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Jessica Hopper on 'planting a flag' with her new collection of rock criticism

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Michael Renaud

In her two-decade career, music journalist Jessica Hopper has shaped her field through clever, thorough writing that also addresses modern ills in music and the culture that surrounds it. From writing her own punk zines as a Minneapolis teen to driving conversations through her work at publications like SPIN and Pitchfork, Hopper has used popular music to get to the root of the themes that pervade our culture.

“Writing about records is a way to write about a lot of bigger things,” she says when we connect to talk about her new book, The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic. “Writing about music is a way to crack open a lot of different nuts.”

Hopper’s book collects those nuts for a compilation that ranges from side-splitting reviews to detailed profiles to vital reporting about issues of gender, race, and crime in music. The critic chatted with EW about “the teflon glamour of Beyoncé,” why Miley Cyrus is the Las Vegas of pop music, and the story about a turtle she thinks might be her best.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was the book’s title your title from day one?

JESSICA HOPPER: It was the joke title I sent to my publisher. He stopped dead in his tracks and said, “Can that be the real title?” We went back and forth, because it’s a really long title. I’d wanted to do this book for years. I felt like it was the right time.

I talked to different publishers and agents who said, “Well, there’s no precedent.” Chuck Klosterman? “Special case.” Rob Sheffield? “He works at Rolling Stone.” And I was like, “Do I not count as part of the same lineage?” That struggle underscores the title of the book, where I’m planting a flag and saying, “Let all of the amazing young female critics that are coming up now, let this not be their struggle.”

When you were growing up was it hard for you to find female writers in the music press, and in punk rock specifically? Did you want to help fill that void?

I grew up in Minneapolis. The pop critic at the alt-weekly paper there, the City Pages, was Terri Sutton, who was one of the most important critics at the time. I was introduced to music criticism largely through her work every week. I wasn’t aware of rock criticism before then. She’s very feminist and that made me say, “Oh, this is totally possible.”

I started writing because I was going to Babes In Toyland shows and I thought, “The people writing who are writing about Babes In Toyland, they don’t get it.” I wasn’t even in 10th grade and I was a year into punk rock, but to me that was enough expertise. I didn’t see a reason why someone who was a teenager somehow wasn’t qualified to write about music. I didn’t realize what an anomaly it was at the time, being in tenth grade and making a music fanzine as a feminist girl.

The second chapter of your book is called “Real/Fake” and it collects some of your best writing about this era’s most prominent female pop stars: Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus. What do you think male rock critics miss when they’re discussing these figures? How do you think that informs how the public views these women?

When we look at Taylor and the teflon glamour of Beyoncé, what we sometimes miss—and male critics have less experience with this, although there’s obviously a lot of expectations for who and how men are in this world—is that women communicate through their image and learn it at a very young age.

We have this ingrained idea about rock and roll and authenticity: To be a true artist you express viscerally, from the gut. But as a female human being in America or thereabouts, you learn at a young age to express yourself not necessarily with what you say, but how you say things and how you present things and how you look at other people and how you move and how you dress and how you do your makeup and your hair.

I’m not saying that is their art, but it’s a huge function of it. Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, especially Miley, they’re communicating to us through their image—whether about self-conception or girlhood in America or sexuality. This is why you read a thousand different essays about Beyoncé and what she means and how she means it, because image is so strong. I probably annoy some readers by almost putting the music second for some artists, but in the case of someone like Miley, Miley’s whole performance of Mileydom is her true art.

You actually tackle Miley Cyrus in a chapter compiling some of your “Bad Reviews,” and you paraphrase an old Dave Hickey line about Las Vegas when you refer to her entertainment value as “the slow-motion horror of watching toxic sleaze replace toxic purity.”

If you really think about it, she is truly the Las Vegas of pop, in the extremity of her sheer plastic-ness. It confounds and beguiles us in much the same way. It pulls the same strings.

There isn’t a corresponding chapter with good reviews. What makes bad reviews special for a rock critic?

They’re easier for me. [laughs] The artists that truly capture my imagination aren’t often the ones I have on repeat. The comfort artists that we turn to sometimes aren’t particularly interesting. The things that horrify me on first listen are usually the ones that I can sink my teeth into.

Bad reviews are certainly one of the themes of my body in work, in part because I was never afraid of them. I wasn’t afraid of backlash. The critics I love are incredibly incisive, particularly about things that disturb them. And I feel like that’s a good quality to court as a critic.

In the book you include one of your most important pieces, the 2013 Village Voice Q&A with Chicago Sun-Times music writer Jim DeRogatis, where you helped resurface reporting he had done years earlier about R. Kelly’s alleged sexual assaults. How much do you think it’s important to separate the sins of the artist from their art?

That’s something I’ve thought about for many years, as somebody who likes their fair share of music where you have to shut off your higher brain to let yourself love. I’ve always been engaged by the morality of what I’m listening to, whether it’s titillating or horrifying. There’s records I’ve had to peace out on. I live in Chicago, and I listened to [R. Kelly’s] 12 Play on repeat until one day I saw these girls on the news saying, “Everybody knows R. Kelly hangs out in the parking lot of our school.” I was like “Okay, that’s enough, I’m done with R. Kelly.”

I don’t want to support bad people if I can help it. Some people say you have to separate the art from the artist. I’ve never done that, and I would never do that out of convenience. Music means too much to me to play that game.

Granted, I listen to the Eagles and their drummer Don Henley famously got caught with a 17-year-old girl and it almost ruined the Eagles’ career, even in the ‘70s when probably everybody had a 16-year-old girlfriend. I don’t necessarily do my homework on every single person I listen to to make sure I’m making the proper call. There’s no Whole Foods of record stores where you’re like, “Everything in here is safe!” And I’m not interested in that! But in the particular case of R. Kelly I don’t take him from his art, because I think it’s all parcel of one man.

The book has “criticism” in its name but that R. Kelly interview is a mix of journalistic collaboration and thorough reporting, which the book has lots of. Do you feel most comfortable in one format? What do you find is most of a stretch for you?

For a long time I did nothing but write show previews and record reviews. Then I was allowed to get longer with them, so that I could write essays, which is what I love to do. Then a few years ago I got offered to be the local music columnist at the Chicago Tribune which is what I did until I went to Pitchfork. Part of the reason that I took [the Tribune job] is so that I could learn basic reporting.

My parents were both longtime editors and my sister is an editor. Old school journalism is very sexy, and reporting is very much a challenge I decided I wanted to get good at. I did basic stuff at the Tribune and the Chicago Reader for eight years. I once reported a piece about the oldest freshwater turtle—it came to Chicago for the boat show. I reread it like three times, like “Is there any way I can fit this in [the book]?” I think it’s my greatest piece of reporting! I waited for a turtle to come up for air for like two and a half hours.

I’m newer to that classic journalistic skill set, in part because I resisted it for a really long time. I didn’t go to journalism school and I always thought of a journalist as one of the people that my parents worked for. I wouldn’t dare sully what I’m doing and call it journalism; I’m writing about records. But then I realized writing about records is a way to write about a lot of bigger things. Writing about music is a way to crack open a lot of different nuts.