All hail Jessica Hopper's love of hurling hand grenades
Jessica Hopper is cursed.
At a time when more people than ever seem to believe that music is a mere lifestyle accessory—and a valueless one at that, in every sense of the term—the veteran Chicago rock critic maintains that it’s the very core of our being, and how we define ourselves in the world. As such, it is by necessity subject to our individual moral codes, and those of us who write about it must therefore laud the inherent ideas society should heed and, much more troublesome, decry any injustices the art reflects.
“Having developed such a desperate belief in the power of music to salve and heal me, I ask big, over and over again,” Hopper writes among the very first words in her collection, in a piece on Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets” (a work that was a cornerstone for another great critic who thought similarly, Lester Bangs). “I have an appetite for deliverance, and am not really interested in trying to figure out whether it qualifies me as lucky or pathetic.”
Me, I say lucky, but then this is an affliction with which I am not at all unfamiliar. In fact, I feel compelled to refrain from offering a straight-up review of Hopper’s new book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, recently issued by the ambitious local press Featherproof, because one of the pieces being cited by many reviewers is a lengthy conversation Hopper had with me in the wake of my years of reporting about R. Kelly and our WBEZ series about the issues raised by his headlining appearance at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013.
To be clear, I’ve had plenty of memorable disagreements with Hopper over the years. She likes to cite our tussle over the merits of Cat Power vs. Kelly Hogan on air at WBEZ; I recall the time she called me out for an interview with Beth Ditto where the leader of the Gossip and I discussed at length the burdens of being fat. (She charged that I’d never ask a male performer about his girth, though I certainly have, and Ditto fights sizeism as ardently as she opposes sexism and homophobia.)
No matter. No serious music fan should ever respect any critic with whom she or he does not occasionally disagree. This is, after all, an art form that is first and foremost about thinking for yourself. Criticism only enhances the process and expands the conversation.
Anyway, you may find plenty to take issue with in the 41 pieces collected in Hopper’s 200-plus pages. (She’s at her best when she’s edited by deft and very wise hands, and that was never more the case than in her work with Kiki Yablon and Alison True back when The Chicago Reader was still The Chicago Reader.) But again, not always buying what Hopper is selling is a very good thing, because it means she’s challenging you and making you think, often long and hard, as in her musings on broism in emo, the legacy of grunge, the contradictions in hip-hop, or (seriously) the meanings of Miley Cyrus.
Though some think it untrue, Hopper also has a sharp sense of humor, as evidenced by the title of her book. She’s well aware of the pioneers who’ve come before—“There’s Ellen Willis’ Beginning to See the Light… Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia from 1969, Caroline Coon’s crucial 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion and the collective, life-changing Rock She Wrote”—but the title is a challenge and hopefully an inspiration (“planting a flag… for those whose dreams (and manuscripts) languish”) as well as a defiant boast: Hopper is the only female rock critic the way those damn misogynistic Rolling Stones were the world’s only rock ’n’ roll band, Bangs’ Creem was the world’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, or some show originating at WBEZ is the world’s only rock ’n’ roll talk show.
Speaking of which, listen to Sound Opinions soon for a chat with Hopper about her work and the state of this rock-criticism racket. Turn out to show your support and/or heckle during her free reading at Quimby’s at 7 p.m. tomorrow (Friday). And most of all keep reading her, not because “The World Needs Female Rock Critics,” as The New Yorker just declared in a very flattering piece on her work, but because the world needs good rock critics period—female, male, or gender-fluid; svelte, stocky, or just plain fat—and she is a provocateur par excellence.