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Pitchfork editor Jessica Hopper talks to Jenny Valentish about perceptions that ‘girl’ is a genre and women aren’t great critics.

By Jenny Valentish.

Writer and editor Jessica Hopper on rock’s gender trap

Jessica Hopper
Credit: DAVID SAMPSON

Women in music fall into two camps: women who are sick of talking about women in music, and women for whom talking about women in music is a life’s endeavour.

“I’m not a fucking ‘woman in music’, I’m a fucking ‘musician in music’,” clarified Neko Case on Twitter in May last year, in what, one assumes, has been a lifetime of clarification. It was around the same time that another musician, Evelyn Morris, formed LISTEN in Australia – an expanding project dedicated to documenting and promoting women in music. So you see the dichotomy.

Into this tiltyard, a new gauntlet is thrown down. Chicago music journalist Jessica Hopper has titled her anthology The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, in response to the pervading idea that “a man’s art must be preserved above all”.

Not just a music critic, Hopper is a social commentator. Whether she is deconstructing Miley Cyrus, examining the skill in which St. Vincent derails any conversation about gender, or observing that emo’s yearning about women actually omits women, her mandate is to always ask, “How much can I pull back from this and define the bigger picture?” Three months after publication, the book is in its fourth print run.

We have lunch near the ABC Melbourne studios, where Hopper is booked in to multiple programs, before her evening interview with Myf Warhurst in a soldout ACMI auditorium. I wonder if she’s hungover – it’s the slouch, the dark glasses, the red lipstick at noon – but it’s just jetlag muddled with Chicago cool. Hopper has navigated her entire career, of late-night reviews and tour bus confessions, being completely teetotal and analytical.

For the past nine months she has worked out of the Chicago branch of influential music publication Pitchfork, as senior editor of the site and editor-in-chief of the print magazine. On the wall, she says, there are photos of her kids next to the John and Yoko cover of Rolling Stone and a framed photo of [all-male] feminist band Fugazi – “my true north” – live at the Washington Monument.

As a teenage fanzine editor and nascent critic, Hopper was searching for meaning behind music. She didn’t go to college, instead learning to write from reading Joan Didion collections and the Rock She Wrote anthology that her mother bought her. Hopper’s parents are “serious journalists”. Her mother was the managing director of the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 26 years and her father was an Associated Press photo editor for 34.

“When Mum was on deadline I’d be in the newsroom, playing with the light box,” she says. “My dad lived for a time in Mexico City and he would take me to El Salvador with him. He’d go on assignments to refugee camps. To me, that was what a journalist was. I write mean record reviews of bands.”

Still, music was working to crystallise Hopper’s own belief system. “The moment I heard riot grrrl I was like, aha!” she says of the early-’90s feminist movement, led by bands such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. For some women it was a blight; instead of being seen as a genre, the music press turned it into an epidemic with which to infect every female artist’s interview. But for many young music fans, it was a revelation. “This is what sort of weirdo I am,” Hopper remembers thinking. “These are the same ideas that have been ping-ponging in my mind, not yet properly formed.”

Now that she’s starting to riff, Hopper takes off her shades to reveal solemn brown eyes. I mention my bad luck that, at odds to her experience, Mötley Crüe were my first love, grooming me only to be a good sport. She nods intensely. “For those of us who are lucky enough to find something that’s meaningful to us at the right time, it becomes your framework,” she says.

In Hopper’s home town of Minneapolis, a local all-female band, Babes in Toyland, provided the 15-year-old with more impetus to get involved. “I’d read reviews of their shows and I remember thinking, ‘Nobody gets it.’ ”

One perception of girl bands was that they were amateur, and thus were invalidating the women at the top of the pyramid. It’s as though only a golden few women are allowed in music – to be duly fetishised – and this creates a caste system, Hopper says. She’s sometimes even benefited from it herself, as a female rock critic singled out as the accepted representative.

At 18, Hopper left Minneapolis for Los Angeles for a few years, and from there to Chicago, where she’s lived ever since. Every week for eight years, she had a byline in the Chicago Reader, where she blossomed under rigorous editing and high expectations. She also ran her own publicity company, working on records by feminist group Gossip, among others.

Nobody could accuse her of not having paid her dues. As well as her work for Spin, Rookie and Village Voice, she edited a fanzine, Hit It or Quit It, for 14 years. Sasha Frere-Jones and Everett True were among the guest writers. Yet there was always that fear of not being taken seriously, of being nodded towards the backstage door upon turning up at a venue.

“Historically we think women don’t really belong here,” she says of the music industry. “They’re either interlopers or a [sexual] reward for a show well played.”

It’s not that there has been a dearth of female rock critics, I say, harking back to the title of her book. In Australia in recent years there have been female editors of Beat, Brag, Drum Media, Juice and Jmag (that was me). But there are few self-promoting “legends”. There’s no Steven Wells, Everett True or Marc Spitz – provocateurs of NME, Melody Maker and Spin respectively.

Hopper agrees. A Facebook goup of female music writers that she’s in recently discussed “the price of being gonzo and female”. If a woman writes about taking drugs in the dressing room with the band, a reader will likely apply a certain backstory to that. “It’s hard not to resent it when women do Vice-style gonzo,” she offers, “because we already have to work so hard to be taken seriously.”

If Hopper has noticed scepticism that female rock critics could be legit, she’s certainly observed scoffing around the idea that a woman could write all her own songs or produce her own album. In Hopper’s Pitchfork interview with Björk this January, the artist bristled that she had consistently been underestimated in her 30-year career. She works alone for 80 per cent of the album process, she pointed out, only to see credit be attributed to male collaborators who come on board for the final 20 per cent.

“[Kanye West] got all the best beatmakers on the planet ... to make beats for him,” she told Hopper. “A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second.”

Then there’s the case of Lana Del Rey. In The First Collection…, Hopper sets out to bust all the ugly myths that this aesthetically fascinating singer-songwriter was manufactured by male lawyers and managers. The thrilling verdict was: “The only Svengali in this thing is Lana.”

As Hopper puts it, “there is a special sort of animus reserved for women”, and if anyone could be living testament to that, it’s Courtney Love. Love is deliriously prolific in her journals and lyrics, yet there’s the long-running conspiracy theory that Kurt Cobain wrote all her songs, even those released years after he had died. If that’s true, he completely nailed the trope of the hungry, dirty girl always enviously looking in through the window. It was a searingly honest portrayal of self, and one that’s frequently cited by a new generation of songwriters, including The Veronicas, Sky Ferreira and EMA.

When Love was singing about rape, abortion and prostitution, similar narratives were coming from ’90s artists such as Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and Jewel. This wave of feminism sank back into the earth again, perhaps pushed out by dance music, but Hopper thinks it’s once more on the rise. She names Perfect Pussy, and also Alice Glass, who had been vocalist with Crystal Castles since she was 16, before leaving abruptly last year.

Glass is an interesting case study. Last month, she released the cauterising single “Stillbirth”, with a statement that it was about an abusive relationship she had been in since her teens. All proceeds from the digital sales would go to survivors. To this, the other half of Crystal Castles, Ethan Kath, responded with a diminishing statement: “I wish my former vocalist the best of luck in her future endeavours. I think it can be empowering for her to be in charge of her own project. It should be rewarding for her considering she didn’t appear on Crystal Castles’ best-known songs.” Only, she did. And she co-wrote them, too.

On the subject of insidious intimidation, LISTEN’s Evelyn Morris tells The Saturday Paper about the outpouring of stories that are shared on its forum. “One of the most dangerous aspects of our community is that people tend to sympathise with men who have behaved in abusive ways because it might be detrimental to their music status if they don’t,” she says. “The devastating impact of that is it breeds a culture of silence, or women just leave because they can’t deal with not being heard.”

Together with Save Live Australia’s Music, LISTEN was successful last month in lobbying the Victorian government to produce a taskforce to tackle sexual assault in venues. But tackling less visible abuse is trickier.

One story that’s blown up in recent months is the account by Jackie Fuchs, bass player in The Runaways, of being raped as a teenager by manager Kim Fowley in full view of her bandmates. Hopper has interviewed both the journalist who broke that story and the reporter who had doggedly brought to light the allegations of rape against R. Kelly. It was partly to solidify her personal feelings about how to deal with an inconvenient truth, but then her own report on R. Kelly got eight million clicks in three days, making it the biggest story in the history of Village Voice. R. Kelly, she says with pleasure, finally began to get seriously quizzed on the matter.

“I’m loath to participate in things that offend me,” she says about the Woody Allen dilemma of whether we can still enjoy art when the creator disappoints us. “I care about women too much to dice up music for the sake of convenience, to just enjoy parts of it without engaging fully. Listening to something by someone who is morally loathsome is not something I can do.”

It’s Hopper’s belief that the younger generation of music writers and consumers demands this kind of broader discussion of music.

“People who grew up making blogs on LiveJournal use their identity as a framework for how they interpret culture,” she says. “People want to talk about this album in relation to their experience of middle-class blackness, or that album in relation to trans-identity. For a long time we were stuck with the solitary canon – The Beatles were the best band, or if not them, it must be The Rolling Stones. Now that whole MOJO thing, that this is the right way to do real music, is being replaced by discourse.”

When this interview wraps up, Hopper will go back to her quest of finding kangaroo paraphernalia for her sons: William, 5, and Jude, 3. She met her husband, Matt Clark, when she was doing PR for his band, Joan of Arc, 15 years ago.

“I was at a Hold Steady show and he spent most of the night half-drunkenly synopsising the Malcolm Gladwell book Blink,” she says of their first connection. At a later, proper date, “he made a pun that made a reference to both The Replacements and Jasper Johns … and I knew I was going to marry this man.”

Given that Hopper’s got two kids, she should retire now, right? She’s had her moment and she should let the next exceptional woman rise to the fore for her turn. Except, her experience only seems to add more depth to that big picture.

“Lorde gets interviewed by a parade of 50-year-old guys,” says Hopper. “So does Taylor Swift, so we end up with the same old narratives.” By contrast, four minutes into Hopper’s interview with fellow mother Björk – an artist who can be notoriously prickly – both women were crying. Björk’s new album, Vulnicura, was an intensely personal one about the breakdown of her family life. “I don’t think she would have had the same dialogue with someone who wasn’t a mum,” says Hopper. “In most interviews she does with men they write about her as though she’s some fragile little wood sprite.”

As Björk told Hopper, “I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them, ‘You’re not just imagining things.’ ” Hopper feels a similar responsibility – she edits young writers for The Pitch section of Pitchfork, published the book The Girls’ Guide to Rocking for budding musicians, and when she held a workshop in Melbourne for girls under 20, fans flew in from around the country. Hopper is set to return to Australia next month for Big Sound.

One pressing point for those fans was not to cover women as a trend. Not to group them into this and that, or to write well-meaning women-in-rock round-ups. “It took a long time for me to realise that was marginalising,” she says. “I won’t do it anymore, and I won’t let anyone who writes for me do it either.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2015 as "The gender trap". Subscribe here.

Jenny Valentish
is a journalist and the author of Woman of Substances, a book about addiction.