Two Questions With Music Critic Jessica Hopper

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Music and culture critic, Jessica Hopper, collected criticisms is presented in "The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic." David Sampson

Back in 1992, Newsweek wrote about a countercultural movement dubbed riot grrrl, in which young feminists—armed with words and guitars—demanded to be up front at shows, intent on breaking up music’s boys’ club. While bands including Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were the public faces of riot grrrl, ground-level supporters were instrumental in the community gatherings and benefit concerts that helped women empower one another through art. One such riot grrrl leader Newsweek profiled, Jessica Hopper, was a salient Minneapolis 16-year-old writing about music professionally, creating fanzines and playing in punk bands when she wasn’t in class.

Twenty-three years later, Hopper is one of the most vital and prolific music critics around. The no-bullshit critic has made both Atmosphere’s Slug and Joanna Newsom cry in gripping interviews; has profiled Kendrick Lamar and Chief Keef; and published, in full, R. Kelly’s “stomach-churning” sexual assault accusations (along with the Chicago Tribune’s Jim DeRogatis) for The Village Voice—at the peak of his comeback popularity. After freelancing for years at Spin and Rolling Stone and a stint as music editor of Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s sharp teen Web publication, Hopper now serves as a senior editor at Pitchfork and the editor-in-chief of its accompanying print quarterly, The Pitchfork Review.

On May 12, she’ll be releasing her best essays from the past two decades in a book titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. The title is a mouthful, but the book brims with Hopper’s lean prose and mic-dropping one-liners. Ahead of its release, Newsweek sat down with her to discuss criticism, her hometown’s City Pages and Chuck Klosterman.

Did you ever have a “this is it” moment when you knew you wanted to pursue music criticism?

The first time I thought I [wanted] to do this was reading Terri Sutton. She was a rock critic at City Pages around ’92, ’93. Incredibly incisive critic. And she was also very feminist. She wrote a criticism about Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography and said, “This is more important than the Stones.” I thought she was an absolute rock star. I grew up reading City Pages every week, and a lot of people [there] went on to be major. The classic era of Spin? All those people [were from Minneapolis]: Will Hermes, [Michaelangelo] Matos, Jon Dolan. I was reading this in high school, and I thought, This is how everybody was writing rock criticism. Criticism [there] was really deep, broad takes on things that pulled from all realms and perspectives, well informed and super-literate. So that really distorted my view, pre-Internet.

When did you start percolating the idea for an essay collection?

I wanted to do it for a really long time. My last book [The Girls' Guide to Rocking] did pretty well. So I said, “I want to do a collection of my essays.” And people looked at me as though I said, “Yes, I want to serve you dinner out of my toilet bowl.”

What about Rob Sheffield, guys? What about Chuck Klosterman? They [have written] some of the biggest pop culture books to come down the pike in a decade! And people said, “Oh, those are exceptions.” Do you understand that basically no woman’s been allowed to do this book? And that made me that much more...aggro about it.... [The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic] was the joke title that became the real title. If all these people have told me no, because in part supposedly there is no precedent for what I’m doing, I’m going to say, OK, here’s your motherfucking precedent. No one can say it doesn’t exist anymore. At least we have that, and they don’t have to say, “You’re not Chuck Klosterman.” I’ll be Chuck Klosterman for girls. Maybe I’ll be four rungs down from Klosterman, or I become bigger than Klosterman. But he doesn’t get to be the only barometer anymore.