The two hadn’t seen each other in a decade and spent a few minutes catching up. “I pulled my reading copy out of my bag and gave it to her. She looked at the title and gave me this amazing flash of maternal pride. Her belief in me very early on was all the underwriting that I needed.”
Love’s investment has paid off, as Hopper has become a highly respected rock critic, writing in sharp, edgy prose to render complex ideas about gender and identity accessible to lay readers. A freelancer since her teens, she has written for the Chicago Reader, Spin, LA Weekly, The Village Voice, Buzzfeed.com, and Punk Planet. Currently, she runs the blog TINYLUCKYGENIUS and works as the editor-in-chief at The Pitchfork Review, the print arm of the web site Pitchfork.com. (Full disclosure: I am a long-time staff writer for Pitchfork.)
The title, Hopper admits in an author’s note, is not entirely accurate. There have been previous books in this field by Ellen Willis and Lillian Roxon, but few, if any, that have focused exclusively on music or have presented the arc of a female critic’s full career. Instead, that lengthy title is a jab at the notion of rock criticism as a boy’s club, one that has traditionally excluded or marginalized female voices. It is, Hopper writes in her author’s note, “about planting a flag; it is for those whose dreams (and manuscripts) languished due to lack of formal precedence, support and permission. This title is not meant to erase our history but rather to help mark the path.”
These 42 essays cover a wide range of music, from emo to hip-hop, from Superchunk to Miley Cyrus, from an oral history of Hole’s 1994 album Live Through This to a bracing interview with fellow Chicago critic Jim DeRogatis about R. Kelly’s sexual assault case. What unifies the collection is the rigor with which Hopper examines the implications of music and fandom away from the studio and the stage, which keeps her ideas rooted in the real world. That stridency of vision makes The First Collection of Criticism one of the best music books of 2015, one that demonstrates the importance of music and music criticism at a time when both are too often denigrated or simply taken for granted.
Exhausted and elated after a long book tour, Hopper spoke to the Los Angeles Review of Books about the trials of publishing, the horrors of reading her own writing, and the joys of meeting her fans.
STEPHEN M. DEUSNER: I want to start by asking about the title. At what point in the process did the momentousness of the project occur to you?
JESSICA HOPPER: I knew from the beginning, both as someone who pays attention to criticism and who started talking to people in the book world. I was told there was no precedent for it. I was actually discouraged from doing an anthology. They said I wasn’t canonical. Ellen Willis was enough. There were all these excuses: Feminism doesn’t sell, rock criticism doesn’t sell. What about Chuck Klosterman? They said he’s a special case. Okay, what about Chuck Klosterman and Rob Sheffield? Well, that’s those guys. I’m not dumb. I understood what they meant. There’s no formal precedent for women in this arena. People would say that nobody had done that before, and I would say that I have a couple of books on my shelves that I think qualify as having paved the way for what I’ve done. So the title was a fuck-you to that idea. It’s a lot of agendas rolled into one. I’m forever pushing multiple agendas.
It’s not like there aren’t some incredible female rock critics. It sounds like there are no publishers willing to take a chance on them.
Part of it is that I don’t want any of the women that I work with, any of my peers or anybody who wants to do this for themselves, to have to hear the litany of excuses about why their book or why their ideas or why their representations can’t exist. That’s a lot of what the title is about. As I say in the introduction, I’m not trying to blot out anyone’s work — certainly not that of the women who came before me. I had a friendly conversation with Robert Christgau at the EMP conference a few weeks ago. I handed him a copy of the book, and he said it’s a very true title. He appreciated it. But a few minutes later, he came over and said, actually there was one before. It’s a book from 1972, but it went out of print in 1973. He said it didn’t count.
That title sets up some real-world consequences for pop criticism, and I think the book engages not just with pop music but the world in which pop music is made.
That’s very much the framework. Music has always functioned in a political way, at least in my life. Those things aren’t isolated. There’s no way to take my feminist lens off. There’s no way for me to take music outside the context of the culture from which it springs. There’s no way to remove art from the artist. I don’t want to be the person who writes an aesthetics-only evaluation of an album. To me those things are less important. I don’t write to say this is good or this sucks. That’s what I did when I was 16. But music and art mean too much to me to do anything but drill down until I find my version of the truth. I came up in radical feminist punk scenes, and as much as they were a shelter from the world when I was younger, there were a lot of things that I took away that helped me decide the directions of my life — how I was or was not going to live.
You’ve been writing about music since you were a teenager. Who were some of the writers that gave you an example of what you could do in the field?
One of the examples that I got early was part of a fortuitous misunderstanding on my part. When I was growing up in Minneapolis, the pop critic at the local weekly was a woman named Terri Sutton, who was writing with a feminist lens and saying things like Marianne Faithfull’s memoir was at least as crucial as, if not even more important than the works of the Stones themselves. I thought, this is my shit. I just assumed that was something every town had, but in fact, she was just one of a handful of people writing with those ideas in mind. Also, my mom was an editor at the newspaper and she brought home a galley of Rock She Wrote, the crucial book that Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers put together in the early ’90s. It gave me a sense of a historic arc. There’s a tradition I can be a part of here.
Beyond that I just read tons of fanzines and made a fanzine myself. A lot of my friends made zines back in the early ’90s, but even then I knew I was light years behind what Ann Powers was doing. So beyond a few examples I didn’t really look to the outside world for permission, because I was already aware that I didn’t have it. So I just kept doing what I wanted, which was following my fascination and my curiosity, documenting a scene and wanting to have a voice in it.
The book draws from a lot of different publications, including your own blog, TINYLUCKYGENIUS, which almost sounds like a digital version of a zine.
It’s always tempting as a writer to exhibit the pieces when you felt like you were at your most incisive, when you just nailed it and got it perfect. That would be a disservice in this case, because I wanted to have something that was more dynamic. Perfect is boring. I wanted to create an arc from when I was a younger gal. The earliest piece in here is from when I was 24, but I was already ten years into my professional writing career when I became a freelancer for the Chicago Reader and learned to write. Suddenly I was subject to the most wonderfully rigorous and patient editing I’d ever had in my life. I was entirely at the mercy of editors that I respected and who really expected a lot of me and trusted that I could figure it out. And I think I did eventually.
There’s no experience like reading everything you’ve ever written, I’ll tell you that. In culling through the moldering archives in my garage when we started work on this project, I was alternately mortified and discouraged to read through some of the fanzines I made in the 10th grade. I thought this book would be four pages long. A double-sided handout. And when you’re 28 and you’re writing for the paper in your hometown, you’re still trying to be cute and clever. But I also felt very nostalgic and would get lost reading these pieces. I became very grateful to have a lot of my early writing on paper and not on the internet, because the past is never really past. It’s still out there and infinitely searchable. There were times when it was horrifying, but in the process I softened to my younger self. It was on the advice of my mother, who told me to just regard it as I would one of my young writers at Rookie, which is a web site run by and for teenage girls. I used to be the music editor there. I learned to stop holding myself up to my current standards. By the end of it, I had no ego about the pieces. Everything became about being in service to the book.
That experience must be similar to what a musician goes through when they’re assembling a greatest hits or a career retrospective. You’re constantly communing with your younger self, developing these points against which to measure yourself.
It’s brutal and beautiful, and I’m glad I wrote as much as I did, particularly in ways that were a little more personal than I write now. There are just so many things you forget. It was funny to see in my earliest pieces for the Chicago Reader that I was circling these ideas that I wasn’t able to unpack fully. There was a germ of an idea there. Something was bothering me. There was a rock in my shoe in 2002, and it became a Lana Del Rey piece in 2012. Something you have a theory about and you can hold on to it for a couple of long years in the desert, then somebody comes along like Lana Del Rey and lets me figure it out. That’s the real satisfaction for me.
And I appreciate that you tackle some complex issues, pose some big questions, but don’t always present an easy answer. That’s true of one of the first essays, “Where the Boys Aren’t,” about the gender divide in the emo scene of the early 2000s.
That was the first long critical piece I ever wrote. It was the first time that I wrote about music in that way, and it took me eighteen months from that point when I was in the front row of this show and had a moment of clarity watching this band sing about women in a way that acknowledged the struggle. It threw into high relief suddenly why I had the sort of nagging feeling of alienation sometimes in a scene that was about guys singing about women. No women were ever on the stage, only in the audience. But the way these guys were singing about women wasn’t just descriptive. It was prescriptive. I thought about it a lot. I argued with friends and strangers for eighteen months trying to figure it all out. And there were about six months in the middle of the process where I had to put it down because I had come to the realization that there was no going home after that. Once I named the problem, I couldn’t go back to that scene, that community, those all-ages punk shows at the bowling alley. But that opened up a lot of other scenes for me, because I had to find other stuff to get into. I was listening to a lot of jazz and minimal techno, and I was DJing all the time. I was becoming interested in other musical forms where I wasn’t actively being erased when I listened to it. Basically everything grew out of that moment. The nuclear moment for me. There are a lot of questions in that piece that don’t get answers, but they’re still questions I’m asking and things I’m thinking about. I feel lucky to have gotten them down when I did.
It’s not the first essay in the book, but it does set up everything that follows and outlines some of the concerns that have guided not only the book but your career as a critic.
Part of the reason we sequenced it so early is because it’s just really taking a shot there. Anyone who cracks it open and wonders what the deal is, they’re going to know right away. Maybe it’s a girl who is looking for this kind of book, or maybe some people will know right away that the book is not for them. So I’m interested in putting it front and center for those people who do want that, who are looking for something that perhaps reflects their experience of music.
What was the response to that piece? Do you still hear from people, either online or on the book tour?
I’ve never stopped getting feedback on that piece in particular. When I published it, I got three letters a day for the first year. I was getting three letters a day, usually, with a straight gender split. Boys telling me I’m an idiot and don’t know what I’m talking about and genre genre genre. That’s where people often retreat to say something is invalid. But there were girls writing me saying this is my life. I cried when I read it. Thank you. That’s pretty much still the response, but without the part where boys are saying it’s dumb. As for the tour, I was relatively confident that this book would do well just because people had been asking me for it for a long time. I knew there were some people out there. But I was not prepared for how well the book has done so far. Four days before it came out, I found out that it was going into its third printing. Especially when you’re releasing something that people have told you will fail, that’s pretty sweet validation.
More than that, though, is every night signing books for young women who said they read such-and-such a piece and it was the first thing that spoke to how they experience music. Or it changed their lives. Or it inspired them to start a band. Or guys saying that it made them feel empowered — because we know feminism can liberate men as much as women. It’s an amazing experience. Was I an expert Nazi hunter in a past life? Did I save an orphanage full of children? Karmically speaking, what did I do to deserve this amazing experience? Just knowing that my work is connecting with other young writers, with young people who are me at 19, who are trying to figure out where they belong in the spectrum of critical writing — that’s everything to me.
Stephen M. Deusner is a freelance writer currently based in Indiana.