying to fucking save the day or anything. But the music has and continues to mean everything to me. So I take it really seriously and I try to have my writing reflect all of that desire. I’ve always taken it really seriously with this big hope that the form can contain all the things we want to lift up and all the things we want to correct in the world, all the people we want to encourage. All the injustice we want to call out. Can it happen in a record review? I’d argue yes. I’m just stipulating wildly right now. [Laughs.]
Guernica: Do you approach criticism, in part, as something you are trying to figure out about yourself?
Jessica Hopper: Well isn’t that all writing? Maybe it’s different if you work in the newsroom at the Times. You know when I first started writing—and you can see it in some of the earlier pieces—the word “I” appears more often than band names. Then it got to a point where you dispense with that “I” and that first person lede and whatever. I think a lot of that is still there—I just kind of hammed it down and hid it. When you get to that section of the book “Females,” “the reason I think I have good understandings of those artists, those albums, those songs, whether they’re Frida Hyvönen or Cat Power or even M.I.A is because I am a mom; I am someone who maybe lives through similar experiences Frida Hyvönen describes. We know our truths when we hear it right? Because I understand what it’s like to be young, female, and American.
Records consume me, and I turn them inside out and I pick them apart and read along with the lyrics.
Guernica: Do you ever feel like you get too close to the music?
Jessica Hopper: No. Sometimes people say: “Isn’t it tough to be objective?” And I say, “I’m a critic; not a reporter.” Records consume me, and I turn them inside out and I pick them apart and read along with the lyrics. I kind of trust the music rather than what people have written about it or what an artist has to say about it. [As a critic,] I don’t know if there is such a thing as being too close to the music. By definition that’s my job—to get inside of it and chew on it or whatever. [Laughs.] That’s kind of a gross metaphor; I’m eating a record from the inside.
Guernica: This reminds me of your essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” Critical distance is something you grapple with throughout the book—applying a close lens to the songs themselves while placing them within the larger context of where they fit in with the zeitgeist.
Jessica Hopper: With that piece—and I’m glad that it has had such an incredible shelf life—it’s a little depressing that so much of it still applies. It really is the life cycle of a feeling of alienation. When I look at that piece now, that’s what I see. What it started as was just a feeling. I was like, what is this? And it took me a while. Then having this moment of realization where I’m in the front row of a show going “Oh my gosh! This is the first thing I’ve heard in so long that acknowledges my experience and my life and my being something here.” And then drilling down on that; I kept drilling down on it and talking to other women. I took a six month break in the middle of writing it because I just couldn’t deal: I couldn’t go to shows without watching—and I write about this—the girls in the front row. I had picked something apart, and once you’ve been in the kitchen in the restaurant… It’s not quite the right analogy, but the more I drilled down, the more it upset me; the more I felt like not only do I not belong here, I don’t want to be here.
Also, this was the music I loved. This was my community. This was my scene. I was going to shows three or four times a week for years. I was working with a lot of bands in those scenes. My friends were in some of those bands. But I felt like I had to do it. When I got to the end of that piece, by the end of those eighteen months, I was mostly deejaying. I was mostly listening to a lot of minimal techno. I was listening to hip-hop that was from other coasts. I was listening to classic rock. I had to shut punk rock and hardcore and EMO down at that point. I picked some of those back up; I still go to a decent amount of punk shows here and there. But there was kind of no going back after that.
Sometimes you have to go down the rabbit hole even if you’re never going to be able to go back to that record again. I can’t not follow things to their end.
Some pieces I’ve written have been like that. The Chief Keef piece in there—for which I did way more reporting than shows up in the piece—I spent some time on the Southside [of Chicago]—neighborhoods I had never been to before. Chicago is one of the most racially segregated cities in America and it is truly a world away. Afterwards, I kept dreaming about a gun under my pillow or a gun under Chief Keef’s kids, my kids. And I came away from that thing really not psyched on some things I had been psyched on going into it. Going in, I thought, Yes! Finally some people in Chicago are blowing up. It will create an infrastructure and people can have careers. The kind of boosterism, generic boosterism. [Laughs.] I remember being, rah rah rah! We have Chance! We have Keef! Sasha Go Hard! And then seeing Chief Keef pick up a gun charge or a parole violation and he lives up to this public image of Chiraq—and how it’s big for business. People want to hear records and see if Chicago is really as murderous and fucked up as they think it is.
Sometimes you have to go down the rabbit hole even if you’re never going to be able to go back to that record again. I can’t not follow things to their end. I wouldn’t say that’s the nature of criticism. There are plenty of people that are happy to be like, “Taylor Swift! Four stars! Love it!” or whatever. I’ve never been that person. I will never be that person. It goes back to what we were talking about before; it all means too much. I feel like I can’t detach the music from the people who make it from the people who listen to it from myself from whatever implications—economic, ethical, moral, local, whatever—however it plays out. I can’t remove it and be like, this is a product. This is a thing. This is a beautiful love song.
Guernica: That’s a good segue to the R. Kelly interview with Jim Derogatis in terms of the question of morality in art. How much are you willing to ignore that if you like a song?
Jessica Hopper: Most people are willing to ignore everything. The people who are like “Fuck Chris Brown!” are the minority on that. I’m not saying most people don’t care. Some people say “You have to separate the art from the artist.” People love to say that in the comments section everywhere. But why should we? How can we? How separate are we from anything we make or participate in? You can’t get in there with the tongs and make an extraction. People do all the time, but I’m not one of those people.
Guernica: I might break it down further into: How much of the song’s content and messaging are you willing to ignore? How much of the artist’s biography infiltrates your understanding? As a person for whom music is your life, how do go about sorting out that tension?
Jessica Hopper: I read Keith Richards’s soul-torching memoir, Life, and he was maybe not a proactively horrible human being, but he’s a horrible father. I had a new baby and I was writing about it or something like, fuck this guy! I didn’t want to hear the Stones for a long time. But at the same time, reading that book, I wanted to hear the songs. I wanted to take them in. The number of artists who I will never listen to and never read about and never buy a record by is maybe half a dozen. Do I feel icky when a Michael Jackson song that I like comes on? It’s a constant dialogue. There’s always that dialogue and I can’t mute it.
Ian F. Blair is a writer based in New York City.