If you’ve seen Rushmore, then imagine Jessica Hopper at the start of her career as a punk-and-indie-rock Max Fischer. She was writing for publications 30-something music journalists were pitching to before she even donned a cap and gown for her high school graduation. Seeing as The Pitchfork Review Editor-in-Chief possesses one of the most distinctive voices in the world of music criticism, it’s easy to appreciate how she blazed a trail through the musical cosmos so early on.
This month heralds the release of Hopper’s newest book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. It’s a career-spanning set of pieces kaleidoscopically chronicling the wrongfully acquitted crimes of R. Kelly, the misogyny implicit in emo rock, the fall of a Christian indie rock icon into faithlessness and the way Van Morrison brings Hopper to tears.
Paste caught up with Hopper to chat about writing in her teens, editing as an adult and how her love for people and human rights has only grown throughout her life.
Paste: Since this is a collection of criticism, the book focuses more on the artists you’re writing about than on your own life. Can you walk us through the early days of your writing career?
Jessica Hopper: I started working on my first fanzine when I was in eighth grade. I was into punk rock and independent music for all of five or six months before I started working on a fanzine. In my mind, that was all the expertise I needed. When I first started writing, it was an act of fanship and devotion, but it was also a time before the Internet. Back then I was in a smaller scene [Minneapolis]. I remember hearing conversations and getting the sense from older people in the scene I was around that they were looking down on people that just went to shows and didn’t contribute in some way. You either put on shows, made fliers, had a band, something. There was that aspect: if you care about something, you participate and help keep it alive!
I did want to write about my favorite bands, and I pitched to some local music publications in Minneapolis. Pre-Internet, there were actually quite a few. I said, “I want to write Babes in Toyland,” and they asked, “How old are you?” I said “I’m in ninth grade,” and they asked, “Have you ever written before?” Needless to say, I did not get that assignment. Not one of my stronger pitches.
Ultimately, I was spurred on by someone’s “no,” but there wasn’t this dismissive vibe toward fangirlism or fangirls as there is now. Historically, that’s always been there, but, at the time and place I was at, I had so much excitement and energy for music coursing out of me at all times. Rather than people saying I didn’t know enough, wasn’t official and I wouldn’t be allowed into the clubhouse, people were like, “Hey! If I give you $35, will you review this Free Kitten album for three pages?” And I’d say, “Yeah!” My interest and my fandom were met at the door. I know that’s a very unique and special thing, because most tenth graders don’t get that kind of leg up. [Laughs]
When I was 18-19 years old, I was writing for SPIN and Grand Royal (a short-lived magazine the Beastie Boys put out) and a handful of other places. I regularly came home from high school, and instead of doing homework, I did freelance assignments, faxed stuff to my editors, worked on my fanzine or editing my friends’ pieces. As soon as I started, it was my life. I didn’t really think of it as a career until I was doing it full time 10 years later when I quit doing PR and managing bands. It wasn’t until I was about 27-28 years old that working with music was causing me to lose my love of it, and I was getting offers to write where they were saying, “When you’re willing to quit PR, we have stuff for you.” So the ground rose to meet me, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Paste: Have there been lessons from your early freelance years that you’ve carried over into your editorial years?
Hopper: I’ve always stuck to my guns when it comes to what I’ll write about. I’ve always written with a feminist lens and from a feminist perspective—that part has never wavered. I had a very specific wheelhouse for a long time. People would come to me when they needed that thing. That’s basically how I built a career. You can see in the book, I’ve had a long career of writing about things I’ve wanted to write about. That’s not to say I didn’t pay my bills for many years just writing concert previews and whatnot. A book like this turns my career into a little bit of a fable. Towards the end of my freelancing years, I had about six regular gigs, three columns and worked as an editor in two different places. You have to hustle.
Part of the reason I love being an editor at Pitchfork is I love giving other people the kinds of opportunities that I was given. I love helping young people figure out their complicated viewpoints and put them out into the world. I’m a tough editor, and part of that comes from the education and patience I got from the tear-inducing copy edits from my editors at The Chicago Reader. I was subjected to very rigorous editing and high standards, because I had to learn how to write and a lot was expected of me. I try to do that now, because the speed of news, the release cycle, the hot takes force people to turn things around and have instant, clickbait-y opinions. I really want to help people be able to become nuanced writers and pass on what was given to me.
Paste: There’s definitely a ton of emphasis in the writing world nowadays on viral content. It’s almost comical.
Hopper: Yeah, I think if I was coming up now, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to write outside of Rookie.
Paste: It’s definitely refreshing to see longer-form articles appearing in some of the things you edit, like The Pitchfork Review. It’s nice seeing writers show off a bit of nuance.
Hopper: That’s the other thing, too. If reading is a pleasure, we can fucking thumbscroll on our phones all the livelong day for whatever we find on social media, but we’re at a place where the return to long-form right now is a bit of a corrective. We overshot it and went all the way down to just pictures and lists. Now we can return to intelligent copy, put it on the Internet and people will read it. It just has to be good.
Paste: You said people used to come to you because they wanted the “feminist take” on something. One of our favorite parts in the book is where you talk about how a friend is angry that you think emo is misogynist and he says, “Well, do you have a problem with Led Zeppelin too, then?” and you say, “Yes.” How do you deal with the ethics of so much misogyny and amorality making good art?
Hopper: Yeah, we can just shorthand it as bad people making good art. I’m not interested in music that’s scrubbed and safe, and art is complicated. Music is too important to me for me to take it lightly and just as a source of pleasure. Blame it on my critical mind that I can’t let some of these things out of the intellectual purgatory in there. When we’re talking about people like R. Kelly, Chris Brown, bad dudes in punk rock, I care about women and people in general, and I love music so much that I can’t relieve it of the implications for myself. Some things are pretty cut and dry for me. I’m never going to go to an R. Kelly concert or buy his music again. For my entire life, I’ve never taken music lightly. Maybe if I did, I could say, “It’s just entertainment.”
Paste: It’s interesting how the line is so different for so many people. There are some people who just get exonerated.
Hopper: Even John Lennon! Everyone doesn’t know how to give up The Beatles in light of him being a bad dude. I don’t know how to do it. Wasn’t Karen Carpenter’s brother a total fucking asshole to her? I don’t want to give up The Carpenters and enjoying Karen’s voice. How do we parse it? We let people get away with it, because they bear the title “genius.” We expect artists to be crazy and unhinged, so that explains why they beat somebody or rape a 15-year-old.
Paste: There’s another section in the book on faith. Has faith of any variety influenced you in your own life? Or maybe even the lack of it?
Hopper: That trapdoor works a couple ways. If anyone ends up that far into the book, music is a church to them. I’ve gone through times in my life, before The Da Vinci Code era, where I’ve been obsessed with the gnostic gospels and the Gospel of Mary. I got into various spiritual scholarship because I didn’t grow up with any of that, so I was probably more curious than most people when it came to things like that. Since I didn’t grow up going to church, there was something so beautiful and novel about it. There were people I knew who were Christians who liked David Bazan and were radical and questioning in their beliefs. That’s all less a part of my life than it was years ago.
When I was doing a revision of Rickie Lee Jones’ piece, I didn’t even remember knowing that much stuff. I was almost impressed with myself. [Laughs] It was interesting to me how she was coming at Jesus like a boyfriend. When we were making the book, we’d find a couple keystone articles that tied together and, once we had the rubric, we’d ask what else fit there. We started with 80 pieces, cut it to 60, then 40 and got to even less. We just wanted to hone it, hone it, hone it. How sharp can we make the knife? That’s why there’s that section on Chicago. So much of my work discusses that feeling of being in the Midwest, and Chicago, specifically, shows up in so many places. Beyond my feminism, I think my life shows up the most in the book through the location.