Interview: Jessica Hopper of The Pitchfork Review talks feminism and her new collection of music criticism

Jessica Hopper
Illustration by Cheryl Graham

Over the last two decades, Jessica Hopper has established herself as a leading music critic with her sharp, fierce writing. She has also helped make room for more feminist voices in everything from underground punk fanzines to high profile online outlets like Pitchfork, where she works as a senior editor and as the editor-in-chief of The Pitchfork Review, a quarterly print journal dedicated to long-form music writing.

“I started freelancing when I was 15, so I have an exceptionally large body of work for someone who is 38,” Hopper told me a couple weeks after her appearance at Mission Creek Festival. Just a fraction of that material appears in The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, out this May with Featherproof Books.

In true punk rock style, Hopper’s title concisely and forcefully highlights the gender inequity that still exists within the world of music writing. Yes, her book really is the first collection of writing by a living female music critic. (This is 2015, people!)

When Hopper began pursuing the idea of anthologizing her writing, it was greeted with resistance. “What I would hear from people who were either agents or in major book publishing, basically what I was told was that I have to be ‘canonical.’ I have to be dead.” Fortunately, she found a home for the book after her friend Tim Kinsella became editor and publisher of Featherproof Books, which is based in Chicago, where also Hopper lives.

“Every female music critic I know has at least one book in her.”

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic started out as a kind of joke title between Kinsella and Hopper, though it only took a couple days for it to become the actual title. “The reason is that I don’t want any other woman who wants to write an edited collection of music essays to be told there is no precedent. This is like the flag in the ground. The precedent exists, let’s have the second, third, fourth, fifth book come out,” she said. “Also, it wouldn’t be my book if there wasn’t a little feminist ‘fuck you’ in the title.”

Based on pre-orders, Hopper’s book has gone into its second printing before being sold in stores. This is important because publishers and literary agents pay close attention to previous book sales when considering new projects. “Look at what happened with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist,” Hopper said. “The success of that book opened up a market. It made feminist op-ed a thing, in a real way that was not tokenized. People have jobs because Roxane Gay’s book did well.”

As an independent publisher, Featherproof genuinely understood what Hopper’s work meant “within our punk rock, radical weirdo Midwestern community”—as she put it—compared to a New York trade press editor who was far removed that world. “To be able to do it in a community, rather than as a transaction, very much reflects what I write about in the book and what is important to me,” said Hopper.

Jessica Hopper’s politics developed when she was young, and by fourth or fifth grade she began identifying with feminism (though she didn’t necessarily call it that at the time). “My parents are editors, and I was a weird loner kid,” said the Minneapolis native. “My mom was the editor of the daily paper, and I would get home from school each day and read the paper.” Through newspapers and magazines, she became more politically aware. “I was concerned and worried about the world from an early age, so I think that was my nascent feminism.”

When Hopper was 12, she became deeply interested in the protracted battles over the state’s parental consent law. “There were these girls not that much older than me having to drive to another state to get an abortion, and even though I hadn’t so much as kissed a boy, it was such a lynchpin moment in my life. So during summers I wouldn’t go to camp, I would volunteer at the NOW phone bank or NARAL,” Hopper explained. “From fourth to seventh grade, I hung out with adult anti-nuclear activists.”

A self-identified “super weirdo,” she was drawn to punk during this time. “I was doing a fanzine purely out of love of music,” Hopper told me. “Hit It Or Quit It, which I did for 15 years—from age 13 to 28. I had a commitment.” This led to her involvement in the early 1990s feminist movement known as Riot Grrrl, which started at the age of 15 when Hopper interviewed Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna during the band’s December 1991 stop in Minneapolis.

“I saw her onstage and it scared the shit out of me. I mean, I had seen Babes in Toyland, but this was different.” Bikini Kill’s first national tour caused ripple effects in every place they played. “Their presence was a paradigm shift,” Hopper says. “It was like, ‘Oh, Riot Grrrl, what I do has a name.’”

“I brought the [Bikini Kill #2] fanzine home and it took two days before I opened it, but it was all I could think about,” said Hopper. “This was Sunday, like a hardcore matinee, and by Tuesday I mimicked her entire outfit. I cut off skirts and I made a shirt that said ‘Girl,’ and I took my tights and made a garter and all this stuff, and by Tuesday I looked like that. It made a big impact.”

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Bikini Kill carved out a space for women and girls who had been marginalized since the early days of punk—both in the “mosh pit” and within this subculture, more generally. I ask Hopper if she sees a parallel between what Bikini Kill did in the world of music and what she is trying to do with The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.

“Every female music critic I know has at least one book in her. There’s a lot of places where it seems like we have to get permission before that happens, and sometimes someone’s success can underwrite that permission,” Hopper said. “Not to be a ‘pat myself on the back, Jesus-y, feminist martyr’ or anything, but that’s what I want to do—bring people up with me, in with me through the door.”

This article was originally printed in Little Village issue 176

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