by Jay Gabler
April 16, 2014
Every day we talk about great musicians who have come out of Minnesota—especially those who are still here—but the Twin Cities have produced some great music journalists too. In fact, one of today's busiest and most interesting music journalists, Jessica Hopper, got her start in the Twin Cities as a teenager in the early 1990s.
Today, Hopper lives in Chicago, where she writes at a breathtaking pace for a range of national and local publications; she's also music editor at Rookie, a publication for teenage girls that's become one of the defining voices of the post-millennial generation. Last December, Hopper's interview with fellow Chicago music journalist Jim DeRogatis re-opened an international discussion about the R. Kelly sexual assault allegations.
Last week I spoke by phone with Hopper. We talked about Minnesota, music, feminism, the challenges of a career in music journalism, the lasting legacy of Babes in Toyland, and why Prince is a punk—in a good way.
You're working on a bunch of different projects. Could you describe how you're apportioning your professional time these days?
I work on a bunch of small projects for Rookie; basically, if it relates to music for Rookie, I'm handling it. I try to find stuff that is interesting and appealing to our readers to premiere—generally female artists—and find people to do our theme songs. I do a local music column for the Chicago Tribune, I do various projects editorially for different magazines, and then I write for SPIN and GQ and BuzzFeed and six or seven other places regularly.
Right now I'm actually taking a little break to work on one big oral history project that's coming out next week and I can't tell you what it is yet, and then I'm picking out stuff for an anthology of my work that's coming out in early 2015, so I'm doing a bunch of that stuff. I'm actually kind of stepping away from a lot of the writing stuff that I would normally do for about two months so that I can work on this book project and work on a couple [of] bigger stories rather than making 20 deadlines a week.
What do you make of the Minnesota music scene, now, as a music journalist who grew up here?
I don't keep tabs on it, obviously, the way that I did when I was there and my entire world was going to shows and seeing bands at the Entry or house shows or all the different places...I'm old, so I went and saw bands at, like, Speedboat Gallery all the time when I was in high school.
I think we're probably about the same age. I was born in 1975.
Alright, so you're a year older, so I just called you old too.
Hip-hop seems to be the most dominant form [in Minnesota now]. I hear a lot less about bands [as opposed to hip-hop acts]. I was just watching a video from Lioness last night. The stuff that I know about now is much more hip-hop-oriented and not punk bands and stuff—which, when I was growing up, was obviously the dominant thing. I don't know if there's less stuff [other than hip-hop] coming out of Minneapolis, but obviously I grew up in a time when there were some national bands coming out of Minneapolis. I grew up in the era of Trip Shakespeare and Walt Mink. There was much more of a tangible Minneapolis rock scene, and the Minneapolis Sound and things like that. It seems like the paradigm has very much shifted over to hip-hop, which is awesome.
Do you think you could have seen this surge in Minnesota hip-hop coming? Was there much of a Minnesota hip-hop scene when you were out and about around here?
There was a little bit of stuff, but I feel like it was more R&B. You know, Mint Condition. I worked at the St. Paul Northern Lights [record store] location, and I feel like there was more of a burgeoning hip-hop scene in St. Paul. I don't know...I was tangentially aware, but back then, no one was booking, taste-wise, shows that were ecumenical. There was the noise scene, and then there was the punk scene, and then there was the really-for-real underground punk scene. That was the gamut that was spanned in terms of shows that I could see, and then there were little bits of hip-hop here and there. I think it was very much bubbling under, but it wasn't something that I was encountering when I was going to shows.
Among the various bands that you listened to back when you were living in the Twin Cities, which ones do you still listen to? Is there ever an LP that you dig out from back in the day?
Who doesn't always go back to Prince? I go through different phases...like, I'll have a year-long re-appreciation of different Prince records. Maybe about eight years ago I went through a stint of only listening to Prince and re-appraising Sign 'O' the Times. I would say that is a record that I continually go back to. It's one of those records where you come to new understandings of it, or all of a sudden you hear some weird tiny thing. My relationships with various Hüsker Dü records and the Replacements [below] and Babes in Toyland have not changed since I was a teenager. They've only deepened, they've only grown.
I don't keep tabs on him like I should, but to me it's always refreshing when you see an artist who completely rejects the status quo of what being a contemporary pop artist is. That's always going to be interesting. The side of Prince that's still a punk is always interesting to me, regardless of what I make of his music. I saw him for the first time last year, actually.
The first time ever?
Yeah, he started a stand at the Riverview Center here [in Chicago] and I reviewed it for Rolling Stone. The entire night was a medley, and it was...okay. It was funny, because he's obviously a transcendent performer, but he did six or seven shows here that were probably all different. I grew up very much with that legacy—hearing from my mom about Prince shows, or from other people about the weird random places he showed up and played, so it was hard not to have that totally transcendent, magical, special, shiny Prince experience.
One thing that probably Chicago and Minneapolis have in common—and probably every city in the world, but certainly these two—is a lot of very self-conscious discussion from within the community about the local music scene. Is it vibrant, is it awesome, does it suck, what have you. Do you think that local music scenes still matter? Are they relevant?
Very much so! I really love that I get to be the local music columnist for the Tribune in Chicago, because I have to keep up on stuff. Sometimes it's not even stuff that I like, musically, but I have to care about because it's happening here and I have to report on it. I've grown to be a great appreciator of amateurs and upstarts and those things that people are trying to foster and get going at a very sub-ground-roots level. They're still very much basement bands and barely playing out. The questions and the concerns about it are durable. They're always the same: feeling like you're just trying to get something going and you're just trying to help create a scene among your friends and you're trying to separate yourself from whatever is the trend you think is stupid in town. I really admire and appreciate local-band aspirations in the forms that they always take.
What sort of changes have you seen over the last ten years in the way that a local band interfaces with a broader scene—the way that local band aspirations have changed with the advent of the Internet?
[For artists] it used to be like, "The Internet is this magical land, and if we rub it the right way, we're going to get our wishes." Now, I think, people see how much it has reduced the collective attention span. People have seen how it's sped up cycles of attention they might be able to get. I answered a question this week in my Fan Landers column from a band that's saying they put out an EP a couple of years ago that did really well—their first EP—and they got a lot of attention online, and now it's like two years later. They put [the EP] out and it made a dent, but the duration of the attention was short. A month of hype is about what they got out of it, and they're trying to figure out, "Is it because I charged five dollars for my thing on Bandcamp? Should I have made it free? How do I get people to pay attention for longer?"
It's just, like, honestly I don't think that's going to happen again. I think bands' moments in the sun are going to get even shorter and shorter, and as we already know you have to work harder and tour longer and the possibility of making a living from your band is much shorter, because one of the great things about the playing field being leveled is that people can access anything now. You don't have to search long to find things you're interested in. The much harder thing is that all this choice winnows down [the opportunity] to get in there and be discovered. How do you get in somebody's playlist when maybe they're just listening to all their favorites all the time or they're just listening to the Joan Baez Pandora station? We are afforded an opportunity to be much more selective about what we listen to, so how do you break through that? I did a big piece that basically was about this; that's why bands are doing advertising, because doing songs in ads serves those two purposes. In many ways, advertising is still one of the last great common denominators.
Do you think a local scene is important in terms of being able to generate a fan base who come out to see you multiple times? I know that's always been important in the music world, but maybe even more so in what you describe as this age of reduced attention spans—that face-to-face relationship.
Oh, yeah. That's one of the things in my Fan Landers column that I just continually remind people: the idea that you can do X and Y and wind up with Z in terms of what you end up with as a band, the idea that you could get specific results by doing certain things that would allow you to get a certain kind of traction for your band, those days are beyond us now. The thing you can count on is all the givens of being a local band and cementing something in your local scene, developing a fan base. If you can do that, if you can really put in the work locally, it's one of the few places that you can reliably get out what you put into it. That infrastructure doesn't change much.
That infrastructure of playing shows, cultivating a local fan base.
Yes. And, you know, [playing] house shows and college radio...all those things, those are some of the things that have not changed, that still reliably work in the same way that they did 20 years ago. If you show up and pay your dues and you're a half-decent live band and you're good at networking and you don't annoy other bands, you ingratiate yourself into a local scene and help build it—pretty reliably, you can get back what you put into it. So many bands are still, "How do we get beyond the local scene?" Most bands, that's not going to happen, and as much as we think, "Maybe if I put these things on Bandcamp, and I do these things right, then maybe I can be something more than a local band"...there's certainly nothing wrong with those aspirations, and I think most bands have them, but thinking of smaller-term success and anchoring a local scene, there's something quite noble to that.
Most people probably aren't going to be satisfied with "noble," but I think it's very worthwhile: seeing those results and seeing that you can put in work that is for the greater good. You can play benefits, you can help build an all-ages scene—if you become a slightly more popular band, then you can demand having all-ages shows, or you can challenge people around you to start having those all-ages shows. [There are] different things you can do to make music inclusive, and honor it, in a way, honor what it means in people's lives.
There are some women here in Chicago who are working to open a venue because we don't have a legitimate all-ages venue in Chicago any more that's accessible, that's in a place that's safe, that's in a neighborhood that you'd want to go to whether you're young or a woman or coming in from the suburbs or whatever barriers may be there. They're basically [creating] a consortium of feminist women here who are making a place that is truly accessible to all people, and that is everything from it's wheelchair accessible to it's in a safe, well-lit place that you can get to on public transportation that's going to be all ages. It's going to be a non-profit, which was the only way to push it through here in Chicago; there are probably 20 people working to open a venue where they feel queer people and teenage girls and people that don't drive and people that are not able to climb a flight of stairs can go see an all-ages show.
It seems like opening a club space is not radical, but there are barriers that are sometimes invisible to us—especially as we get older—to going to shows, to being able to appreciate music, to being able to connect with other people that care about the things that we do in real life, not just on the Internet. That's a radical notion right there. That is real work, and that's part of the reason I still totally care about my local scene.
That's where it starts: when you are 14 and 15 years old, that is where it starts for you. That's how you learn what music is supposed to be about and what a scene is supposed to be about, and I feel like so much of what I still do and how I still approach things comes from what I learned talking to people at shows at Speedboat or making and selling zines around Minneapolis in, whatever it was, 1993—the spirit that I picked up. Just different ideas about what DIY really meant and what community really meant and what were the right reasons to do things, basically. All those things, I learned when I was 15 or 16 years old, going to shows in Minneapolis. It absolutely informs how I do what I do now, 20 years later.
Your mention of issues of gender and house shows leads into another question I had—really, it's an anecdote that I'd be interested to hear your reaction to. I was at a house show with my girlfriend a few months ago; a bunch of bands were playing, and they were just fine, and I looked over and my girlfriend was just sort of looking disgusted. She said, "This is just like college. It's just, like, boys in bands, boys in bands, boys in bands." And I realized that there hadn't been a single woman in the few bands we'd seen play. She said, "Everybody tells boys, 'be in a band,' and they're in a band, and everybody swoons, and nobody tells girls to be in a band." As someone who's written a girls' guide to rocking, could you talk about that culture of male privilege in music?
That's sort of what the book was in response to, because the vast majority of women that I know that play music or have been involved in music on that level said it took seeing an example to basically give them permission. I think, lots of times for women, you have to see someone like yourself or someone up there expressing your sentiment. I mean, I'd been to a couple hardcore shows at the Entry when I was, like, in ninth grade, and there was something about it...while I loved to listen to punk records in my house, going to shows it didn't connect, and I have this vague memory of saying to my friend, there's something about this that's not interesting to me. I couldn't quite place it, and he said, this band, Babes in Toyland [above], they have a record coming out in, like, two weeks. You'd really like them, you should go see them.
This was still quite early in Babes' career, and I just remember being electrified. It was like, I suddenly had my marching orders—seeing Kat Bjelland screaming and Lori playing. This is when Michelle was still in the band, and Michelle's playing was quite primitive, and I was like, I can do that! That was my permission slip, and that's how I've always explained it. There are a couple of books in the same vein as mine that exist, but I very much wanted it to be for the girl who didn't live in a city where there's a rock band, or whose interest in music is private, who doesn't know any other people who have any sort of interest in her interest in making music, or girls who maybe got interested in singing through pop radio, but they want to write their own songs.
Those resources and that encouragement are not always there, and I certainly know that from the girls as young as nine years old who wrote to me saying, "My brother told me that the music I like is not real music." So what if they want to play One Direction songs on their guitar? That doesn't make them any less [as] musicians. I think lots of times young women and women who are still in their early amateur phase come up very early against notions that women battle long into their careers: [notions of] authenticity, [the idea that] you can't play shows until you're virtuosic, [that] there's one right way to do it, a real way to do it...it's very macho, and that's not true. That is one of the great myths. Part of [my book] is to empower girls to [play music] and dispel those myths, but also to give them all the tools and all the permission that I possibly could.
Now that you've been at Rookie for almost a year, what have you learned working on that project?
One of the things that I've learned working with [founder] Tavi [Gevinson] and the rest of the editorial staff and the rest of our writers and illustrators is how little credence people still give teenage girls and their taste. The New York Times last week profiled Rookie and Tavi for, like, the fifth time in two-and-a-half years, and every single one of those articles is basically like, this site and this girl—Tavi Gevinson—are incredibly influential, not just [among] teenage girls but in culture. They're changing teenage girl culture.
There's still very much this stereotype, especially within the music industry and even just within the music scene, that teenage girls are not serious consumers of music, even though they are the number one purchasers of music—of CDs especially, oddly enough. Teenage girls are the number one consumers of music, they are the number one drivers of taste, and yet they are still not considered serious music fans.
Sometimes people will step to us and be like, "I really want you to premiere this blah-blah-blah band; all their fans are teenage girls, because they're really cute." I just think, you've never actually read Rookie. You've never actually visited our site. We don't cover dudes. We don't write about dudes because they're cute, we write about music that we like because it's music that we like. Hazel Cills, who's one of our writers, wrote a piece recently about how sometimes when we would post these—on Fridays, we do a playlist, sort of a mix tape for our readers, and it's on a theme—some of our writers were getting tweets from older male music fans who'd be like, "Oh, isn't this cool? They actually know about Jonathan Richman," like, praising the coolness of their thing, not realizing that they were basically insulting us [by implying] that having deep music knowledge is somehow out of teen-girl depth, or that you can't like One Direction and the Carter Family at the same time.
The thing that I've learned is how, as cool and as radical and as taste-making as Rookie [is], we are still very much fighting a battle against a world that thinks teenage girls are dumb and not serious about music or culture, when the young women I work with and the Rookie readers—you can tell in the comments—understand much more than the world gives them credit for. It makes me very proud to be part of Rookie, and helping create a place for those girls to be taken seriously.
Having worked on different writing projects, I find music writing to be one of the hardest kinds of writing there is. Every music genre has its conventions: the band comes out, they play their songs, they play their encore...in some ways, the script is so standard, but then to write something meaningful about that band, you feel like you're writing for an audience of such hardcore fans who have such deep knowledge about the band that you feel like you need to live up to.
The thing is, I don't ever assume that the people I'm writing for are hardcore. I try to write more general-interest, I try to write stuff that brings people in but might also make people more curious about this band or this record. I never want to alienate the people that are new to it.
How do you successfully put into words what happens up there on stage, or what's happening when you're listening to a record? That's a huge question, but...
It's funny: I mostly listen to records I review in isolation. I don't work in an office with other people. I used to have a lot more dialogue with about things I was writing, bouncing ideas off people. [That's] partly because I have much less time to write these days—I have a family, so my time is precious and much less abundant than it used to be. When I'm listening to a record, I'm trying to hear the bigger things that an artist might be getting at. I'm trying to pinpoint if there are things I can attach it to, what sort of theories and conclusions I can draw taken from the big picture: not just what they're singing, not just what they're playing.
You know, I'm never interested in "Is it good or bad?" any more. When I was a young writer, writing for City Pages when I was in tenth and eleventh grade, it was, is this record good? And now, I've gone much more the other way towards....I don't want to say more intellectual criticism, because I'm still very much capable of unintellectual criticism, but I want to go towards, what is this saying about us if we like it? What is this music trying to say about culture? What is this emblematic of? What is this going against the grain of? What does this tell us about women's lives right now? What does this tell us about how men receive culture? As a critic and as a writer, when I'm listening to things, more than anything I'm looking for themes and ideas that are in there.
Do you have any advice for college students who are aspiring to careers in music journalism? What would you like them to know, from your perspective?
A career is hard. [laughs] It sucks, because if I was starting a career today, I don't know that I would be able to have a career [in music journalism] with the opportunities that are out there. One of the things I do know about how I've managed to have the career that I've had is that I really...a lot of my colleagues who went to journalism school and things that I didn't do, they were really trying to be generalists and know a little bit about everything. I was always a specialist. I've always just pursued the things that I was passionate about and very interested in. Lots of times that was work made by women that spoke to me as a human being who is very aware of the struggles of women in the world, and so I specialized. Then when people needed that thing, they came to me, and that is how I had a career. I stuck to my guns.
Granted, that meant I lost out on certain kinds of work and that meant it took longer to get certain places, but you know, what it meant is that I always got to do the work I wanted. I always got to do the work that challenged me. Sometimes that meant I had to fight for those opportunities and those challenges, but it meant that for 80-90% of the time I've gotten to do work that was truly meaningful to me in some regard, and it's kept me from burning out.
I know that's hard to do, because a lot of the writers that I work with as an editor—and there have been times that this was very much my situation—you know, you're making rent 60 bucks at a time off of whatever record reviews you can get assigned. I've been self-employed since I was 19 years old. I'm 37. That has its ups and downs, certainly, but I feel like if there had been things I'd capitulated to in other areas of my career, I wouldn't be in the place that I am now because you can never get your integrity back once you give it away. A lot of the time that's meant being broke. There's been times in my career where I found out retrospectively [that] I qualified for food stamps. What's been most important to me in the last ten years, since I've been a writer full-time, is that doing meaningful work meant finding ways to dig in and do work that mattered to me. Sometimes that meant very little money, and it meant finding editors who understood what I was doing—finding supporters when they were few and far between—[but] that allowed me to publish work that mattered to me, and that mattered to a lot of people.