Local Current Blog

Jessica Hopper’s advice to young music journalists

courtesy Jessica Hopper

Twice each year, The Current hosts a professional development event for college-student music journalists that write for the Local Current blog, also known as the college contributors. Last fall’s College Contributors Day served as a chance for the writers to meet each other and local music journalists (both at the Current and other various publications), as well as discussing the fundamentals of writing about music.

The day’s climax was a speech by Jessica Hopper, a Chicago-based music journalist with Minnesota roots. She’s editor at the Pitchfork Review and a past music editor at Rookie Magazine, and she’s written for numerous national and international music publications. The guest of honor spoke about her “unconventional” path to music journalism and provided stories and insight to the next generation of music writers.

“I didn’t go to college for journalism,” she said. “I didn’t go to college, period. I started writing professionally when I was 16. My first paid reviews were for City Pages when I was in high school. That happened because I was doing a fanzine…I made this little forty-page Xeroxed fanzine that I would make every few months at Kinko’s and distribute. Minneapolis was a small enough place that it got around and it was in record stores, and other people who cared about music and participated in the music scene saw it. I came in to work perhaps—I tend to think, sheerly on the novelty that I was a very enthusiastic teenager with very staunch opinions about everything. That got me some writing jobs.”

Here are more highlights from Hopper’s remarks last fall, in honor of her new book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic being highlighted as The Current’s Rock and Roll Book Club pick for June.

Punk rock roots

“I had very deep interest in writing about punk rock, and feminism, and women in bands. I was very inspired by Riot Grrrl, sort of like a form of radical punk rock feminism that happened in the early 90s—Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna. I wasn’t what’s called a generalist. People talk about, ‘Well, our teachers have told us it’s good to be a generalist and be able to write about everything so you can get whatever job happens to be available to you, and that you can write about anything.’ The thing is that I couldn’t write about everything: I could only write about things I knew a lot about, and things I was really passionate about, and I basically considered everything else to be essentially selling out. Why would I want to write about something that didn’t mean the world to me? I kind of managed to turn that into my beat, so to speak.”

“I was really obsessed with a band called Babes in Toyland—they were a popular female punk rock trio. At the time they were not quite yet popular, and I was reading about them in the various music publications around town and becoming, like, incensed that people did not get why they were important and always wrote about how they looked. I was really pissed off about that and I was like ‘I am Babes’ number one fan, I understand them in a way that no one else does, I’m going to write about them.’ So I called this paper in town called Cake that was a short-lived music publication. I left them a message saying ‘Hi, I want to write about Babes in Toyland. Please call me back.’ I left my parents’ telephone number. They called me back and they’re like, ‘How old are you?’ and I was like ‘I am 16,’ and they’re like ‘Have you written before?’ and I was like ‘No.” But I had the fire of conviction, like why should that stop me? They’re like ‘Sorry, maybe not.’ I ended up interning there a few years later once I got to know everybody.

“Because they told me no, I was like well, f*ck it, I’m going to write about [Babes in Toyland] anyway. What do I have to do to have a music publication? I see fanzines at the record store, I will make a fanzine. I guess I knew people that did them; it wasn’t uncommon at the time. Minneapolis has always been a small place […] in my experience of growing up here […] if you weren’t contributing to the music scene in some regard it was sort of almost looked down upon. It wasn’t enough to just be a fan—you had to be doing something. I started a fanzine and I recruited my friends to write for it. I didn’t read music criticism outside of what I had access to in the newsstands here in Minneapolis; fortunately a lot of it was really good and really instructive. Some of the critics at the weekly papers taught me how to hear records and taught me what to consider.”

Own your voice

“I’ve been […] properly freelance full-time as my main gig for, like, 12 years or something like that. It’s harder than it’s ever been, in a lot of ways, but I feel like because I know what really matters to me when I’m doing it, and that I’ve always stuck with my conviction of what I want to be writing about, and how opinionated I wanted to be about that, and not giving that up and being willing to turn down work that I felt like…I don’t even want to say morally, but was below me as a writer sometimes—even if it meant giving up the opportunities to be in way bigger magazines than I usually write for. It allowed me to keep feeling good about what I was doing, even when I felt sometimes dispirited by how little money I was making, or sometimes by seeing my friend’s byline in, like, the New York Times Magazine, [writing about] somebody that I wanted to be writing about.”

“A lot of the young writers that I work with as an editor at Pitchfork Review and Rookie, sometimes people are really afraid to have strong opinions these days because they’re afraid of Twitter, and they’re afraid of backlash from their peers and…that it will cut them off from other opportunities. They don’t want to have to weather the storm of the Internet, so they give things a three and half star out of five review because they want to still have access to artists. There’s a million reasons why it behooves you to give somebody a really, at least marginally, nice review. To not dig too deep in a profile of Ariel Pink or somebody who’s a little troublemaker. But in my experience now it’s really hard to find people with…I don’t want to say staunch critical voices, but that can really articulate in their writing really well, and get into discussing why something works or doesn’t, or matters or doesn’t, and anything beyond purely aesthetic. Like, ‘this record sounds good, so it is good.’ In that kind of criticism, you’ll get plenty of work doing that stuff, but doing that kind of writing doesn’t make you a better writer and it makes you sort of indistinguishable from a lot of other people.”

“I really benefitted from having a lot of conviction about what I do, and because I’ve stuck with doing a particular kind of work and written from my heart, and written about things that mattered to me…Things that were difficult stories that people didn’t want to touch, and had sometimes really unpopular opinions about artists or particular music, or what have you. And because I could articulate them moderately well and managed to have a career doing these things.

Words of wisdom

“When I interview people I don’t actually come with questions anymore, I just try to have a conversation. Just trying to find ways to become a better conversationalist and realizing that my best follow up question is like ‘why,’ ‘why,’ ‘how come,’ ‘how did you feel about that?’ making my questions really short. Don’t talk over people, which is really hard for me: being able to sit in two minutes of uncomfortable silence.”

“The things that have been most instructive to me and my career aren’t necessarily the things that I was aiming for and the times I got told no, or that I couldn’t do things, or just straight up failing at something were far more instructive.”

“One of the things that I got told really early on that has sort of been a piece of advice that stuck with me for quite some time when I was a young intern… A friend of mine gave me the advice, ‘Find a niche where you are and fill it, and make yourself indispensable.’”

Transcribed by Madie Ley, who is studying journalism and art history at the University of St. Thomas. If you’re an undergraduate student at a Minnesota college or university and you’re interested in becoming one of The Current’s college contributors, write to digital producer Jay Gabler.