The first time I read Jessica Hopper’s work, I was awestruck. Her essays in the online publication Rookie felt so emotionally honest in contrast to my own close-to-the-chest media consumption. I hadn’t heard the entire Smiths discography at that point (should I have?) or the Sex Pistols but in the interest of seeming cool, effete, and somewhat neutral, I lied through my teeth to others about what media, and especially, what music I had or had not consumed. There was none of that dishonesty in Hopper’s writing. The burgeoning feminist in me responded to the way she had a conversation with female artists and pushed beyond the expected in her interviews. Her writing transported me away from my adolescent bedroom and into venues, tour buses, and the other liminal spaces of concerts.
When the first volume of her book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic was published in 2015, my love for her only grew. Her original edition was honest, loud, and a little brash. I even appreciated that she wrote the word “fuck” in the second essay of the collection, “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t.” As a teenager, I favored being diplomatic rather than forthcoming. Hopper’s work gave me a window to a version of myself that called out sexism and misogyny as I saw it and used the word “fuck” as much as I pleased––whether or not my mother approved.
The new revised and expanded edition of The First Collection, published this summer by MCD x FSG Originals, includes a coherent narrative typically hard to achieve in essay collections. This book is about women in music as they really are: angry, sad, joyful, sarcastic, intelligent, and multidimensional. Writer and former Chicagoan Samantha Irby describes Hopper as “feminist as fuck” in the foreword in this edition, and honestly none of this is a surprise to those familiar with the larger body of Hopper’s work.
While this year’s publication is technically a second edition, it feels like a completely new book. There’s a bevy of new material and revisions have been made to some of the original essays to reframe the information for a contemporary audience.
Hopper’s writing never feels confined to a particular place and time. This is most evident in “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t.” The essay, originally published in the magazine Punk Planet in 2003, describes Hopper’s feelings of alienation from the emo rock scene despite being an avid fan. Hopper writes about not seeing her experience—or really the full humanity of women—be represented in any way in the scene. She wrote “As it stands in 2003, I simply cannot conjure the effort it takes to give a flying fuck about bands of boys yoked to their own wounding, aka the genre known as emo.” Hopper then dove into punk rock’s political beginnings and the shift in the music genre to the person-centered lyrics of emo. Hopper described the early emo scene as sensitive to the types of specific suffering women go through, and the overt misogyny of the early 00s version of emo in decided contrast. “Girls in emo songs today do not have names,” Hopper wrote. “Women are not identified beyond their absence, their shape is drawn by the pain they have caused. Their lives, their day-to-day-to-day does not exist, women do not get colored in.”
Hopper’s words are about emo circa 2003 but feel resonant to genres across decades, when women are often portrayed in song lyrics as the cardboard cutout versions of themselves and only exist with the limited language of how they are seen by men. Interestingly enough the song that came to mind for me when reading this was the stalker anthem “Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s, which was written about someone who ostensibly did not want to be written about and enriched the person who engaged in creeping via song lyrics. In that case and in the cases of countless other women represented in part or in whole in lyrics written by men, Hopper is clear: we all deserve more. She wrote, “We girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.”
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper (in its revised and expanded paperback edition) was published in July 2021 by MCD x FSG Originals/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Hopper is also the Chicago Reader Book Club’s guest online on Thursday 8/26 at 6:30 PM; see store.chicagoreader.com for tickets.
In a later chapter Hopper interviews Canadian musician Lido Pimienta about her 2020 album Miss Colombia. The interview is an expansive conversation between them: an Indigenous and queer artist speaking to a music critic who asks all the right questions. They address colonization, racism, sexism, and other issues that directly impact Pimienta and her work. Hopper tells us about Pimienta’s acceptance speech for the 2017 Polaris Music Prize (a music award given annually in Canada for the best full-length album of that year). As Pimineta accepted the award for her album La Papessa, she talked about the racism that she faced in Canada, reminded the audience of the significance of living on colonized First Nations land, and talked about being dismissed by a sound person before her performance. Hopper reflected, “Since then, it’s become evident that the music industry wants credit for putting Pimienta–an outspoken Indigenous Queer woman–on the stage, but doesn’t have much interest in hearing what she’s saying.”
The outspokenness of Hopper’s interviewing style was matched perfectly by Pimienta’s answers as an artist. Hopper was willing to ask about “taboo” topics, and Pimienta was more than willing to answer in a way that eschewed any type of public relations mechanism. There is something special about women who have given themselves and others the space to speak with moral clarity and this interview was striking because of the way Pimienta has clearly done that for herself as an artist. It was imperative to her personhood to do so.
In the interview, Pimienta said to Hopper, “I can’t conform. I just don’t know how else to be. I just can’t. I do have friends who are like, ‘Lido, you are crazy. You have to chill out. Why do you have to say the things you say?’ And I’m just like, ‘Because I can!’”
A particularly striking moment in the interview happened when Hopper asked Pimienta about the pressure as a musician to write songs in English. “I’m pretty good at communicating in English, but writing a song in English is a whole other . . . I just can’t do it. If I wrote in English, the whole vibe would change,” Pimienta said. “The stuff that I say is so obscure but the rhythm is way accessible. People are like, ‘Oh, I can dance to this!’ But I’m actually talking about polyamory; I’m talking about possessive partners, and violence against women.”
When Hopper asks about the inspiration for the album, Pimienta reminds us of the moment when Steve Harvey hosted Miss Universe in 2015 and mistakenly crowned Miss Colombia the winner and had to recant and crown Miss Philippines instead. She wanted the album name and the songs within it to make a statement about the pervasive misogyny in Colombia.
“Beautiful women is what Colombians are about. We’re right up there with cotton, and pearls, and sugar, or oil, or whatever. We’re currency; that’s what we are as women in Colombia,” said Pimienta.
The last portion of The First Collection is dedicated to profiles of prominent female artists like Joni Mitchell, Sleater-Kinney, Hole, and women listed on the Village Voice‘s critics’ poll list “Pazz and Jop” from 2018, including Janelle Monaé, Kacey Musgraves, and Robyn. But Hopper’s afterword for the book is perhaps some of the most urgent writing in the collection. She wrote it as speaking directly to the reader and it’s part personal history and part call to action. Hopper’s essays throughout the collection document the degradation and co-optation of independent spaces and artists by major labels and the mainstream, but also how the rise of streaming has meant that many artists have had to survive on a new syndicated model for their music and lend their sound to brands.
In addition to trying to account for the nefarious nature of the music industry through its unfair compensation models for artists, Hopper also writes about the rampant patriarchy that runs roughshod through the industry, materially harming women who try to make their voices heard. She also gives us a snapshot of the sexism that has been thrown her own way.
“I received a lot of unbidden advice from men, many of whom I barely knew, about my work,” writes Hopper. “They usually offered the same paternalistic scolding: that it was perverse to tangle up music criticism with feminism or my personal experience, moral judgements about music didn’t belong in reviews and I should stick to merely aesthetic ones.”
Despite the ill-advised advice, Hopper’s entire career has been dedicated to a new kind of music criticism, one that understands how political art is. The absence of addressing the politics and power structures behind even the blandest music is not only possible but necessary. It’s hard to reimagine what a “feminist music industry” would look like but Hopper’s words tell us that the industry as a whole hasn’t come very far. She references the first time she heard musician Kat Bjelland scream and how that scream liberated her. What Hopper has done by documenting all the women who “scream,” literally and metaphorically, is help weave the voices of female artists into a chorus, and tell us this is what they are saying about sexism, misogyny, racism, colonization, homophobia, and xenophobia. We have to be the ones to decide if we are going to listen.