For the second installment of my Women’s Music History Month features, I wanted to highlight someone more contemporary— because the work that she is doing today is no doubt paving the way for the next generation of critics as she challenges the conventions of music journalism.
Jessica Hopper is an author, editor, and critic, currently based in Chicago. She writes in sharp, informed, and piercingly personal prose and always infuses her work with her own moral and feminist perspective.
Hopper started writing in the 90’s when she was growing up in Minneapolis. When she was 15, Hopper started her own fanzine, called Hit it or Quit it. She also wrote for a number of local publications. Instead of going to college, Hopper went on to write for publications such as SPIN, Grand Royal, and Punk Planet, and started her own publicity company, where she promoted independent bands and record labels. She played in a number of bands, but decided to focus her career on writing rather than performing.
In 2009, Hopper published her book, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking. The book describes itself as, “a hip, inspirational guide for rad girls who want to make their rock dreams come true.” Essentially, it’s a toolkit that gives girls the knowledge they need to start a band, write songs, book gigs, and promote themselves.
In 2012, she became the music editor for Rookie, an online magazine created by Tavi Gevinson that creates content for and by teenage girls. “Working at a website that is by and for teenage girls was my actual dream come true,” said Hopper.
From 2014 to 2015, Hopper was Editor in Chief of the Pitchfork Review (Pitchfork’s print publication), and Senior Editor at Pitchfork.
In 2015, Hopper published an anthology of her criticism, titled, The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic. As Hopper explains in a note at the beginning of the book, the title isn’t completely accurate.
There have been a handful of books that could fit the description, such as Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia from 1969, and Caroline Coon’s 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion.
Another influential collection of work by a female rock critic published in 2014 is The Essential Ellen Willis, an anthology of criticism by the illustrious cultural critic. The book contains essays on politics and culture from throughout her career. It was edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz and was released after Ellen Willis’ death in 2006.
Willis taught journalism at New York University. She was the first pop-music critic of the New Yorker, and wrote for a number of high-profile magazines, including Rolling Stone. She founded the feminist group Redstockings, as well as the theater and protest group No More Nice Girls, and advocated for women’s sexual liberation.
The work of critics like Willis, Coon, and Roxon is indispensable in the canon of music criticism. However, women’s writing is still vastly underrepresented in music criticism. This is where the title of Hopper’s collection comes from.
“The title of this book is about planting a flag,” writes Hopper. “It is for those whose dreams (and manuscripts) languished due to formal precedence, support and permission. This title is not meant to erase our history but rather to help mark the path.”
The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic contains 42 pieces, separated into eight different thematic sections. In the book’s 201 pages, Hopper divulges her passion (obsession?) with music, analyzes the construction and consumption of female pop stars, and reveals the infrastructure of today’s music industry.
One of the most famous pieces in the collection is a story that Hopper wrote in 2003 for Punk Planet, called “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” It explores the gender disparity between emo’s listeners (fairly evenly split) and its performers (almost all men). It reveals the archetypes of girls in emo songs, and how these stereotypes affect its audiences. Hopper says that she still receives feedback on that story; some from boys telling her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and some from girls telling her how the piece validated their experiences.
Hopper has worked as a freelancer for most of her career, beginning when she was 19 years-old. After working for Pitchfork and MTV, Hopper returned to freelancing in 2018 and is currently working on a book about women’s music history.
Throughout her career, Hopper has always focused on the stories that matter to her. ” I was always a specialist,” she told The Current in an interview in 2014. “I’ve always just pursued the things that I was passionate about and very interested in.” Many times, that meant focusing on work made by women and the barriers that they face in the industry.
Hopper has stood in defense of teenage girl culture and validated female music fans. The pinned tweet on her Twitter account reads, “Suggestion: replace the word ‘fan girl’ with ‘expert’ and see what happens.”
“There’s still very much this stereotype, especially within the music industry and even just within the music scene, that teenage girls are not serious consumers of music, even though they are the number one purchasers of music,” Hopper told The Current. “Teenage girls are the number one consumers of music, they are the number one drivers of taste, and yet they are still not considered serious music fans.”
Jessica Hopper’s work has countered stereotypes, given exposure to underrepresented artists, and changed attitudes toward popular music criticism. Even in the 21st century, she continues to break down barriers for female journalists, and uses her voice to open up new perspectives in the industry. Her work is making waves not just within the field of criticism, but is changing our culture from the inside out.