Jessica Hopper, Chicago, Illinois, is a music critic and the author of The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic. In a career spanning more than twenty years, Hopper has earned acclaim as a provocative, fearless writer on topics ranging from the male myopia of emo music to the ways in which commercial success may have saved Indie Rock. She was formerly the Editorial Director at MTV News, and an editor at Pitchfork and Rookie. Her essays have appeared in Best Music Writing for 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, and 2011, and her writing appears in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, Buzzfeed, and Bookforum, among others. Her book The Girls’ Guide to Rocking was named one of 2009’s Notable Books For Young Readers by the American Library Association.
Elizabeth Theriot: Night Moves is a specific archive of Chicago in the early-aughts, a place that in many ways no longer exists—the punk haunts replaced with affluent developments, the encroachment of shiny chain stores. I read this book as tribute, yes, but also elegy. Can you talk about mourning not only a place, but also the past versions of ourselves?
Jessica Hopper: I think it’s less mourning past versions of ourselves, more drawing back to a time when so many spaces and moments have passed, and it’s a reflection of the ephemeral, trivial moments of what it meant to be someone alive in this particular time and space in Chicago, to be young in that neighborhood. While we might frame it as elegiac now, sometimes I was writing it an hour after it happened, at most a couple of days. I wasn’t mourning anything, but merely documenting what things become after the fact—it’s a fleeting document of a time and space that in some places has been literally bulldozed over. The mourning I do of that time is perhaps quite literally of people who are dead, but I think of that time and space as one of possibility, and prospect, and so for me it was a birth of something rather than the end of something.
ET: Night Moves is beautifully impressionistic, un-chronological, and emotionally candid. What were your decisions in organizing the book, and what was the process for you in revisiting and reimagining your journal entries? In what ways did present-Jessica intrude on her past?
JH: I thought at some point about maybe making a chapbook of these things, or a fanzine or something, but had never gotten too serious about it. And then I was working with a friend, who was helping me archive a bunch of stuff and organize my writing around the time when I was putting my first collection together in 2014, and she said, while making this archive, “There’s some writing of yours that really doesn’t fit with the book, but you should go back and revisit it.” And she, my friend Alice, basically pulled together what became 60-70% of the book for me to revisit. It took someone else’s eyes. She’d already put it into Evernote and categorized it and made sub-categories for things even, and so then eventually went back to kind of be like, alright, what’s here? Can this take manuscript form? And then once I had gone through everything that had really caught her eye, what we had right there became the rubric for what fits in this and what doesn’t, from the rest of my writing. So that was blogs, it was journals, it was fanzines I had done at different points, little one-offs for tours and stuff back when I was in bands.
Then I reread those things and added to the rubric what fit. Was it about something that was gone? Was it about a time when how we use technology was not yet dominating our lives? Was it something that really captured a time or space that’s gone or not possible anymore? Is this something that really brings alive a moment or experience well that can’t be gotten somewhere else in my work? So those were the questions while pulling it together, and once we had it together, my feeling was that it shouldn’t be chronological. And then I passed it off to my editor, Naomi Huffman, who was also the editor of my collection, and she organized it. The only thing I really knew was that I didn’t want there to be a chronological arc, where at the beginning I’m like a baby writer and at the end I’m someone who’s working on my first book. That seemed really pat and ultimately not the story, and to me it was so much moodier; to frame it chronologically would be to say that there was some progression there, that if it was in order it would’ve made a different kind of sense, but the meaning of my days and relationships and all of that was pretty regular through the 4 years the book covers. I wasn’t looking for it to develop a narrative arc, and I know that was probably frustrating for some readers who are used to that being the function of books…I really wanted it to feel moody, to be something you could read for four minutes then put down. That’s the reason it’s pocket-sized. It’s a commuter book. You’re riding to school or work or a show or something and just keep it in your pocket.
ET: It’s interesting what you said about your editor being the one who did a lot of that organizational work, because that does sort of keep almost an integrity of the archive, where you’re not tempted to impose your current perspective.
JH: Just by virtue of what it was like, I didn’t have much interest in any act of self-preservation getting in there, and that was very much how I approached my anthology collection too, which is like, I don’t have a lot of interest in changing anything, this is where I was at 28. I was as dumb as anybody, made regrettable judgement calls, was crude, my enthusiasms were high and sometimes my knowledge of things was limited, minimal, was myopic even. I’m just not someone who is tempted towards that kind of revision for better or worse. I think the honesty is more important to the book, at least for me.
There’s not a lot of huge reflection in the book about what it means to be part of this gentrifying force, though I don’t think at any point I deny it, but I wasn’t doing any long interrogations, and I wasn’t about to add that in. It wasn’t…I mean, fuck, we talked about that stuff all the time, because it was shaping our lives: where we could rent, what kind of art we could make by virtue of how the rent was going up, or whether we could find a cheap place and move further onto the fringes of an industrial neighborhood. And certainly, the neighborhoods we were present in, but also the neighborhood that I was gentrifying was literally next to a trash dump. Because I definitely got questions about that on the book tour from some people, like, “Why didn’t you reflect more?” I don’t think I was actually… A few of these apartments I lived at weren’t actually gentrified, of course, just one step up from squatting. I think some of that just didn’t fit in the book because there are certainly these limits where we talk about it, but also we knew we were part of a 30 year, shitty inevitability because that is how Chicago works; gentrification basically started at the lip of the lake and was creeping ever westward from there into the neighborhood we were in.
I had a mentor who was a part of the OG gentrifying force and had a painting studio up there in the 1960s when it was just a decimated neighborhood and ended up being adopted and co-opted and pushing the people who lived in or established these neighborhoods even further west. That’s just the wave of Chicago, and that’s certainly not to excuse the way it’s decimated and further segregated culture in this city, but while the book interacts with that, that’s not what the book is about, in part because that’s not what my life was about at that time, to the degree that if I was writing this as like a straight memoir, I would’ve gone into it with a lot of retrospection. I would’ve gotten into it more, but I was already working with the text that existed, which I really only edited for brevity and clarity. And that was it. I didn’t touch it up. This is how I wrote then, in that time and place.
ET: So it becomes almost like a time capsule, where, like you said, a book that you would write about that time now in that retrospective mode would be so different.
JH: Yeah, it would be wildly different.
ET: I’m glad you brought up the issues of gentrification, because that is such a compelling thing to think about, and especially this idea of being an “unwitting participant,” how you phrase it, and I was wondering if you could talk a little about this idea of gentrification and complicity and how you’ve navigated your own complex relationship to this city you love. You talk at one point in the book about how Chicago, unlike Los Angeles, is a city that loves you back, and I wonder how that relationship has changed since the period that these journals were written, and what it means for a city to not love you back?
JH: Well, Chicago doesn’t love everyone back. At the time that I was writing I was really falling in love with the city and was quite evangelical about the city. And I think part of that love is to see all of its faults and to know a city well and not just let your field of vision stop at how it serves and enchants you while it decimates other people’s lives and humanities and basic human rights. Which, you know, Chicago is a city that is historically the most segregated city in America, and there are many Chicagos to many people. My Chicago in this time of 2004-2008. I had pretty incredible mobility by virtue of being a white woman with a car (even though I’m not in the car much in the book). I could move in this city unimpeded and feel that many different neighborhoods were mine to visit and mine to explore, mine to walk through.
And you know, Ukrainian Village is notoriously, until very recently, in the last 10 years, historically the whitest neighborhood in Chicago because it’s basically Ukrainian people who were born in those houses and who are still the 97 year old landladies there, and a lot of them would only rent to other Ukrainians. For a very very very long time. And so even the neighborhood where I most lived, I was an interloper in that Ukrainian village and in some sense was allowed into those spaces probably by virtue of my whiteness. I mean, I can’t speak to the racist or not racist Russian mob dudes people rented apartments from; I don’t know where they are on the scale of radical liberatory ideas. One of the places where I lived, in the bulk of the book, was essentially condemned, but I knew the landlord who owned it and I was like, “Can I rent this place?” and he was like, “Sure… It doesn’t have working heat… Like, there are giant holes….”
But the places next to me got turned into 4 different condos that went on the market for $800,000, where previous to that we had band practice, and all of these great little moments of DIY cultural production were happening. And I think at that time, we felt like the weirdo interlopers in these neighborhoods. Some of the neighborhoods I lived in have changed really radically. I no longer live in the city. I live in the suburbs, and they came pre-gentrified, but during those times we just knew it was where we could afford to live. But you couldn’t not be deeply aware of how your proximity was changing a neighborhood. When I arrived, there was a bunch of really sketchy dive bars with a pretty mixed neighborhood, largely Polish and Ukrainian, and it was not a safe place to be out at night. And now 20 years later it’s a center for corny night life in the city. It’s a land of a million strollers. It ended up being the safest place, the place where you could have children.
I think at the time me and my friends were like, this is just where we can afford to live, which is forever the mantra of the unwitting gentrifier. You know that you are part of, that your presence creates, or at least makes a sort of foothold, for larger change, which I think to us felt like an inevitability—that this was something happening everywhere in the city. I think there was, at the time, an awareness of those changes, but I don’t think we had a lot of other ideas about how to go about things, for better or worse. And I think now, in hindsight (and being 43), your own dumb decisions when I was 25—that’s forever, all the clarity in the world doesn’t change what you did in that time and space.
ET: So you live outside of the city now in suburbs. How, in 2019, in the suburbs of Chicago, does that change your vantage point, or your relationship to this city that you love?
JH: I go into the city pretty regularly, but it’s funny because I can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood of which I was part of that gentrifying force. And by virtue of having a family, that changes the scope of or the stakes of my decisions about how I lived my life, just to say the completely obvious. My vantage point on the city… There are parts that I feel more estranged from the culture of. It’s funny to live outside of Chicago and not be able to vote in the election. We just had a new mayoral election that was very contentious. My vantage point is different, but the things that changed my vantage point most significantly happened while I was still in the city: having children; having the contours of my own career; the contours of my own feminism as it grew more intersectional and developed more deeply, grew more branches and nuance than it had when I came to this city at 21. My understanding of the city has always been in flux and becomes, I hope, wider and wider from my own points of experience within the city. And just by virtue of like, Oh, I live like 8 miles out from where I lived before, that was in some ways not the most radical shift to my vantage point as a writer or as someone who thinks about the city and what it means.
ET: I’m someone who has always failed to consistently journal, and so I was wondering about your experience with that practice, and how you got into the habit of sustaining this journaling, and what it’s taught you about your writing practice?
JH: It’s funny: the only time I’ve ever revisited any sort of journals was really for Night Moves stuff. I’m no longer a daily journaler. I’ve had periods since I’ve had kids where I’ve kept sort of a family journal about our collective lives, and I’ve done various forms of personal writing just for my own spiritual health. But as a writer, I generally feel that the things I journal about just end up being a flooding of self, a ranting of things coming out sideways. It tends to be a place I go now for a sort of a furious document. It’s often really just an out-pouring of my malaise or frustration, or revisiting ancient grudges or anxieties.
How I manage to have so much journaling impulse and how that shaped my writing as a younger person particularly when it came to my blog—in some ways that really helped my career start to happen. Back then, we didn’t think of the Internet in quite the same way. When I was writing my blog, I really believed it to be kind of this weird cloister because I knew whatever few hundred people a day who were reading my blog, which I was updating near daily back when we were all keeping blogs, and for me part of it was journaly, but part of it too was again just merely being evangelical about the city. And really, it was about finding an especially dreamy boyfriend or something like that. It was not in some ways terribly different. The other thing is that as long as I’ve been writing I’ve been publishing stuff—fanzines and whatnot—and so I had a very casual way of writing about what was going in my life. It had always been hopelessly entangled with writing about music because I’d been doing a publication for 13 years at that point, and those two things were inextricable—as much as my feminism from my critical lens, as much as my experience of the world to my experience to music. I think it was or is less journaling as a practice, which has always been stinting, than it is acknowledging that a blog, public writing, is (particularly when you’re young) a certain performance. I wanted people to think Chicago was cool. I wanted people to come and know it and stay. It was a time when a lot of my friends were leaving Chicago in droves, and so I wanted to enchant people home.
ET: And what you said about not being able to extricate the music writing from the blogging or the journaling that you did—while reading Night Moves, I could almost hear the backing tracks, and felt this music even in the prose itself. So, there’s this incredible work you’ve done as a music critic where you’re writing about music, but how do you find the music influences the language of your prose and the writing?
JH: I was just thinking about this last night, ‘cause we did a discussion at KCRW for the podcast. My friend Hanif Abduraquib came in for the event, and we were in conversation, and I got asked something like, Is there anyone whose lyricism informed your writing? And I was like, I can think about different little things. Then Hanif chimed in and was like, “I think Liz Phair,” and I was like, “Ohhh, that would make sense.” I don’t know if I agree with it, but you really have to chalk it up to other people who know your work better than you because in my own way, in the mid-aughts, writing me was probably also being influenced by Ghost Face Killa, and I was probably also being influenced by Joni Mitchell. I’m as self-taught as any writer who didn’t go to college. I’m self-taught by virtue of being a reader. I have a very basic public high school education when it comes to English, but it’s not like, “I don’t have any influences!”
The last person I turned to to figure out how to make a sentence work was Joan Didion, reading her for the first time when I was, like, 26. To me it was less about writing and more about editing. But the music that worked its way into my writing, I think, has much more informed the writing spiritually, and I mean that truly in its spirit—less so than supplication to some kind of gods of the universe. But in the spiritual sense, very early on in my writing, essentially Bikini Kill, the voice and authority within Riot grrrl, brash and unrepentant, showed me that my opinions are worthy material for my art, my expression. That is very much distilled from Bikini Kill fanzines and perhaps also the music. That kind of spirit and love and community and desire for justice, I think, is something I really identify in the work of Curtis Mayfield, one of our great Chicago artists. That’s something that I hope shows up in my work, but I’ve drawn very deeply and returned to his work for that. Or the Staple Singers, too. It’s more the rhythms or the big picture ideas: whether it is Pere Ubu, or I’ve talked a lot about Fugazi being really big touchstones. But then there’s also just the rhythm of writing. I think about this ambient techno artist I loved from that era and a sense of space; the lyricism of Joni Mitchell and Prince; about making something so vivid. Sometimes those are things I can draw out of that music and attempt to center some of those distilled lessons and actually apply them to my writing—perhaps, if I am lucky.
ET: When I read Night Moves it made me want to dig out my old copy of Just Kids.
JH: Yeah, that was, in some ways—I don’t want to say a reference—but it definitely gave me permission to think about and draw from the lessons of the baby writer Jessica, in part because, and certainly my book is not Just Kids by any fucking stretch of the imagination for many reasons, but reading that book I think turned on the light for a lot of other people; for me it comes up a lot when I talk to women in music about memoir, reading that book being like, I didn’t realize how hungry I was for stories like that of young artists, in particular women, or people who are on the fringes of many of these scenes of artistic formation. It’s the moment where you are hatching upon your big idea. Like, alright, this is who I am, and I don’t know if what I have, the materials of my life that became Night Moves, are anything worth holding onto or remembering, but for me a part of my feminist practice is to go, Okay, well, let’s keep making a path. There may not be something particularly special or noteworthy, and maybe this book just exists because pure fucking nepotism, but I happen to have the phone numbers for people who probably want to put out my book. Literally, sometimes it’s as fucking simple as it could be, but reading that book I was like, I want more books like this. I’m an editor for the University of Texas Press American Music series, where I literally do try to bring people’s memoirs about existing on the fringes of music and creation and all of that into being. But it’s also saying, Here’s my story, my story matters too. And it’s not to say my story matters more than anyone else’s here, but more that the great big “we” need more stories like this, and this is merely my vote in that direction.
You can’t read my book and say, Ah, this is a defining story of what it means to be in Chicago at this time, because you talk to someone who was 21 and living in Cicero, or 22 and living on the far South side of Chicago; we were all living in totally different worlds. I think Just Kids was a liberating moment in that way, the same as Roxane Gay selling a book of feminist essays opened up the door for many of us who’d been getting told for 5, 10 years that our stories were not something we could make a book out of. Who will buy it? And then they were like, Ah, people will buy it, so now we can make these kinds of books. I feel like Just Kids was really the permission slip for a lot of people, myself included.
ET: What new work do you find yourself excited about right now? New memoirs?
JH: I’m not reading a lot right now, I’m deep in the research phase of my next book, which is about women in 1975 and pop music, so it’s really just reading and synthesizing a lot of work and scholarship that exists, or trying to find scholarship that doesn’t exist. But I did just read Chris Rush. His memoir The Light Years just came out from FSG. I read that. I said, “I’ll start it tonight and finish it on the plane tomorrow. it’ll be my plane reading. it’s supposed to be very good.” And I picked it up at 9:30 and at like 2:30 in the morning my husband was like, ‘Can you please just fucking turn off the light and come to bed?’” And I was like, I’ve got ten more pages! So I finished that in one sitting, and it was phenomenal. That’s a memoir of his—a young, queer, sort of hallucinatory, quite literally, memoir. And I’m a few chapters in to Alexander Chee’s book, which I found in my good fortune at a Little Free Library while I was out walking my dog in my neighborhood. I’m to the part where he’s taking a sophomore seminar with Annie Dillard, and I found myself excitedly skimming through the whole chapter looking for these total gold nuggets of distilled Annie Dillard writing wisdom, and I was like, Wait, Annie Dillard must have a book of writing. She has quite the seminal book on writing that I bought yesterday. I was halfway through it, and bird shit in the book, so I guess that’s the peril of reading outside. I’m taking a little break from it for right now.
This might be pretty obvious but I tend toward nonfiction, and I’m not much of a fiction reader. I read poetry every day and do my research, so right now I’m in the bowels of the ‘70s, reading fan books and a lot of totally shitty… The ‘70s were a bad time because almost all the critics were cis het white men who were very comfortable writing about somebody’s legs or tits or speculating on whether they’re frigid or not at the lead of a piece. You could get away with that almost everywhere that wasn’t a daily newspaper. So I’m reading a lot poorly written articles right now. Can’t recommend. But hopefully I can spin some golden fucking takes out of what I learn.