In the opening pages of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, out May 12, the prolific music journalist and editor (and former Village Voice advice columnist) Jessica Hopper dedicates her book to “those that came before,” “those that should have been first, and all the ones that will come after.” Already in its third printing, Hopper’s debut collection is a well-curated compilation of essays spanning the chronology of her career.
Memorable moments include Hopper’s critique of the “myopic songs that don’t consider the world beyond boy bodies, their broken hearts, or vans,” in “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” “Us girls deserve more than one song,” she writes. “We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.” Readers will also find an oral history of Hole’s seminal album Live Through This, an in-depth deconstruction of Lana Del Rey, and a confession of adolescent poserdom, in addition to an array of reviews, profiles, and critiques that will make you reconsider the way you listen to, think, and talk about music.
Each essay is earnest, smart, and captivating, showcasing Hopper’s rhetorical chops and the striking breadth of her knowledge while simultaneously exploring the larger implications of musical narratives in terms of genre, pop culture, and the self. The First Collection is a game-changer, a godsend, and a Holy Grail for those who have been forced to reside on the fringes of the notoriously “male-dominated sphere” of rock criticism and fandom.
“I don’t know if I have combated misogyny so much as I have actively resisted anything that tells me women are dumb, useless, not geniuses, and don’t belong here, don’t belong onstage, don’t know enough to write about music and aren’t as capable — or more capable — than our male peers,” she states. In an effort to directly dismantle the patriarchy, Hopper turned to the page.
“I started putting out a fanzine because I didn’t like the way a local music paper in Minneapolis was writing about my then-favorite band, Babes in Toyland, who were being dismissed as caustic and unskilled,” she says. “I called the paper and said, ‘You are getting it wrong!’ and pitched them a kind of corrective, feminist piece.” Hopper was fifteen at the time. “I knew then, as I know now, that if you are a woman with an idea, there is no use waiting around for someone to give you permission, or open the gate to let you and your ambitions in, because you will likely wait your entire life,” she continues. “I combated it by continuing to exist, by continuing to write, by lifting up other women and their work and not being shy about writing about music in a way that is informed by my real-life experiences.”
A testament to Hopper’s determination to exist, to be heard, and to support her fellow female-identifying critics, The First Collection is the culmination of a lifelong fascination and fondness for punk rock, pop, and everything in between.
“I really liked songs — pop music from the radio, things I found out about from MTV or the Box — but I don’t think I loved music until I heard punk rock,” Hopper reflects. “Neneh Cherry’s Raw Like Sushi, the B-52’s Cosmic Thing, my dad’s copy of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Hendrix — those were my immediate pre-punk points of obsession, and they gestured to some of the ideas, the meaning, the fuck-you and feminism I found in punk rock.”
The language and ethics of rebellious resistance that Hopper encountered in each song and album served as formative touchstones for her writing. “I had been looking for punk, but just had not drilled down far enough to find it,” she says. “Within maybe nine months of that, I was putting out a fanzine about that obsession, about punk rock and feminism. I wanted to write because I was evangelical about the bands and albums I cared about.”
Unabashedly, Hopper attributes her enthusiasm to what some might label today as “fangirling.”
“I think if I was that same fifteen-year-old girl now, I’d be derided as a ‘fangirl,’ but back then I was lucky enough to be in a community where, instead, it got me freelance assignments from City Pages,” Hopper states. “I mostly wrote because I was trying to assert my right to be in that space, to have a voice in the scene and try to convert everyone to the bands I loved. I still write for some of those same reasons, but I am interested in different conversations.”
The product of much contemplation, Hopper’s collection of essays is as much of a dream come true for its author as it is for her audience of readers. “I had wanted to do this for years,” says Hopper. Despite her excitement for the project, The First Collection didn’t get the green light until the spring of 2014, when her friend Tim Kinsella (ex–Cap’n Jazz, –Joan of Arc, and -Owls) inherited Featherproof Books. He wanted Hopper’s collection to be the debut release for the press, and working with him was a “no-brainer” for Hopper, as she’d known him for nearly two decades and respected his work. Crafting a collection out of essays from zines recovered from her garage, digital clips, and eighteen years of bylines, Hopper also employed the expertise and support of her mother in bringing The First Collection to life.
“I was getting hung up after, like, three paragraphs of stuff, cringing at bad ideas I had put on blast at seventeen or twenty-two or, hell, thirty,” Hopper says. “I confided in my mom about this, about getting tangled up in my own embarrassment, unable to really see the work that was there and just being harsh. My mom has been working as an editor and journalist professionally since 1974, and so she gets it — and she suggested to me that I approach my work like it was that of one of the young Rookie writers I worked with. That liberated me.”
Overall, it was a grueling yet empowering experience. “The process was exhausting but really useful, in a way that I wasn’t expecting,” Hopper explains. “Any trace of ego or preciousness about my writing was, mercifully, gone by the end of the process. Which is a gift, as a writer, to just not be attached to being cute and clever, and instead just making choices in service of the piece. I came out the other end with a very precise knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses, and a list of words I am never allowed to use again.”
List of forbidden words be damned: Hopper’s work, influence, and unwavering support for the diversification of voice and perspective within music journalism have altered the landscape of rock criticism for the better. It may be the First Collection of criticism written by a female rock critic, but it’s definitely not the last — and that’s largely thanks to voices like Hopper’s.
Jessica Hopper will be celebrating the official release of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic at Brooklyn’s WORD Bookstore May 11. The event’s two readings will take place at 6:30 and 7:30 p.m.
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