From The North Shore Weekend newspaper
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes the title is all you need. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof, 2015) by Jessica Hopper tells you everything you need to know about what’s between the covers.
Separated into eight sections, the collected writings span an 11 year period, from 2003 to 2014, in Hopper’s rock criticism career. Incorporating work from publications on the national level, including Spin and Village Voice, to regional outlets such as Chicago Reader, Nashville Scene, LA Weekly and Portland Mercury, and online sites such as BuzzFeed.com, Hopper’s voice has rung out loud and clear on the topic of rock music. Her subjects in the book range from internationally known artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and Rickie Lee Jones, to more independently heralded acts including M.I.A., Abe Vigoda and Mecca Normal. I spoke with Wilmette resident Hopper about her book in fall 2015.
Gregg Shapiro: Jessica, I first encountered you when you were working as a music publicist. Did it feel like a natural progression to you to become a music journalist after working on the other side of the fence?
Jessica Hopper: I was a music writer first. I started writing about music, freelancing, when I was about 16. To me, being a publicist, which I started doing when I was 19 or 20, and I did that for about eight years full time, I was writing at the same time. Not that one financed the other or anything like that, but they were both coming from the same place of fandom and a profound interest in music and my own independence. I didn’t transition into writing full time until I obviously decided to stop being a publicist. I had to work up to that place, get my mettle up [laughs] to write full-time. I was really glad that I did. I realized after the fact that I could have done it years earlier, that people were waiting for me to not have these various [laugh] conflicts of interest, because I was writing about some of the same music scenes that I had also been participant in because of industry.
GS: In addition to writing about music, are you also musical?
JH: I’ve played in bands. But it’s not something I’ve done in the last 10 or so years. All of my energy really needed to be in writing. I had toured with bands and I had an idea of what it took [laughs] to make it by virtue of working in the music industry. I was never interested in that. I played music for about 10, 15 years, but it’s not something I do much of anymore.
GS: What musical instruments did you play?
JH: Bass, primarily. Guitar, drums poorly.
GS: How do you feel about the quote attributed to Martin Mull – “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”?
JH: If I believed that I wouldn’t be doing it for a living.
GS: What was the first rock concert you ever attended before you became professionally involved in the music industry?
JH: Gosh, I don’t even remember. I think I started going to concerts when I was in 8th grade. The first concert that I ever bought tickets to for myself was Sinead O’Connor’s US tour that she canceled when she got pregnant. I think it was 1989. I remember those were the first tickets I bought myself and they were five dollars. That gives you an idea of how long ago it was [laughs].
GS: In addition to the publication of your book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 2015 is also a time in which other women in rock, such as Grace Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, Carly Simon and Freda Love Smith, among others, published memoirs. Why do you think that such a confluence is taking place?
JH: I think part of it is that the publishing industry sometimes needs to see a precedent. That people are really interested. Carrie and Kim’s books were in the works for quite some time. I don’t know about the other ones. I think between the success of (Patti Smith’s award-winning) Just Kids and also the success of Viv Albertine’s memoir, which became a mass-market success, not just a niche success, that people were definitely interested. Carly Simon had an earlier co-written biography whose author was discredited. I can see why she would want to do another book. Grace Jones has some box sets coming and it’s timely in terms of her career. I think some of it is that people are looking around going, “What other stories are there to tell?” I think some it is a larger cultural dialogue. You have to wonder, for sure, because all these things are coming fast and furious in the last six months. I hope it’s also a shifting of the cultural tide. But I think it’s also part of an interest in conversation that maybe before the huge success of Just Kids people weren’t necessarily seeing that there was a dearth of books about women’s development as musical artists.
GS: The Faith section is the centerpiece of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Do you consider yourself to be a religious person, and if so, is that why you felt it necessary to include this section?
JH: No, to both those things. I am a spiritual person. But I think more so that faith, in another way, is fandom. I think a lot of music has to deal with faith. I was playing both sides of that card. When I was talking about Michael Jackson, I wasn’t talking about church; I was talking about what it is to believe in something. I’m coming at it from all sides. For a lot of people, music, the same way that religion is for other people, is something they orient their lives around. When you believe in music, sometimes you believe in a lot of other things that sustain you in a similar way.
GS: What else can you tell me about the process of deciding what would be included in the book?
JH: First we culled a long list and cut that down and cut that down. Once we were getting down to pieces where we thought, “All of these have to be in the book,” you start looking at them for themes and organizing principles. That’s how that went. I knew what the overarching themes were in my work, but they become even more evident when you put it all together.
GS: You have been a journalist for many years. Do you have any interest in writing fiction; do you think you might have novel in you?
JH: No. My brain has never worked like that. I’ve never written fiction in my life. It doesn’t even occur to me. My brain is critical. That’s how my brain assembles things. When I hear things, I’m listening critically, I’m watching critically always.
GS: What can you tell me about your November 2015 departure from the music website Pitchfork?
JH: I was doing work that I really liked and enjoyed there. I had an incredible amount of opportunities that came because of the work I was doing there, but also a lot of it came from what I was doing outside of Pitchfork, and it was difficult to balance those things. I had to say no to a lot of things. Then some offers came up that I couldn’t say no to that I had to jump at. That’s what hastened me leaving Pitchfork. I knew I was going to have to leave in order to work on the book I wanted to do next. It’s really difficult to try to balance a daily editorial schedule and run a magazine. I was doing two jobs within the magazine and working on the site. It didn’t leave a lot of space in my brain or time in my life for me to do the research I needed to do on the next book. I’m working on that and I’m going to be going to another job soon, but I can’t really talk about it yet. I’m really grateful for what I got to do in the year that I was at Pitchfork. It was an incredible opportunity.
GS: You said that you can’t talk about the new job, but can you talk about the next book?
JH: Yes, the next book is both a critical and cultural and musical history. [Laughs] that’s pretty vague but I’ll be able to talk about it once I sell it.
GS: You and your family have recently relocated to the North Shore. What do you think about the North Shore’s selection of live music venues?
JH: I haven’t really had a chance to get out much since I’ve been here. Tonightis actually the first time I’m going to a concert in probably three or four months. I’m covering the Miley Cyrus concert for Rolling Stone. The tour kicks off tonighthere in Chicago. I haven’t even had a chance fully because we moved up here to the North Shore at the beginning of May and then I left for my book tour five days after we moved in and have barely stopped. Last night was the final night of my 2015 book tour. I’ve been on tour and frequently out of the country for the last couple of months. I haven’t really had a chance to dive in [laughs]. The next few weeks of floating between two jobs and being unemployed will be some of my first chance to go and get lunch in Evanston [laughs] and some of the basic stuff that would have happened in my first two weeks here if I hadn’t had a book coming out.