A Female Rock Critic on Music, Feminism, & More

Jessica Hopper.
Jessica Hopper. Photo: David Sampson

In a 2003 essay for the now-defunct magazine Punk Planet, writer Jessica Hopper asked, “Can you ignore the marginalization of lady-lives that line your record shelves?” She was talking about the presence of women in emo music at the time, but the sentiment holds true for many sectors of the music industry today. Hopper, who is now the editor-in-chief of The Pitchfork Review and a senior editor at Pitchfork, has been aware of this since the beginning of her career as a music critic and writer. She’s titled her new book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, out this week. Hopper spoke to the Cut about feminism, what to do when someone tells you no, and the dance-pop genius of Labelle.

What was your goal in releasing this collection? 
I was always very ambitious about it. But the success has surpassed what I believed to be possible already, so I’m really pleased. We went into a third printing last week before it was even released. I might get an ego about it [laughs]. [People said] feminist criticism doesn’t do well, feminist essays don’t do well, I’m not canonical, this is what people do when they’re dead, I’m no Lester Bangs — all the reasons why this was a bad idea. It was like, no, guys! This is actually a great idea and it was a matter of doing it with somebody who was more of my world. My friend Tim Kinsella, who played in the bands Joan of Arc and Owls, he inherited Featherproof, and we’ve been friends for 20 years. We really believe in each other’s work and the impact it has. Tim was a women’s studies major who understands the importance of these books. In that way I was lucky. It’s a lot easier to do a book when you don’t have to justify its existence.

I just wanted to write a book all the girls I worked with at Rookie would like. When I was writing, that was one of my motivating factors. Maybe this will make it easier for them. Not to be all martyr-y about it, but as someone who’s been told a lot that there needs to be a gender precedent for whatever I want to do, I understand that. The thing is, people telling me no never actually convinced me. I knew it wasn’t a bad idea, I knew it wasn’t going to fail. That was my own weird confidence. It seems to have panned out.

Why do you think this is actually the first collection of rock criticism by a living female?
Almost anyone I talked to said my next book should be à la Girls Like Us. Not even on a single female artist. Or about women, rock and roll, and fashion. About how women look rather than the history. We are still so hungry for actual histories, let’s not start at outfits. To motivate myself when I was working on the book, [I would] look at the Amazon music books, like 100 best sellers, and I would count how many women had books in that top 100. During the course of doing the book it topped out at five. Usually it was two. I would seethe, and I would go back to the book. I love music criticism, I love women, I love working with young female writers. I need more books that speak to my experience of hearing music, seeing music, playing music that records the history I am a part of. We need more than one riot-grrrl book, we need 12. We need representation of women’s experiences making music because we know they are often fundamentally different and women have different struggles that inform the way they make and experience art. I wanna read whatever is coming up after me. I want those girls to blaze past me.

How does music media have to change in order to be a more inclusive place for women?
I think some of the ways we write about music made by women — if we can be that general — are still presenting women who make music as marginal, interlopers, amateurs, or dilettantes. There are two acceptable archetypes you could have starting in the ‘70s or the late ‘60s, the bad girl and the good girl. Before then it was just the good girl. Or you could have a Joan Jett or a Joni Mitchell. We have a lot more archetypes [now]. Every girl I see onstage seems to be creating her own. We can have a Janelle Monae, an Erykah Badu, a Merrill Garbus, and a Tegan and Sara. We’re starting to, as a culture, catch up to those women a little and take in how dynamic those presentations of female expressions of art, of whatever, are. We’re at a point where we have to stop presenting it as: Gee whiz, there are women in this scene! Every year, it’s the same crop of trend pieces since I was probably 4 years old about women in music. Well, we’re not a new “trend” every year, we’re actually here, guys. It’s changing how we look at the history because we just think music is a guy thing. We have to cleanse ourselves of that idea because we have as much of a right to be here.

You have two sons. Have you taught them about this?
William tried to tell me not that long ago that women can’t be in bands. I looked at his dad like, Where did he get this idea??? Getting mansplained by a 4-year-old? No. We have all sorts of funny conversations. We also talk about why we can’t keep listening to the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top all the time. Maybe that’s my indoctrination, that I turned them on to really jubilant, early dance pop like Labelle. I feel like Labelle is fundamentally good for everyone’s soul.

(Read the Cut’s Top 10 — a recent series on up-and-coming female musicians — here.)

This interview has been edited and condensed.

A Female Rock Critic on Music, Feminism, & More