Rough Around The Edges: An Interview With Jessica Hopper

by AnupaMistry


If you are a young music writer — but particularly if you’re a young writer who identifies as a woman — chances are you’ve gotten an e-mail from Jessica Hopper. Editor-in-chief of the new quarterly, The Pitchfork Review, and the brains behind the site’s intelligent and far-out new op-ed column, The Pitch, Hopper spent over 15 years freelancing before she entered the editorial fray. She was the music editor at Rookie before migrating to the seminal music blog in 2014.

“I’m a go-getter in a lot of ways and there came a point where I started asking for what I wanted really explicitly — regardless of the repercussions,” Hopper says on the phone from her sister’s couch in New York City. She’s in the city to promote her second book, a collection of genre-spanning interviews and essays cheekily titled The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic. The title is a nod to the ways publishing and journalism have historically obscured women’s expertise, but also a 2015 manifesto — a physical handbook for a generation that can (more) easily locate itself and its ideologies in the media, on Twitter and Tumblr. Jessica and I talked about her book, genre-hopping, and finding yourself in your work.

Oh my god, Happy Mother’s Day. Not to be all “how does she do it?” but…

The answer is: she doesn’t!

Yes, that is totally the short answer. I’ve been thinking a lot about that weird study that says people stop discovering music after the age of thirty-three. Obviously it’s part of your job to know what’s up, but I’m curious about how you made room for, or prioritized, discovering new music after starting a family.

I’m really fortunate that I work with cool people and young writers. And especially when I was working at Rookie, that was basically all we covered — young music, young bands. When young people are excited about stuff they tell me about things. I really love that. Sometimes what I would do is just go search Bandcamp and type in ‘Chicago’ and ‘new releases’ — ‘Chicago punk,’ ‘Chicago feminist,’ ‘Chicago rap’ — and I would find all these things. And I’m lucky that I could still really fall in love with what I heard. I never want to become indifferent to new sound. If you’re older than, like, seventeen, or been into music for longer than five years, you see the cyclical part of it.

It’s still as exciting as ever to find a record that you’re totally in love with. I just got these Tori Amos reissues, and despite being a young feminist music fan in the 1990s, I never listened to a Tori Amos record on purpose. But then I was like, “so many things make sense now, so many bands I’ve heard make sense now!”

Right now I’m researching my next book, a kind of historical-critical look at the 1970s, so I’m discovering a lot of amazing soft rock. If I’m listening to Linda Rondstadt it’s still discovery, even if it’s not particularly ‘cool’ discovery.

You’ve been writing about music since you were 16 and make a point of noting that you didn’t have any critical training, which is interesting; now that the Internet has levelled the journalistic landscape, there are more writers out there with the same entry point. Was that a burden or benefit? And now, when there’s just a higher volume of stuff to read, is some critical education — whether formal or informal — necessary?

It depends where people are coming from. I was told by editors that my weird auto-didactic style and reference points…basically my lack of a college or journalistic education meant the quirks in my writing hadn’t been bred out of me when I went on to be a full-time writer. I was told that again and again until I was like, oh, perhaps that’s my calling card: I’m a little bit rough around the edges. I do not have this critical framework, I have not read every Greil Marcus book. I did not come in with anything more than a high school education and an absolute devotion to music and a very sincere desire to give everyone my opinion about everything at all times.

We’re in a time where having some critical theory and a broader set of references and tastes, like knowing pop as well as Girlpool lyrics, is important. People who can get politics much quicker, and who rebel against austere aesthetic judgment to provide big picture context, which I think largely relates to Tumblr culture, the way people discuss and fight about music on Tumblr. I see that now with younger writers and I’m like, “oh my gosh.” The tide is starting to change. That’s why we have this ferocious crop of really opinionated young writers writing about race, gender, queerness, the body — people coming in with a pretty immaculately formed critical framework.

There’s this great thought in one of the foundational essays from your book, “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t,” documenting your exhaustion about being excluded from the punk/emo world and “taking shelter in other forms of music.” It’s often difficult for women to be taken seriously as subject matter experts; can you talk about writing through genres?

That essay changed a lot for me as a listener, as a critic, as a fan, as everything — and I think you can tell that in the piece. By the time I got to the end, I was mostly listening to Mary J. Blige and Steely Dan — even though that’s as bad as the rest of the emo bands! I was DJing a lot. I was listening to a lot of minimal techno, all this Tigerbeat6 stuff…[music] where there was nothing that I felt erased me. I had to burrow into my alienation from a scene I was deeply involved in; at that point in my career, I was doing publicity for bands that I was almost calling out. So I had to find other things that I loved and felt okay.

I still go to punk shows and I still love noise bands and I love my music weirder than ever. But it’s been a pretty interesting last decade in pop and women, even if I didn’t love their music, always fascinated me — especially because how people react to them. I grew up in the the cycle of attacking and celebrating Courtney Love, and I see the long tail that is Lana Del Rey. I feel like I’m watching some science film where something decomposes and mushrooms grow out of it. Punk, indie rock and DIY — I just got bummed because it felt, like, is anything getting different there? Is anything getting better for women?

Exhaustion is such a real thing. I feel like I’m only just resurfacing from two years of really loathing my work after some shit went down in my life. I never wanted to stop, I just felt like I couldn’t produce.

In the middle of my last book I had to put it down for five months and nurse my dad back to health…and then I had six weeks to finish the book. When I came out the other side I felt sort of estranged from writing. Then I had two kids in pretty rapid succession. In the process of making this book I had to slough off all this ego and read through my old stuff; some of it is terrible and has my name on it, but I had to just get to the practical matter of the writing. If you are doing something other than writing, maybe the meat of the emotional life doesn’t show up, but because it’s writing and it takes all of you, you lose your bearing a little. It affects who you as a writer. It resets you. We only go as fast as we can.

What’s it like working outside of the New York City music media bubble?

It’s cool; it’s different. But also I pitched the New York Times Magazine in vain on a regular basis for eight years. Maybe I could’ve been writing for Rolling Stone, maybe I could’ve been part of that world, but I was removed from that. The thing is: until recently my rent was never above $600, including a yard and laundry! When you have cheap rent you can make different decisions about what you will do. I mentor some young writers that live in New York and I try to get people to move away all the time for a better cost of living. You can get by some months on writing concert previews, and spend the rest of your time reading, or hashing out big ideas, or working on pieces just for yourself, or writing columns where you can really stretch out.

When I was 27 my rent was $250 and the place was kind of a dump but all I cared about was learning how to write. I didn’t go to college, but my rent was cheap, so I could afford the time for self-education. I can’t imagine what kind of writer I would be if I hadn’t had that. I’ve never had a credit card in my life and never made a ton of money from writing, but I made enough to make space for it as an intellectual endeavor rather than a scramble.

I feel like Pitchfork has gotten a lot more interesting these days, and it seems to have coincided with your coming on board…

I’m glad people are noticing. But I can’t take much credit for that. I just get great pitches. I brought some writers with me from Rookie. I shout her out a lot, but Safy Hallan-Farrah brought me 10 of her closest writing buddies, and they’re all a bunch of geniuses. I also work with Jayson Greene who came in as reviews editor and has as much of an agenda as I do. We both brought a pretty serious stable of writers with us: people who are older, veteran writers, people who’d never written for Pitchfork before, younger writers that we feel have promise and we want to build a rapport with. And all of this is co-signed by the people who knew what they were bringing in with the two of us. There’s an absolute trust in my vision, that I was going to bring a lot of ‘op’ to the op-eds.

The men that I work with are feminists just as much as the women. I was freelance for 18 years before I started working at the Review and then the site itself, and you know what? Find me another music magazine in America that would hire someone who is 38 and a full-time mom to edit. We’ve got to be totally real. I think that is a feminist act.

It’s pretty difficult to break through those gender barriers. How did that work for you?

We all get frustrated seeing some idiot man we know failing up the ladder because he has great social skills and goes drinking with the right people. I kept thinking about this thing I read in a comment section, one of the few times I read the comments. Someone wrote: “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” Granted, for women that is not always true because there are often very real penalties for asking. I would’ve been perfectly fine continuing to freelance, but I’m ambitious, and I also want to open doors for writers that weren’t open for me and give the kind of editorial support that isn’t available anymore. I grew up at the Chicago Reader where you got top edits that made you cry! I didn’t ask for permission in other parts of my life, so it was like “Yes, I’m going to go after the jobs I want.”

It’s nice for us to chat and kind of validate each other and our experiences as women and professionals, but what kind of conversations are you having with male peers, or men who are journalists, about the book?

It’s been heartening to put something in the world that has been a longstanding mission, and have young male writers who are interviewing me say, “I’ve been reading you since I was a teen” and cite my work. To have young male writers tell me they’ve been influenced by my thinking. It’s as exciting to me as talking to other female writers or anybody who is not a straight man, and we’re affirming each other’s experiences. Those are the conversations I want to have, to affirm the professional struggles of being outside and having an opinion or an identity that will forever set you aside.

But what these young men see in my book is not necessarily feminist struggle — that’s not what they identify with most — but someone who had an outside viewpoint, two decades of sometimes being on the margins, standing up for something you love and cobbling a career out of it. I was writing this basically for the girls I worked with at Rookie! That it’s also resonating with young dudes who write about rap, and blackness and the modern age and we’re getting outside the punk rock radical feminist cloister is…it’s all gravy.

Anupa Mistry is a writer living in Toronto, and also a living female rock music critic. She tweets sometimes @_anupa.