Jessica Hopper Compiles A Vital Career In Music Writing

Jessica Hopper, an editor at Pitchfork, on the back cover of her book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. - COURTESY
Jessica Hopper, an editor at Pitchfork, on the back cover of her book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.

From the gut-spilling mission statement of her first essay, Jessica Hopper has her finger locked on the pulse of popular music, pressing down hard to prompt better work if the stream isn't up to standard. With a raw idiolect, the rock critic unfurls over 42 essays, interviews, reviews and oral histories her "soul-entanglement with music."

The title of the book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, is a half-tongue-in-cheek "fuck you" to the boy's club of an industry that's managed to keep women at arm's length for over a century. Though Ellen Willis, Lillian Roxon and a few other foremothers mentioned in the foreword have found their work in bounded collections, Hopper dedicates her book to the "few dozen more" who "don't exist. Yet."

As creators and the consumed, women are a major topic in the collection. How has emo abandoned its female audience? How can we map the battleground of in/authenticity that is Lana Del Rey's career? Why are the Raincoats considered "genius as accidental?" "What is there to 'review' when it comes to a Miley Cyrus album?"

As versed in towheaded pop as the deep underground of Chicago punk, Hopper's career is a deluge of smart and emotionally bare writing. The best stuff is when she's on her own, clear of any quotes or narrative beat to cloud her visions of rock 'n' roll and gender. Late at night worshipping Van Morrison or exploring her memory of "teen grunge poserdom," Hopper explores those weird, heavily-trafficked intersections between sound and personal experience.

As a senior editor of music bible Pitchfork and the stunning quarterly Pitchfork Review, Hopper's book is, unsurprisingly, a gorgeous collection. Its pic on Amazon — all-cap text on an untextured, deep blue — does not do it justice. With gold-leafed page and a suede-like, oily cover, this Featherproof edition has also got my vote for the nicest book I've bought all year (if only there was a publishing equivalent of the Grammys' Best Record Packaging trophy). We geeked out over some of the finer points of her book.

In the foreword you say "The title of this book is about planting a flag." What's on that flag?

It's not so much something on the flag that says something, it's more of a document so people can't say these books don't exist anymore. What I was told a lot was that there was no precedent. But actually there is a substantial precedent for women as critics in music. It's not necessarily the flag of rock criticism; it's more about a flag as a metaphor for visibility, more of a semaphore signal.

You dedicate a whole chapter, "Real / Fake," to the politics of authenticity in music. What does it mean to you?

I just feel that it's one of the great standard-bearer rubrics of criticism. And also of fandom. It's also sometimes a competition that is truly obnoxious, saying 'this is real, this isn't.' Particularly when it comes down to whose canon of work. For a long time in rock 'n' roll we had this idea that Bob Dylan and these very specific artists are the realest thing. And that pop doesn't count. We lose a lot of different narratives in the process.

How did authenticity become more of a problem for women in music than for men in music?

Music is not separate from culture, where women's opinions often count for very little. Despite that women have been involved in the birth in rock 'n' roll and blues and early recorded music in America, forever we're still battling with the idea that we're not valid. That we're interlopers or that we're amateurs and dilettantes rather than the artists and geniuses and experts that we very much are. So we get this trend in which every new woman on the scene, that we're all a new arrival. Every year you hear, 'it's the year of women in rock!' No, we've been here for all the years. Not just the one.

Your writing nails the importance of music ... that this stuff we spend so much time with truly matters.

You have to appreciate that there's a constant duality of the triviality of, say, a pop song. But then one that we can find incredible meaning or perhaps are far away to other people. Or something can be very artistically potent and salient even if it's a highly manufactured pop song. Or the same can be said of some underground hip-hop or punk song that only 10 people hear. It's not necessarily about seeking the important part, because the throwaway parts are just as valuable.

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic

Jessica Hopper, Featherproof Books, $17.95, 201 pp.

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