Why we need Jessica Hopper's book, 'The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic'
Jessica Hopper’s newest book of essays, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is the kind of text (nay, bible) you wish you read in 7th grade, when you clung on to your big brother’s scratched up copy of No Doubt’s Return to Saturn, or only listened to Green Day’s “Basket Case” because you thought it might impress your crush (it didn’t). I know for a fact Hopper’s words would have brought me immeasurable comfort, would have made me feel less alone as I scribbled Nirvana lyrics to my third period binder (very original, I know I know).
“I want it. I need it. Because all of these records, they give me a language to decipher just how f*cked I am. Because there is a void in my guts which can only be filled by songs,” she writes, articulating the thoughts I’d been wanting to transcribe into words for the last 13 years.
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic is a bookshelf staple for any human who looks at music as not just a form of entertainment, but a way of making everything make sense. Hopper’s language is clever, and she head-butts important issues that need head-butting. Through a feminist lens, she questions things like boy-saturated emo culture, the mythology of Lana Del Rey, and Courtney Love’s musical autonomy. She also examines the genius of Kendrick Lamar, the phenomenon that is Coachella, the longevity of punk rock in its many forms. The First Collection of Criticism is compelling and complex in all the right places —you need it in your life. Promise.
For a better idea of what Hopper’s all about, I asked her a few questions about her book and her thoughts about the music industry as a whole. If you like what you see, you should totally check her work out on Pitchfork (where she’s a senior editor) or The Pitchfork Review (where she’s editor-in-chief).
HelloGiggles: I saw you tweeted “Found the live stream of dudes arguing about the title of my book online” + [INSERT GIF OF GIGANTIC SAUSAGE PILE] and laughed. But seriously: what’s the deal? Do you still think men have a hard time accepting a woman in this field?
Jessica Hopper: Fortunately, my males peers have been incredibly supportive and complimentary about the book. The tweet was about the debate amongst some old time-men ey dudes who were posting on a thread of female music critics really parsing how actually there have been a handful of books that were collections of criticism by living female rock critics —something the introduction to my book acknowledges and celebrates — but they were kind of indignant about it. Because they could point to five books of criticism written by women. And then some of those women showed up on the thread and were like “My book was not a collection of criticism.” It was essentially Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain things To Me” essay going down in thread form. Like my title is really out of line because THERE HAD BEEN LIKE 8 WHOLE BOOKS LIKE THIS BY WOMEN. And 4000 by men. So it was really a special occasion for the hot dogs shooting into a giant pile GIF.
Generally, I don’t think music writing is that different from any realm where women assert their expertise and opinions —you run into dudes who want to see your credentials and run you out of the clubhouse. The dudes who are fighting about the title of my book, they do not know about what it’s like to be told you cannot publish a book because there is no (gendered) precedent, or to be told there is no room for you at the table. And so I am not really interested in hearing them parse their BS. I am interested in helping women, and other people whose voices and fandom and participation in music have been marginalized, be heard and get published.
HG: You started your own zine, your work has appeared in Chicago Reader, SPIN, LA Weekly, Rolling Stone (and more), you were the music editor over at Rookie, became editor-in-chief for Pitchfork Review, and just released your second book —your journey as a writer has been a successful and rad one. What advice would you give young women who are trying to break into the music journalism scene?
JH: I only really ever have one answer and it’s don’t wait for anyone to give you permission. Pursue what you want to do. Because if you stand around waiting, or knocking politely on the door for someone to open it, you might be waiting your entire life.
HG: How did you deal with any opposition when you were writing this book? Like, did anyone e-mail you, saying “oh, hey this isn’t a good idea”? If so, what was your response?
JH: Before I started working on the book, when it was just an idea —for years— people told me that criticism doesn’t sell, essays don’t sell, feminism is not a topic people are interested in. I was told that anthologies are for when you are at the end of your career, that I was not canonical, and that this should be my fifth book, not my second. But I knew, in my heart, that they were wrong. And they were. My book went into its third printing the week it came out. My solution was doing the book with my friend’s respected small press, Featherproof, instead of trying to have a mass market best seller, I chose to work with my friends with the knowledge that it would raise their boats along with mine. I chose to do a book that I hoped would be meaningful to young writers, to women who are avowed music nerds and women who are searching to have their experience of music and fandom respected and represented. I am as much of a fangirl as anyone.
HG: Speaking of which, how do you feel about the way we used to discover music in the ‘80s-‘90s versus now? I grew up in the Kazaa/Limewire era (and Bittorrent soon after), and now I use Pandora and Spotify more than I use my iTunes. It’s kind of crazy-scary.
JH: I really have always felt that all methods of music discovery are equal, though hand to hand still remains fairly precious. I fell in love with my husband over the record counter —he was a clerk at the Wicker Park Reckless Records here in Chicago then, and I spent so much money just to bask in the attention of him suggesting different records to me. I grew up working in record stores as a teenager and still very much prize a person to person recommendation more than I do say, what Spotify or all the other things I use suggest with their algorithms, but I still find new stuff I like that way as well.
HG: How do you find a balance between finding a personal connection with music and being able to analyze an artist’s work based on their craft alone?
JH: I think thats one of the common misnomers about critics, is that we are supposed to come from some dead-even terra firma. But I am not a reporter, I am critic, I am paid for my opinion, and my opinion is steeped in all and who that I am. Thats the kind of criticism that I love.
HG: If you had to list your top three albums…
JH: It changes, daily —today it’s Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth, it’s Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True, it’s Kitty Wells, it’s the Clash, it’s Etta James, it’s every single Nina Simone album.
HG: Besides you (obviously) which other women should young women be reading right now?
JH: Everyone should read this book: When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip Hop Feminist. And also read whatever bell hooks you have not gotten to yet.
(Image via Twitter)