Bookforum talks with Jessica Hopper

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic BY Jessica Hopper. Featherproof Books. Paperback, 250 pages. $17.

In 2003, Jessica Hopper, who had been writing about music since she was in ninth grade in the early 1990s, published her first longform essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” in Punk Planet. This landmark piece confronted the emo scene’s inherent sexism, and established Hopper as one of the nation’s foremost feminist music critics. Since then, she has written hundreds of pieces—on her blog and for an array of magazines, tackling everything from intimate musician profiles to deeply reported features on rock in advertising. Now, she’s collected some of her greatest hits in the book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.

The provocatively titled collection spotlights upstart blog posts as well as nuanced longreads, all of which reveal Hopper’s consistent determination to challenge assumptions and probe the reasons music and musicians are so critical to cultural and personal narratives.

Why did you feel like this was the right time for a collection of your work? You presumably have decades of writing left ahead of you. So what gave you the drive to make this a reality now instead of waiting a bit?

I’ve actually wanted to do it for a long time. I talked about doing a book with Akashic such a long time ago—I mean like, for real, more than ten years ago. And it would have been a collection of my Punk Planet writing, and my Hit it or Quit it writing. I knew Akashic publisher Johnny Temple from way back. When I was putting this book together, I had to go back and read my blog to find pieces. There was so much stuff that I’d forgotten about, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, yeah, I’ve been talking about this book forever.” I mean, really, forever, for almost as long as—well not as long as I’ve been writing, but close. What’s sort of funny is that at twenty-five, I’d been writing professionally for nine years.

And I talked about it, and people were always asking if there was going to be an anthology of Hit it or Quit it or of my Punk Planet columns— stuff like that—and I thought it was a totally reasonable thing to think about, especially because I’d been freelance for so long and a lot of my stuff was scattered to the wind, and I liked the idea of having it all together. And, also, this isn’t to be self-important or anything, it was just simply a matter of wanting to have it together, because I think—in part because I’ve written a lot, particularly in the last twelve years—that to put it all together, and see what it all says is useful.

The other thing is that part of me is ambitious and competitive. It made me angry how few books like this there are, particularly with women’s names on them. When I would talk about this with people—I know I’ve repeated this a million times—I was told Chuck Klosterman was an exception to the rule. Then when Rob Sheffield had some bestseller books, I was like, “Look, this kind of book is doing really well.” And they’re like, “Well, I mean, that’s Rob Sheffield.” And it became very clear to me, really quickly, that there was a gender precedence. I would bring this up and say, “Look, maybe we have some momentum. Let’s use this book, by Ellen Willis, this anthology of her work, I feel like there’s a lot of interest in this.” Because people had also told me essays don’t sell, feminist criticism doesn’t sell, and music writing doesn’t sell. So I was like, “OK, so I should just die, because I don’t sell. I don’t sell!” The fifteen-year-old punk Jessica still occupies quite a bit of space in my soul. So they tell me no, and I’m like, “No, goddamnit, to your no.” It’s like being told that I don’t exist.

But then Tim Kinsella, who I’ve known for twenty years and has had a pretty long, uncompromising career as an artist (he’s a writer and musician), inherited Featherproof Books, and he came to me and said, “The first book I want to do is an anthology of your work, because I think it would do really well.” And I was like, "You know what, I’d rather sell ten-thousand copies of this book and have it be with people who understand the value of it inherently, rather than somebody that I have to convince there’s a precedent and that it’s going to sell. As it turns out, it sold really well, for a small press book, especially. So the great thing about it is, it rocked the boat of all the people that I work with who are also, you know, independent book people. And all it really took was Tim inheriting Featherproof.

You’ve written hundreds, or maybe thousands, of pieces. What were your guiding principles in choosing the collection that you did? Obviously, you want your best stuff there, but was there anything there in terms of not only the range of content, but the way that this book would, in many ways, define you and your image as a writer? What did you want readers to come away with as your worldview, as your persona?

The first hoop that it had to jump through was, “Is this good writing?” And then, “What point does this make? Is this point still relevant? Does this still work as an argument? Is this still an artist we care about?” Because some of the pieces are twelve years old, so the argument has changed over time. And we started seeing themes and all of that, and I would ask, for instance, “What are the strongest arguments I have about nostalgia?” Because there were so many opportunities in the last couple of years to write about nostalgia.

So, I guess what I wanted to do, ultimately, was ask, “Is this still a conversation we’re having, and does this still push the conversation forward?” One of the things I talk about around the book most is “Where the Girls Aren’t,” which was my first longform piece of criticism. That came out in Punk Planet in 2003, but it’s still totally like that—I could have written it yesterday. Some pieces have almost become a barometer of how far we’ve traveled or haven’t, so that was also something that we were looking at.

And I wanted there to be an arc to the book. I was very autodidactic and very self-taught, and it was a long time into my career before I became, ostensibly, a professional, and I although I made some changes, I didn’t want to revise everything in the book so much that it was like flawless or perfect. Hell, there are typos in the book. I really wanted the bloggy pieces to be in there. I wanted the book to be dynamic, and I wanted there to be pieces that still have the mark of an amateur, because I wanted to show people that this is what I did, this is what you can do. I think there’s some real hope in that, too.

Along those lines, are there any pieces that you would love to do differently, do a follow-up on, or do now, which you think would push the discussion forward?

I don’t even know, there are still so many. I think there are different kinds of conversations about separating the art from the artist. That’s a conversation that happens in different ways: the Lana Del Rey piece, and the one on R. Kelly. And, there are so many discussions that I want to keep having about why we freak out sometimes and have this sense of betrayal around women’s images, particularly popular, female artists, why we’re still wrapping our brains around that. That whole section “Real/Fake” was actually going to be my next book, but I feel like the ground shifts, the pop ground moves a little too fast to try to talk about it. The thing that actually made me just say, “OK, this will be a section in the book rather than a whole other book,” is Taylor Swift putting out “Shake It Off.” Because a lot of the discussion around her really switched, and I was like, “What if I was like eighty percent of the way through a book that had a lot of her work in it?” I would have had to reconfigure things. So in some ways, I think being able to anthologize things and say, “This is still part of the conversation, this is still someone we care about.”

If you had to pick one favorite piece in the book, what would it be?

Favorite piece? I don’t know. It’s funny, there’s this really short, little piece about Van Morrison that was off my blog that I feel, in some ways, gets more to the root of what I sometimes want out of music and what I go to it for. I think there’s a lot of that in the book, too, talking about how it salves and heals you, and it’s this little three-hundred word piece about Van Morrison that’s like a little coda in there. I’m really proud of “Where the Girls Aren’t,” and I’m really grateful that I got to revise it because there were some run-on sentences and typos in the one that had been getting passed around for the last thirteen years. Somebody would tag me, it would pop up on some list, and I’d be like, “Goddamnit.” Because that was my first long piece, I didn’t have an editor. That was kind of great—that was the lucky part of some of it.

So what is the threshold for a next collection? Or do you not want to think about that and just think about doing, something, a book-length on a single topic?

I was talking about this with Sasha Frere-Jones the other day. After you get to this place where you’ve written a lot, and had a lot of opportunities to write about all this stuff you really care about, investigate all the stuff you want to, and talk to all the people who are really, really fucking exciting to you, it’s almost like you have to lay fallow for a little bit and figure out what the next big theory is, what’s going to be your framework. I feel like that was the other reason I wanted to do the book—I wanted to take a bunch of these ideas and theories as far as I could, so that I could let go of them intellectually. That’s part of the reason I really like editing—I don’t have to have any really big ideas right now. I wrote nonstop for like nineteen years. Now I just try to help other people articulate their vision. I feel really detached from my own work. I feel like I can look at it as objectively as one might hope to be able to after such a process. I’m starting to work on proposals for two different books that are pretty vastly different, and I’m finding that I’m more interested in bringing my feminist lens to bear on some rock history. Because history stays in place a little bit more.

Evie Nagy is a staff writer at Fast Company and the author of Devo’s Freedom of Choice (Bloomsbury, 2015), part of the 33 ⅓ book series on rock albums.