Though she’s not yet 40, Jessica Hopper has been writing about music for more than 20 years. And though it’s 2015, she is, by her calculation, the only living female rock critic to publish a collection of critical essays, hence the title of her new book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, out May 12.
Hopper’s collection explores the spectrum of popular music from garage to rap to Christian rock, transporting readers to basement punk shows where sweat drips from the stage onto concertgoers and Pearl Jam festivals where fans congregate, “numb in Vedder-ticipation.” Her 40-odd essays offer both a sweeping survey of two decades of music and a microscopic examination of artists as familiar as Miley Cyrus and as obscure as the noise punk group Coughs.
Hopper wants to offer permission to young girls—permission she recalls receiving in observing the careers of critics like Terri Sutton—to play and participate in music in whatever way they choose. As the title of her book conveys, she believes women’s experience in music, both as consumers and creators, is marginalized; for her, it’s about moving the dial.
Hopper spoke to TIME from her offices at Pitchfork, where she is a senior editor, about how she got her start, revisiting her mortifying adolescent fanzines and the legitimacy of the teenage fangirl.
TIME: What was your path from music lover to music critic?
Jessica Hopper: When it began for me was being obsessed with a band called Babes in Toyland when I was about 15 years old. They were an all-female band in Minneapolis in the early ‘90s. I read a piece in one of the local monthlies, [in which the writer] was talking about how caustic and shrieky they were, these aesthetics that were really empowering [to me]. I called this magazine and said, you’ve got this wrong. I’ve never written before, I’m in ninth grade, but I think you should have somebody do another story, and it should be me. Nobody called me back. But I knew what fanzines were, and all it took was me going to Kinkos. I started getting my first freelance checks from City Pages, which I continue to write for, when I was 16.
What was it like for you to revisit work that was published a long time ago?
It was sometimes painful, as regarding one’s own work often is. I [started] rereading my fanzines from high school, and I would get two pages in and be mortified. But fortunately I had an MFA student who was my summer intern, and I gave him huge stacks of mouldering work and had him put sticky notes on it, a red/yellow/green coding system. He wasn’t a music guy, so he was just looking for the quality of writing and how much it resonated with him.
It probably helped that he wasn’t a music expert.
I really want it to be accessible. I really want [to say to] girls and women and people who sometimes have had the way that they care about music marginalized as “fan-girling,” how we care is totally real, and you are included in this. I also want people who aren’t into indie or punk politics or don’t care a fig about emo to go, oh, I understand why this is meaningful to someone. I wanted to take people in rather than for it to be like we’re breathing some rarefied air up in this discussion. I want everybody to be able to come to the party.
Some of your pieces read as much as personal essay as they do criticism. How do you balance your personal reaction with criticism of the music’s merit as a work of art?
As I got older there was less of a personal narrative. With [some of my earlier pieces], I was still working out my critical framework. I don’t want people to have to know who I am or where I’m from for my take to make sense. I looked at how my male peers never started a sentence with “I think,” they just started with a definitive, “This band is…” I wanted my work to have that same authority.
Did you have any qualms about the title?
It was mostly a joke at first, but as soon as I joked to [my publisher] about it, he said we have to call the book that. My only reservation was that I didn’t want it to background anybody else’s work. I had so many people that would say, “Essays don’t sell,” or, “There’s no precedent, you’re supposed to be dead.” I was like, does Chuck Klosterman get this treatment when he pitches a book? No.
What do you think the title accomplishes?
It starts a conversation, it plants a flag, it makes space for other people, it sets a precedent, it is a pretty active “F-U” to anyone that’s turned down a book pitch from a woman. I’m not the first down my path, and my introduction speaks to that. I have critical music books written by women that I’ve been reading since high school. Any door that opens for me, I’m trying to open it for other people.
I saw that you tweeted recently about how someone asked you what the hardest thing is about being a female critic.
I was like, do you ever ask a man this question? And at the same time, if somebody has been reading certain magazines and books their whole life, I might be the only female critic they’ve ever heard the name of. It’s the hard part of identifying as something for certain purposes but then also refuting it in some ways.
Last year when the blog My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection came out, some people felt that a woman writing about music as a non-expert would provide ammo for male critics to box women out of the field. What was your take?
How many reviews do you read where it says something like, “This is something your mom would like”? It extends the maligning [of] the teenage fangirl. Teenage girls are the number one purchasers of music. Are we going to say their fandom is fake? This idea that there is a right way to like music and a right music to like and a right way to express that—it all works together in this prescribed idea of how women are supposed to participate in music. Decades and decades of women being told we like music in the wrong way. It’s all just a myth.