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'My Writing Is Not to Convince Trolls That I’m a Genius': An Interview With Music Critic Jessica Hopper

The author of 'The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic' on bringing identity to the framework of how music is perceived.

by Sinead Stubbins
28 July 2015, 4:11am

Images: Ben Thomson

I am drinking a champagne flute of lemonade on Jessica Hopper’s hotel bed, and we are fighting. Well, she’s really fighting with herself: she swings between deflecting compliments about her book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic and yelling “Noooo, STOP!” but then correcting herself and deciding that it’s not weird that people like it, it’s just good.

Jessica Hopper’s work as a music critic transcends scenes and generations. At 15 she started her zine Hit It Or Quit It, a riot grrrl affiliated publication about Minneapolis’s punk scene, but was exceptional enough that Hopper was written about in Newsweek and continued to publish it for 14 years.

By her twenties she was a regular columnist for Chicago’s iconic Punk Planet zine. It was at Punk Planet that she wrote ‘Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t’ in 2003, a kind of siren song to women who felt like they were excluded from participating as ‘real’ fans in music scenes.

Hopper’s work is often about encouraging women to speak up even when they’re told that their opinions don’t matter; from working as a music editor at Rookie, to helping emphasise R. Kelly’s history of sexual assault in The Village Voice. “I always knew that’s what made my writing valuable in some ways,” she says. “I’ve never viewed it like, oh I’ll graduate into being like an old, white man generalist when I run out of feminist ideas.”

Now Hopper is promoting her second book, a collection of work from throughout her career (fun fact: she recently gave Courtney Love one of her last copies while they were both waiting at an airport). I hung out with her in Melbourne on a day where she had at least 50 other interviews and a real hankering for lemonade.

Noisey: People love this book.

Jessica Hopper: It’s weird. I mean, I don’t want to say it’s weird.

The vibe that you get from your career generally is that you WANT music criticism it to be accessible, which isn’t always the aim of music writing. Do you think that that model of that white, male critic high up in the ivory tower is changing?

Yes. I don’t think that music criticism has necessarily become a radically different space, but I think that people have moved past the idea of the Beatles are the greatest band ever, or Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones and that that’s the right way to do it. Young writers doing it well didn’t grow up being in scenes that necessitated being very Catholic about your genre.

I think that people who are under 25 who grew up with LiveJournal and Tumblr have a lot of interest in the way that you can bring identity to be the framework of how you perceive music. For me that makes it a very exciting time to be an editor and be able to give people the opportunity to push the form of criticism forward and help it evolve.

You started writing and self publishing at such a young age, then worked for seminal publications like Punk Planet. But when did you get to the point where you were like, ‘yeah, what I’m producing is fire, I’m contributing in a way that no one else is, I’m gonna pay it forward’?

I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I was singular. Because I live in Chicago, far away from the editorial hubs that I was taking part in, it’s kind of a small and not terribly competitive pond and it’s cheap, which allowed me to do a very particular type of work and say no to a lot of things. There’s a weird gift in being in my own little universe with it. It kind allows it to be less of this performative act.

When people are asking me for advice like, ‘How did you do it?’ I’m like, I did everything the most fucking ass-backwards way and there’s no way for you to replicate what I did unless you get a fucking Tardis and go back in time. It was the ‘90s; it just doesn’t happen like that anymore. I had a lot of people early on saying, ‘Well, you’ll have to put aside your feminist lens and be objective’ and I was like, pffttt…

I love that ‘feminist lens’ thing, it makes this assumption that you can just take it off at anytime. Like, ‘Today I feel like being SUPER feminist, tomorrow not so much…’

Yeah! Like how do I lift away the scrim of how I’ve experienced the world in the last almost 39 years?

Or like it’s a choice?

It just shows how much people take for granted that their white, male hetero experience is the default and that it’s the ‘right’ setting. And that’s why we have people who have so much disregard for the fangirl and the idea that young women can be very savvy and discerning consumers of music.

You want some lemonade in this champagne flute?

Yep. It does feel like for a woman as a fan, or musician or critic, your legitimacy to like a thing is constantly tested and that there are more consequences for a woman having an opinion on the internet than a man.

I feel like it was like that even when it was print. But now if people are incensed by your existence, all they have to do is to comment ‘you dumb slut’ and you’re like, ‘Your screen name is DogDick69’. Part of the reason I don’t read the comments is because nobody’s opinion actually matters other than my editors and maybe one or two trusted friends. I read comments for years and I found it incredibly stressful. I stopped when I was seven and a half months pregnant with my first son and I wrote something that my editor had asked me to do, and people were just calling me a whore over and over. I was just like (laughs) I can’t deal with this! But I don’t know who the fuck these people are, maybe they’re people I know.

I’ve known since I was 15-years-old and started making a fanzine that I was never going to have permission to do what I wanted. I don’t want to be like ‘I don’t give a fuck’ but I really don’t. My writing is not to convince trolls that I’m a genius.

In one of the essays from the book, you talk about the romantic ‘rock critic behaviour’ of dancing in dark rooms and having a typewriter next to an ashtray full of cigarette stubs, which I think resonates with writers of my generation because we all internalised Almost Famous

So, the context of that was I had been writing about music for about 10 years and there was this glut of canonical male journalists like Nick Toches and Lester Bangs anniversary books coming out. I remember getting Xeroxes from friends and old issues of Rolling Stone from a garage sale and being like, this is what is WAS.

… I definitely did that.

I mean, I think a lot of us do. And I think that that piece was really about going, OK I love this but it’s all really, really macho. And I just thought, where do I fit in in that? Where do I bring these politics I have from Public Enemy and Fugazi and riot grrrl? How do I reconcile that with all of this, what a rock critic is supposed to be, as someone who fundamentally was opposed to that canon in some ways as much as I worshipped it? I wanted to be one of those people, and to be someone whose writing really reflected what it’s like to love music.

Well, you are.

Thank you! Add in that I did a hair flip just then.

'The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic' is available now.
Jessica Hopper will be appearing as a guest speaker at Big Sound 2015.

Sinead Stubbins is a Melbourne writer. Follow her @sineadstubbins.