Jessica Hopper: A Conversation With A Living Female Rock Critic
Interview and words by Joseph Kyle. Reprinted with Kyle’s permission from the Recoup.
Jessica Hopper is a polarizing figure in punk rock and indie rock. She started her ‘zine Hit It Or Quit It while in high school, and thanks to the underground explosion that took place shortly thereafter, for better or worse, she quickly garnered attention in popular underground culture. Hit It Or Quit It captured the vitality of youth and passion for music and art and friendship and justice; it could be fun and funny, and it could be angry, and it could be both at the same time. In short, Hopper’s style was smart, honest, and inspiring to those who appreciated her style – including yours truly. But when she brought the magazine to a quiet end, unlike lots of zinesters, that wasn’t the last we heard from her. She continued to write, and as you’ll read below, her style matured, but her passion and enthusiasm have remained the same. She just released an anthology of her writing, entitled The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, out now on Featherproof Books. As the title suggests, her keen sense of humor remains firmly intact.
It was a pleasure to chat with her, and thanks to Trevor de Brauw at Biz3 for setting this up.
One thing I picked up on was that your introduction was from the final issue of Hit It Or Quit It, and I was surprised that in terms of the rest of the material from The First Collection of Criticism From A Living Female Rock Critic, there was nothing else from it. Do you feel that ending the zine was the start of a different writing path for you, hence the exclusion?
Towards the end of Hit It Or Quit It, I started getting interested in writing longer, more thought-provoking pieces—not just rants and raves about bands I loved or hated or things I saw going on in the scene. I was changing as a writer, growing, maturing. It’s hard to say exactly what it was that propelled me in that direction; I can’t say there was one moment or one thing that directly made me want to do more serious cultural criticism. I loved doing Hit It Or Quit It, it was a lot of fun, and yet I noticed the things I was writing—-I don’t want to say they weren’t right for the ‘zine, but yet, what I was doing wasn’t exactly what Hit It Or Quit It had been about. (Laughs) It’s a great question. The stuff I did for the ‘zine, I had a lot of fun doing it, the things I wrote back then, I still love, but in terms of what I was going for with the anthology, there just didn’t seem to be many things that would have fit. That essay, like you said, served as a great transition for me as a writer, so it made the perfect introduction. Looking back at it now, I guess maybe I hadn’t matured enough as a writer, and it wasn’t until I started to write for Chicago Reader and Punk Planet — publications that did specialize in longer, in-depth interviews and essays on cultural criticism — that I started to come into my own, and I started to develop my critical voice.
With these changes, do you think that Hit It Or Quit It could have survived?
I’ve thought about this a bit, and I’d like to say yeah. It’s funny, but in a way, I feel like what I’m doing now with Pitchfork Review is what Hit It Or Quit It would have become. My work there, it’s so exciting and fun, and it really feels like the good old days. Plus, I have a lot of the same writers contributing, so in a way, we’re back! (Laughs) But truthfully, even after I put out the last issue of Hit It Or Quit It, I never lost that desire to put out a paper magazine, but there was a practical aspect. After the millennium, ‘zine culture rapidly started to die. It was still there, of course — and it will always be there, I think, even in this new technological age — but what had been thriving in the eighties and nineties, it was no longer there. Trusted distributors were either shutting down or proving themselves no longer trustable. Record stores were starting to close. Times were changing, and not for the better. It was hard to walk away. The fun aspect of making it was still there, but when one started to get into the business aspect of it, it no longer made sense. I mean, a labor of love is great, but a labor of love that bankrupts you? Not so great! (Laughs)
Being back in the editor’s chair after being out of it for so long, did you have any revelations?
You know, it’s funny, but I missed editing. When I started writing, I was doing it all in my bedroom, and it was fun — doing it by hand, staying up late, doing interviews while dodging homework, and calling my friends in to help, and working with others as well. So for me, I’ve been editing as long as I’ve been writing, and for me the two really go hand in hand. And, ya know…I missed it. I missed that connection, that excitement that goes along with putting it all together at two in the morning with your friends and your favorite music blaring. As much as I loved my writing and what I was doing after I stopped the zine, on some level, I felt incomplete. The opportunity came up to write for Pitchfork Review, and I took it on because I still love the print medium, and when I became editor, it was super-exciting for me, because I hadn’t been in that position in ages. So when I took the position, I started to get in touch with people who I hadn’t worked with in ages, and I was sending them out pitch ideas, and they were coming back to me with some really great work, and it was all so fresh and exciting, and it really started to feel like “the good old days” again. It was good to see my friends writing again, many of whom hadn’t written in a while, and bringing their voices back.
I understand that feeling completely. One of my regular contributors is someone whose critical voice hadn’t been heard enough in a while. You may remember her from her ‘zine Rollerderby…
Oh my god, Lisa Carver?
Yep, the one and only! I’ve really wanted her voice to be heard, and one day I just realized I had the perfect vehicle to do so, and I asked, and thankfully, she said yes!
I agree. She’s one of the people who inspired me as a young writer, through her style.
Oh god, who didn’t she inspire! I think she inspired all of us. What she did was very rare back then, and it really impressed me, because Rollerderby was so against the grain. It seemed back then if you were a woman publishing a zine, you were almost expected to be connected to the Riot Grrrl scene, and she wasn’t. Here she was, a woman who was doing some very deeply personal writing, talking about things that were scary and dark and often very disturbing, and it wasn’t done to go along with a scene. Plus, she wasn’t above writing things that were dorky and silly and funny, and even with her darker stuff, she often did so without judgment. I just loved the way she and her crew interacted with music. They covered music, but it’s almost as if they did so with the perspective of an outsider.
The one piece of hers that really has stayed with me all these years is her interview with Dustdevils, and she’s never heard a note of their music, and yet she’s still probing away out of curiosity, and the end result is a fun, informative read. What I took away from it was that it was music writing that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the music.
Absolutely! Weren’t those sorts of things always the best? What made it great was that Lisa and her friends, they weren’t hell-bent on proving themselves to be arbiters of expertise. If there was one form of writing that I hated back then — and still do, actually — is the work of people who are trying to be, ugh, (disgusted) experts of what is going on in the scene. People wanted to be it, and it’s soooo annoying to me. And most of the time, it was always the boys being that way, and it could be so marginalizing to the girls who wanted to be in the scene. I grew up in a city where Your Flesh was kind of a bible, you know what I mean? And they had this kind of macho, muscular writing, and it appealed to dudes, the kind who want to go out and do extreme things like spin out and make donuts in the parking lot in the middle of winter. (Laughs) A teenage girl who is into punk rock, what is she supposed to get out of that? It’s like, I got enough of that walking down the halls of my high school, why would I want to dive into that kind of attitude when I didn’t have to? (Laughs)
But with Rollerderby, it wasn’t about expertise or appealing to one sort of mindset. It was intellectual without the posturing intellectualism — you’d get the feeling from reading some of those essays, that they were the reaction of her having just read an interesting book or article or seeing something cool on TV, and just wanting to share that knowledge with the world. It was all presented in a way that you could take or leave, and you weren’t judged for which way you decided. That was extremely important for me. It was important for me at my age to read that sort of writing, and not only that, to see these subjects and the real glimpses of life — not the glamorous, money-driven visions of success, or the pseudo-bohemian underground that was being exploited that decade. Not only was Rollerderby exposing these unexplored slices of life, but they also celebrated them, and did so with zero judgment — that is inspiring, and truthfully, still to this day, I try to be that way in my own writing.
One thing that was pointed out in the book, you stated that when you saw Babes In Toyland, it was the first time it legitimized for you that you, as a woman, could do it to, that hey, I’m a girl, and I can get up there, and I can rock out, and I can write songs, it’s not just a guy thing after all.
It was really liberating for me. It totally gave me a sense of permission — and for young women, I think that’s really what it takes because we are often in scenes that are predominantly male-dominated. Some women — not all, thankfully — go out to shows and think, “Oh, well, I need to know my place,” and they stand back, and don’t experience it all, because they don’t think they’re allowed to.
Between your book and your writing and your work with Rookie, do you feel you’re now in that place, of being the Babes In Toyland for younger women?
Oh, absolutely. It has always been important for me to make sure my work is fairly visible. That’s really a good part of the reason why I always wanted to write for fairly mainstream magazines and publications. I’ve always been fairly ambitious, but I also feel that it has been important to me to have my writing in places where women can read them. As a young writer, that was certainly something I was up against. I valued seeing other women’s bylines, and when I did, I’d think, “Okay, I could possibly be writing there, too.” That’s not to say that men can’t influence women in terms of writing—I think it’s wrong to make that assumption, as some people do, as a number of men greatly influenced my style as well.
I’m not a reader of Rookie; I’m a forty-something guy — not their target audience. (Laughs) But I remember when I first saw it, I thought, “If Hit It Or Quit It had a teenage daughter, it would be Rookie.”
Well, thank you! But honestly, I think that young women behind Rookie are, like, ten-thousand times smarter and more aware than I was at that age. (Laughs) I don’t wanna say that they’re continuing the legacy of what I did, because most of these young women have never even heard of Hit It Or Quit It in the first place. But there are moments when I’m working with them, and I stop and think, wow, there is a legacy continuing on, and my little zine was a part of it, and there’s a spirit that has kept a greater movement alive. Like how we were talking a minute ago about how Rollerderby was cool and inspired me as a writer, I’d like to think my work has done the same, and inspired other young women, and that those women have inspired this current crop of young women, and how hopefully Rookie will inspire young women to do even bigger and greater things that Rookie’s staff can’t even comprehend right now. I am really heartened by that, because for a long time, it seemed like there was nothing. And now there’s something. I remember hearing in the late 90s, people saying, “Well, Riot Grrrl failed. They didn’t accomplish anything. Nobody’s doing anything like that any more,” and people were treating it all like it didn’t mean anything. It’s almost as if they were eager to declare it a failure. So to have something as successful and visible and distinctive and as undeniable as Rookie and the community surrounding it and the girls it has inspired, it becomes really obvious that there were and are larger, greater, abstract force at play here, and it lives on, and it does so in a way that we never could have predicted twenty-five years ago.
If there’s one benefit to be had with the Internet, it’s that it’s demolished that glass ceiling. If a young woman wants to do something like publish a book or a website, all she needs is the cash to purchase a domain name, and she’s good to go, nobody can stop her.
Totally, and I think that in the next few years, we’re going to see a lot more of that. I think what’s going to change — and is changing — is that we no longer have a need for gatekeepers to validate what it is that we want to do. Thanks to the internet, we don’t have to have a sympathetic older person to open that door for us. Nobody’s out there actively searching out each and every scene to find and exploit the next Tavi Gevinson of that particular scene; if you want to do your thing you can simply do it. Rookie’s success, it’s not just inspiring to other young women, it’s inspiring to me and to older women who were striving for something like Rookie to exist in the first place and who struggled and fought with self-doubt and wondered if they’d accomplished anything, only to see that, yeah, they did. And isn’t that exciting? I think so.