Portrait of a Sexist
KEEPING IT REAL WITH JESSICA
by Jeremy Kitchen
Chicagoans have been inundated with The Commodification of Cool, a phrase coined by Thomas Frank in the go-go 90s, ever since the rise of The Baffler. Prior to the Internet, many of us had an understanding of how capitalism had destroyed “alternative” culture, thanks to Frank and others' analyses. Religiously reading The Baffler and other independent publications at Quimby's filled many an afternoon. At the time, Quimby's was across the street from Myopic books on Damen Avenue. You could smoke in Quimby's and I would bring my basset hound, Dolemite, and smoke cigarettes and read away my afternoons. I learned pretty much everything I knew at the time from those zine marathons. Again, this was BEFORE the Internet, 100% analog.
Rereading Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy, edited by Thomas Frank and Dave Mulcahey, reprints of Baffler essays, and Against Everything: Essays by Mark Greif, made me think of the Jessica Hopper phenomenon. How does such a bad writer get so much press? Greif inadvertently sums up Hopper Culture succinctly in these lines from his essay, “What Was The Hipster?”: “...the hipster faces the same tension faced by those early colonizers of Wicker Park. The hipster is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual—the neo-bohemian, the vegan of bicyclist or skate punk, the would be blue-collar or post racial twenty-something, the starving artist or graduate student—who in fact aligns himself with both the Rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”
Jessica Hopper reviews music. She has written a few books, including Girls Guide to Rocking and most recently Night Moves. She wrote for Punk Planet when she was young, had a zine which included a corny essay about emo music that she regurgitates over and over. Her writing is juvenile, and more importantly, lazy. “Can you ignore the marginalization of women’s lives on the records that line your record shelves in hopes that feigned ignorance will bridge the gulf … ?” she demanded. “It’s almost too big of a question to ask.” So no Beach Boys, no Stones, not classic rock, nothing but female fronted punk bands. In another interview she describes her “grunge” phase, which was to *ahem* impress boys. Grunge was pretty male dominated, but who am I to “mansplain.” Mansplain is a word Hopper loves to drop when someone tries to criticize her writing. Normally we would dismiss this as youthful indiscretion, but, as a grown 42 year-old, she is still re-publishing essays she wrote as a teenager. She tweeted her love for Pere Ubu recently although they have an album called Why I Hate Women. I guess she forgot to ask herself about Pere Ubu.
I searched for a negative review of her work and could find none (except a quote from Steve Albini; there are eleven pages of criticism on the Electrical Audio comment boards, including from Albini’s wife, who says Hopper stalked and harassed her husband for fifteen years). Instead, she gets slobbering reviews of her works like she is the second coming of Simone de Beauvoir. Are people afraid to criticize women writers in this age of political correctness? Shouldn't women be subject to the same criticism as their male peers? Even Joyce Carol Oates gets negative reviews, what makes Hopper immune to criticism? Are there no women critics out there who find her works lame? Or does no one care? Here is Albini’s criticism verbatim: “The dumbest professional music writer in Chicago though is a retard named Jessica Hopper, whose writing is simultaneously sophomoric, vapid and excruciatingly self-satisfied. It is literally impossible to glean any actual content or criticism from her writing, which is an achievement of some sort, I suppose.” More like Steve Al-Meanie!
Hopper is the only female music critic in the whole wide world. This we know from her super awesome book, The First Collection of Rock Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Of course, music critics like Ann Powers, who has been writing since 1993, would probably disagree. She mentions Powers in the introduction to her recycled essays, but have you heard of a more ego-maniacal title in all your life? She is the music critic for those who do not care or know about music, a critic for the Pitchfork/Vice set, a trendster Oprah, telling cool mommies that Sleater Kinney is still awesome and Bikini Kill is influential, two subjects that have been nearly flogged to death. One could argue the Go-Go’s did more for women in rock than Bikini kill or their ilk, and they certainly outlasted the Riot Grrl trend. From her days as a teenie bopper zinester, to her thesaurus-thumping reviews at Pitchfork, Hopper is somehow considered the Chicago end-all-be-all of music criticism. Why does Minneapolis native Hopper get to claim Chicago as her own, when she now lives outside the city limits and grew up in Minnesota?
I moved to Chicago in 1995 with a slew of kids I either grew up, went to college, or played music with. We came from Michigan, from places like Kalamazoo, Taylor, Owosso, Auburn Hills, Northville, Ann Arbor, Flint, among others. Back then not too many people were moving to Detroit, and most of us could not afford NYC or the West Coast. Out of those twenty or so people, only a few of us stayed to build careers, buy homes, and commit to the city that we love. Many of my friends moved back to Michigan or elsewhere after they used Chicago as their playground in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties. There is nothing wrong with that, but they do not claim to be spokespeople for the entire city and its music culture.
Jessica Hopper moved to the suburbs to be a mommy at least three years ago if my Internet sleuthing is correct, yet she somehow stands as the premier music journalist of Chicago? Why, this would make her an equal with John Kass, the bloated, ruddy, “get off my lawn” columnist of Tribune fame. He sits on his gilded throne in Western Springs, complaining of Chicago’s ills. Can you imagine Gillian McCain co-authoring Please Kill Me (a book co-written by a female music critic) from Connecticut or Hoboken? Hopper used to rip on bands at Gossip Wolf because they left Chicago and still claimed Chicago as their hometown. Why does she do the same? For non-Chicagoans, Gossip Wolf is a weekly column in the Chicago Reader where Hopper once had a place to gossip about bands weekly.
For fleeing Chicago, she uses the lame excuse that she was priced out of her neighborhood. I call bullshit. Hopper fled Chicago because, wait for it….she was scared of Chief Keef. And possibly Lollapalooza? Here is a direct quote from Hopper: “It feels like too much to bear witness to, this city, these days…. I dreamt of Keef’s baby, who is only 2 months older than my littlest baby. I dreamt of Lupe crying after he cried on MTV, which is I think how everyone feels. It was the most emotionally fatiguing story I have reported in years. The messed up city is getting the pop star it deserves in Keef.” Is she claiming that Chief Keef is an accurate characterization of the South Side? Not everyone South of Roosevelt spends their days making videos of themselves pointing guns, shooting dice, and smoking blunts. Some of them even have careers, families, and engage in cultural activities! She later contradicts herself in another interview: “My other hope is it’s evangelizing for people to stay in the Midwest or to come back here. You can find spaces here that are affordable and allow you to have a life that isn’t just a total grind.” She is stating that Chicago has affordable spaces, the antithesis of why she left in the first place? WTF?
If you want a very readable critique of the creative class and the takeover of the Wicker Park/West Town area, pick up Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy, and you will see how Hopper’s arguments are moot. The section “Authenticity, Inc.” covers this time period and gives a nice takedown of the commodification of alternative/punk culture, the very thing that is Hopper’s bread and butter. Mike Newirth, in his essay “Zoned Bohemian,” also from Boob Jubilee, sums up Hopper and her ilk perfectly. “Today Wicker Park hipsterism extorts from us only an enthusiastic apathy in return for all the bought objects, the insubstantial retro gear, the puckish publications offering guides to the moment's favored cultural ironies, the focaccia, the electronica. Meantime, any notion of action or protest----to say nothing of resistance---dissolves in favor of shallow self articulation.” You could put that blurb on any of Hopper’s work and sum it up brilliantly. This was seven years before Hopper was “priced” out of her “$250” apartment in Wicker Park, a neighborhood that was long gone by 2004.
Hopper was at the house the night Kurt Cobain was murdered or blew his brains out, depending on who you ask...and then she fled back to Minneapolis. Hopper is mentioned on many Cobain conspiracy blogs and contradicts herself repeatedly in interviews. When she is not contradicting herself she is getting hysterical, like she did in a YouTube video that has since been removed. It involved a reporter pressing the issue in Dublin. Hopper, according to many sources, lied about her whereabouts. She and her boyfriend, Michael Dewitt, were there on the night of the alleged suicide. She usually blows off questions with evasive answers, referring to her boyfriend as “the punk rock nanny,” but isn’t it strange that the only living female rock critic in the whole wide world, who happens to be one of the biggest self-promoting hipsters on the planet, never once associates herself with the biggest rock star in the world (at the time)? Or that a fawning oral history of Hole in Spin magazine never mentions the fact that she and her pet heroin addict were there that night? Here is her review of the Nirvana box set where she compares Cobain to Jim Morrison and never mentions her relationship with the dead icon.
Her 2003 essay “Emo: Where the Girls Aren't” reads like an 8th grader’s diary, “ya know dog, history is wack.” And were not emo guys sad because there were no girls around? Isn't that the fucking point of emo? Why didn't Hopper start her own emo band? She has made a career out of being a terrible writer, why couldn't she start a shitty band like Strike Under? Sniffing Glue, one of the first punk zines, had a chart depicting everything you need to know to start a punk band, reproduced here:
Hopper claims to have played in punk bands over the years. When you do a search three bands pop up: Burning Airlines, Shiner, and Pedro the Lion. Apparently, she “promoted” them. What do all three of these bands have in common? They all suck ass.
Another essay, from Totally Awesome Essays from a Totally Hip Chick, talks about former Chicago noise band Coughs. Hopper gushes over how totally awesome and feminist they were and then criticizes another girl for acting crazy at a Coughs show. Coughs were a fun band, but they are almost a carbon copy of the art damaged noise that came before them. She uses totally awesome adjectives, like “razor sharp skronking,” and describes the band members clothing in detail, but at the end of the day she is seeing what generations of art students have done before: make weird noise music while acting crazy. Maybe Hopper should listen to some more Scissor Girls or Lake of Dracula or early Arab on Radar (early lineup had a woman bass player). Her non-stop fan girl gushing is boring and her endless descriptions are lazy and pretentious. Local faves Toupee are pretty skronking live too, maybe she could drive in from the burbs and check them out.
Hopper was once a writer/editor at Pitchfork. For those of you who do not read overwrought music reviews for trust-funders, Pitchfork is a music blog that is noted for having a known pedophile headline their music festival, and promoting edgy artists like Lana Del Rey and The National.
Again, why does no one ever write a negative critique of Hopper’s work? Her new book Night Moves (did she MOVE to the suburbs at night?) is a bunch of boring observations, like people riding their bikes in the city, or that drinking Theraflu is somehow like a Fluxus performance. Maybe her next title should be Mommyrock: Keeping it Real in the Burbs. Hopper is the MTV of the Pitchfork generation, commodifying an art form and regurgitating it to the masses. Riding trends is not edgy, it is boring, overwrought, and lazy, just like Hopper’s work.
If you would like to read essays by Midwestern women, try Anne Elizabeth Moore or Meghan O'Gieblyn, or Samantha Irby. Female rock critics? How about Augusta Brown? She was writing classical music criticism (and over 200 works for piano) in the 19th century! I wonder what Augusta would say about Hopper’s privileged hipster journalism?
Greif, once again: “The early white hipster aped the ‘unmeltable ethnics’ (Irish, Italian, Polish and so forth), but now with the ethnicities scrubbed off. And rather than an indie or bohemian subculture, it felt like an ethnicity--with its clannishness, it's claiming of micro-neighborhoods from other, older migrants. . . .and its total uninterest in integrating into the local population.”
He forgot, “and then they move to the suburbs.” Hopper is not Chicago nor is she a very good writer. She is, however, a great self-promoter. Hopper is a Minnesotan transplanted to Chicago who wrote about her time here as a young person. Let’s leave it at that.
© Jeremy Kitchen 2019
Originally published January 11, 2019