The Chicago writer’s “no bullshit” approach shines through in the revised edition of “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.”
By Annie Howard
What does it mean to be a Midwestern critic? For Jessica Hopper, the answer is simple: there’s a lot less room for bullshit, and far more attention paid to just doing the work. In the revised and expanded version of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, she writes: “Cloistered in the Midwest and writing for a weekly print paper that didn’t even have a website simplified things.” Gleefully untethered from the fretful politicking of the “New York music journalism hothouse,” Hopper said she instead found her voice as a writer among “friends, fellow dirtbags and weird kids, who were trying to build a thing, make something cool and courageous on their own because they had to.”
The First Collection of Criticism was originally released in 2015; now, six years later, it returns at more than twice its debut length, making an already powerful collection feel even weightier. Thankfully, that added depth showcases Hopper’s distinctly Midwest style and choice of subjects: the book’s first section focuses on the city of Chicago, where Hopper moved as a twenty-one-year-old, and elsewhere Hopper addresses a childhood spent in Minneapolis, her first clips written for the (now-shuttered) City Pages alt-weekly. Whether she’s documenting a suburban Chicago high school unexpectedly hosting an up-and-coming U.K. punk band, hiding out from Lollapalooza in underground shows around Chicago, or chronicling the religious uncertainty of singer David Bazan at a downstate Illinois Christian music festival, a clear sense of place suffuses Hopper’s writing, tied to experiences that could not have happened anywhere else.
Hopper also grapples with two figures whose influence on their respective homes has long been overshadowed by the horrors they’ve enacted in their personal lives: Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. Across the two pieces, Hopper’s writing reflects a sense of shifting political consciousness within both her own work and in wider society, just four years separating pieces that take dramatically different approaches to each man’s legacy. In “Why Michael Jackson’s Past Might Be Gary, Indiana’s Future,” Hopper’s impressions of the city on the night of Jackson’s death capture a community abandoned by its most famous resident, still hoping to draw upon his legacy as a way to revive the flagging post-industrial community. But in “The ‘Stomach-Churning’ Sexual Assault Accusations Against R. Kelly: A Conversation with Jim DeRogatis,” Hopper reflects a broader transformation in conversations around sexual violence, as she and Chicago Sun-Times journalist DeRogatis reflect on the years of violence perpetuated by Kelly and the industry that upheld his work.
I spoke to Hopper about the new book, being in a lineage of Midwest criticism, and why Chicago allowed her to start her writing career. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
AH: When you call yourself a Midwest critic early in the book, what does that mean to you?
JH: I think there’s a Midwest sensibility within criticism, and a Midwestern tradition within the field that I see myself in the lineage of. Generally, it means operating outside of the confines of a critical tradition that’s very New York, which I think is always more tied to what’s happening, what’s popular. It’s very tied to ‘how is the media reacting?’ I do have pieces in there like my Lana Del Rey piece, but discussing from that perspective of analyzing how someone’s being received in the media, I think the Midwest approach is a little bit more no bullshit. I’m proud to be in that tradition, and, you know…that lineage spans from all the people that came out of City Pages that then went on to become editors at Spin [and] another person who’s rarely mentioned, Terri Sutton. I proudly claim that heritage.
AH: Many of the pieces in your book are written for alt-weeklies and other non-mainstream media outlets, places like City Pages and the Chicago Reader. What is it about those types of publications that’s so valuable to you?
JH: There’s a specificity in alt-weeklies, and a chance for local bands to have profiles and be understood. I think what we lose most without alt-weeklies is that sort of dialogue within a music community. When all you have is Pitchfork or a handful of other places that are doing reviews and profiles, they’re not going to care about the biggest local band in St. Paul, or what’s happening in Toronto, where post pandemic insurance rates for clubs and venues is rising four hundred percent, which is potentially going to put historical places like the Horseshoe Tavern out of business. Those are not issues that are going to rise to the national purview, but those are hugely impactful issues for people who are thriving and struggling in local communities.
I often think of what Monica Kendrick, one of my old colleagues at the Chicago Reader, once said: “I don’t want to write for any place where I can’t say ‘fuck’ in the lede.” I think about that freedom and tradition within alt-weekly spaces, that kind of new journalism, and how those places were always looking for local writers who were tied to specific scenes that could bring their understanding of it and their expertise into the light. It’s a real loss for local scenes, local musicians and people who care about music in those communities when these places close.
Some of my favorite pieces of early reporting that were only made possible by virtue of the Reader – it had to be local. Anytime I saw a strange angle by virtue of that happening locally, I could report on it. My favorite piece that I ever wrote for the Reader was about how the world’s oldest turtle came to visit during the Chicagoland Outdoor Show. I just sat there and watched a turtle that surfaced once an hour, and the people who came to see it.
AH: It’s very clear that the kinds of small spaces you write about and advocate for are much more dependent upon people in the scene playing an active role in the process, rather than just being passive consumers. What is it about seeing a show with just a dozen people in a basement that’s so special to you, in opposition to a big corporate fest like Lollapalooza?
JH: For me, it’s really about that about a sense of enthusiasm and coming from a place of fandom. I’ve been fortunate to write for so many places about what it means to be a fan. The small shows have always been my favorites, the most visceral. Writing from a place of discovery, like in the case of Abe Vigota, I’d gotten a seven-inch by them that a friend in LA had sent. I knew so little about them, and it wasn’t like I could click on YouTube and watch a bunch of performances, but I knew that my friends who had seen them in L.A. we’re really excited about them. The scene was about that belief, and so you had to go and support it. With my fanzine, it was checking out things that you’d heard about, falling in love with them and being kind of at that grassroots level where it was more peer-to-peer and unfiltered.
AH: Your pieces about Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, written three years apart, reflect very different perspectives on two men who are now widely seen through the lens of the sexual violence they enacted against children. However, at the time of your Michael Jackson piece, you mostly focused on Jackson’s legacy in Gary, and how people were celebrating his life. How do you understand the shift between those pieces?
JH: At this point, I can’t separate what we know about the people who survived his abuse, and their lives, and the systems that are in place that enabled him to have a long history of predation. I can’t separate them. And I think in the piece—I wrote it and filed it in a night—I was thinking more about the city rather than what his life and death meant to survivors of abuse.
I think some of the best writing that I’ve read about Michael Jackson is Wesley Morris’s piece where he reviewed Leaving Neverland. I think it gets at the crux of the issue, that we can’t turn away from this anymore, and I think when I wrote that in 2009, what I wrote reflects culturally that we weren’t quite there. But three weeks after my R. Kelly piece came out [in 2013] was when all the Woody Allen allegations came out. Not too long after that was Weinstein, and other things just started to fall in pretty short order. You started to see a shift.
If I was going to write that Michael Jackson piece now, it would be very different. My consciousness as a feminist writer has continued to evolve, and as culture has started to change, as things have become revealed. Even though I identified as a feminist writer from the go, I started as a teenager and my primary source for feminism was riot grrrl. My article “Where the Girls Aren’t” is kind of one of the first places I really consider that at length: How does this affect people beyond me? Then, as a throughline, there’s the piece that I wrote the day after Trump’s election, “The Silver Lining Myth,” which asks what it means when an artist is not just problematic, but is an abuser? What does it mean when people are being blasé about how these harmful political circumstances are affecting people’s lives, artists’ lives?
AH: While you grew up in the Twin Cities, it was Chicago where you really came into your own as a writer. What was it about this city in particular that worked as well as it did for you?
JH: When I came here, Chicago was a place that you moved to make it. If you were an indie band in Iowa, Indiana, downstate Illinois, wherever, you’d move to try to make things happen with your band and be part of a larger community. And when I moved here, it was really for a sense of kinship and community, which I very much found. I was doing PR for bands, and I was working with a lot of bands that were playing venues like the Fireside Bowl. This was just a place to be better connected with those things, and I also had a lot of models of people who were doing similar things from a similar sort of DIY independent viewpoint, everything from Thrill Jockey and Drag City to the many fanzines that were happening here, places like Punk Planet.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, which carried over into the music. It wasn’t just one sound in one scene—there was a dominant rock scene at the time—but that there were people in experimental music, weird performance art, noise rock. There’s an incredible tradition of free jazz, and R&B, and hip-hop. I got an incredible musical education at a young age living here.
Not only that, but lots of people understood the power of community and resource sharing. I lived in Los Angeles from ages seventeen to twenty-one, and when I was there, when I told people what I did, people would ask, “What do you really want to do?” It was about a different kind of achievement, like, “What label do you want to go work at?” I don’t want to go work at Capitol Records! While there was certainly an independent scene that I was part of, there was an idea that it was lesser than, that it was a ladder to something else, that you would make it in that realm and then have this more traditional above-ground achievement, and then that was that was real accomplishment.
But as I write in the afterword, I came from the church of Fugazi, from having the power to say no to all kinds of things that I didn’t agree with. And I think that’s a fundamentally kind of Midwestern value. People are very cynical and skeptical about traditional accomplishments, and those sorts of mechanisms and machinations of music fame. Chicago is a place where you can build things on your own terms, and so this is where I have remained. I don’t know if I will be here forever, and I’m a little bit less connected to the everyday scene of Chicago, but I still love it.
I know I was part of a wave of gentrification in the areas that I lived in, particularly in Ukrainian Village. But as a young writer, being able to have rent an entire house—my share was 250 bucks. That allowed me to put what meager money I made back into my writing. Back then, I was willing to defrost my pipes with a hairdryer when I needed to take a shower. I couldn’t have done everything I did if Chicago had not been so accessible, including being a place where I could get around on my bike easily. It was a great time and place to be a young artist. There are still aspects of Chicago where that is still viable, especially compared to the coasts. I’m still here, and I’m invested in trying to help keep Chicago as that kind of a place. ■
Annie Howard is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and masters student in urban planning and policy, with bylines in the Guardian, Citylab, Jacobin, Slate, and elsewhere. They can be found on Twitter @tanner_howard.
Cover photo of Jessica Hopper by Mercedes Zapata.
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