Passion, Criticism, and Music: Lessons Learned from an Evening with Jessica Hopper

Jessica Hopper’s new book may be titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, but based off of the 80+ wide-eyed, eager, and attentive faces packed into the basement of Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, you’d almost start to believe that the night’s guest of honor was a rock star.

Ironically enough, music journalists can be seen–they’re ever seen–as unsung heroes. Readers seldom take the time to get into the heads of and learn the history of, the person behind the byline. Zines and blogs are a dime a dozen in today’s culture, but when someone like Hopper comes into town, people take the time to stop and listen. 

 Why? 

 Because she’s one of our own. 

Hopper’s left a big imprint on the punk zine scene through one of her career-defining works, Hit it or Quit it, a riot grrrl-centric series that had spanned from the early 90s to the mid 00s. Towards the end of that time period, her freelance repertoire had expanded to include a smattering of major publications, such as Spin (you know, back when it was a magazine?), Chicago Reader, and Village Voice.

Today, she continues to freelance across the board, but most of her time primarily goes towards serving as the Senior Editor of Pitchfork, where she takes pride in helping the young guns of the site in tactfully expressing themselves. 

With a varied history like that, it’s obvious that there’s much to learn from spending time at something as simple as a book reading and q&a event. And learn we did.

There’s Always a Story Behind the Story. Find Yours and Use it. –

Hopper spoke in great length about her personal history in feminism, how that’s affected her writing later in her career. Roughly half of the audience present for the q&a had asked about how she’s taken on some questionable projects involving R Kelly, Tyler the Creator, along a 2002 essay calling out the gender exclusion found in emo music. No two music writers come from the exact same walk of life, so there’s no reason you should be writing the exact same articles as others around you.

Everyone Has their Reasons –

Preceded by a short (yet meaningful) introduction, the book truly starts off with one of Hopper’s earliest pieces, I Have a Strange Relationship with Music. It’s a detailed personal essay of the power, frailty, joy, gloom, and everything that can be found in-between that, in music. This mantra was put together long before the weightier assignments came along. 

 Have you ever thought long and hard about why you do this?

Perfect Music Journalism –

Don’t lie to yourself on this, perfection is a lie. However, there is such thing as a well-written, honest piece that motivates the reader to react in some way, shape, or form. A reoccurring topic that came up through the event was the concept of a “bullet-proof” opinion that relies on facts and can’t be torn to shreds by the reader. This is something that can easily be achieved from looking at the subject from multiple angles, and we’ll get to that later.

An Honest Look at an Artist –

A memorable moment from the night came when Hopper spoke about some of her most difficult assignments, moments where she’s done feature stories on artists who simply didn’t want to do an interview. For example, her 2012 Chicago Tribune piece on Chief Keef, which was written at the peak of his career, following the release of his debut album, Finally Rich and leading into one of the biggest performances of his career at the Pitchfork Music Festival. 

What happens when a trip across Chicago into the notoriously rough southside for an interview turns out to be practically fruitless? You improvise. You take a look at everything, from an artists’ demeanor on and off stage, to those that surround him.

The Balance –

Music journalism is home to the proverbial tug-of-war between subjectivity and objectivity. Fledgling writers often try to hold on for dear life to the latter, in efforts of appearing more professional. Some of the most entertaining pieces are the ones skewing in the opposite direction, but the best ones are those that teeter on both ends.

Standing Behind Your Work –

Journalists and editors will butt heads until the end of time, and that’s instinctual. A great, confident writer should stand behind their work, and their risky statements, and a good editor should keep the publication’s best interests in mind. 

 Towards the end of the event, Hopper waxed poetic on the hours upon hours she’d spend fighting over the most miniscule edits. Why? Because she did (and still does) believe in herself, and how important her writing is. She may be on the other end of that fence these days, but it’s obvious that she hasn’t forgotten her roots.


Purchase The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper today


Adrian Garza is a freelance music journalist and publicist based out of Seattle, WA. Give him a follow on Twitter where you can find him cracking wise at the Nu-Metal Revival and obsessing over bands from his home state of Florida.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.