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Jessica Hopper Rescues Music From the Forces Sucking the Life Out of It

Music gives tangible shape to the best and basest in all of us. Yet under capitalism, it’s just another commodity. That artists and critics continue making and writing about music despite the industry’s vampiric drive for profit shows our stubborn unwillingness to give up a key piece of our humanity.

Attending DIY house shows, music critic Jessica Hopper insists "you can feel the band’s humanity as well as your own." (Mike Cicchetti / Flickr)

“I have an appetite for deliverance, and am not really interested in trying to figure out whether it qualifies me as lucky or pathetic,” writes Jessica Hopper in the essay that opens both the 2015 first edition and the newly issued second edition of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.

When I first read that line, I was filled with such a rush of recognition that I wanted to throw the book across the room. I’ve been listening to music obsessively since gaining conscious use of my brain; my diary entries circa 1999 detail my incipient, fan-girl love for Britney Spears; later musings on online platforms that will remain undisclosed chronicle a perhaps alarming infatuation with Radiohead; I spent a few years in my late teens and early twenties writing for a now-defunct music blog because I loved music so much that merely listening to it and sweating at shows and talking about it until three in the morning and even playing it sometimes did not suffice. I also have an appetite for deliverance; I also have, to quote Hopper, a “void in my gut that can only be filled by songs.”

It’s not always easy, loving music so much that my life might actually depend on it. Sometimes I simply ask music for too much. And it’s not easy to deal with the contradictions of music under capitalism, music as both art and business. Hopper knows that, and her essays constantly wrestle with those two competing pressures. At times, she excises the human heart at the center of why we make and listen to music with scalpel-like precision, shows it to us beating, then carefully puts it back. Other times, she peels back the curtain on some rotten part of what in an interview she called “the capitalist music world system” so thoroughly that it makes you question whether it’s possible to simply love music under our current economic system.

Hopper’s career, which began with Hit It or Quit It, a zine she started producing as a teen in Minneapolis that ran until 2005 and then gained footholds in the Chicago-based Punk Planet and the alt-weekly Chicago Reader, has always had one question between every line: under contemporary conditions, how do we find ways to still make and write about music for the love of it?

Broken Water playing at The Smell in Los Angeles, 2012. (Paul Narvaez / Flickr)

Hopper is hopeful those avenues are out there. And she’s wise enough to know that to truly love something, you also have to see it in its exalting and disappointing totality, take responsibility for it, and work to make it better. Hopper’s work is far from simplistic or cheerleading. It’s doggedly critical, adamantly feminist, and explicitly aware of music’s political contexts.

A 2006 essay, “Pogoing Across Borders,” chronicles the tensions faced by Latino punks in Chicago’s scene, with one young punk telling Hopper that he didn’t know whether he should publicly announce some of the performers’ names at the start of a show, since just three weeks before, immigration raids were carried out “up and down Twenty-Sixth Street,” the main thoroughfare of Little Village, the heart of the city’s Mexican community.

For those Chicago punks as for many of us, music serves as refuge and connection, the worst of everything we’ve ever been and the best, and the tether to what makes us human in a world that constantly dehumanizes us. Capitalism’s alienating, objectifying, horrifying effects spare no one and nothing — not even music, and especially not the people who make it.

In an essay about indie rock “selling out,” Hopper chronicles the stories of young musicians selling their music to pay the bills. “It’s part of the business now,” Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quin tells Hopper, who carefully examines the motivations of musicians who play corporate showcases, write a jingle for a commercial, or sell a song for a movie.

Some bands still balk at the idea of “selling out.” Matt Johnson from the Brooklyn electronic band Matt and Kim tells Hopper his band won’t do “cheesy commercials.” Material stability always seems to elude artists, making these commercial gigs sometimes necessary to carry on living and making music. But even these gigs are not as lucrative as they were in even the late twentieth century, when musicians could make hundreds of thousands to license a single song for a commercial. With music executives, like all capitalists, paying musicians as little as possible, even “selling out” has become less lucrative.

While Hopper’s writing is, in her words, “full of moral judgement,” she mostly lets her subjects speak for themselves. If you come away after reading The First Collection feeling like someone didn’t get a fair shot, or like the bad guys are winning, it’s probably because they didn’t, and because they are. Hopper’s own roots in the DIY scene color her point of view and fortify her conviction that music is for everyone, that it’s best when made from that point of view and written about from that perspective.

“We know the capitalist music world system is not built for sustainability,” she tells me in an interview. “It’s built for the churn. It’s built so that people are the fodder; they are the kindling.”

That proclamation shines through in an at times devastating story about country music radio stations in Nashville reducing air time for women musicians and, in turn, those women musicians building a scene of their own. The current system of music recording and distribution doesn’t work for them.

At the same time, that system has been built on the labor of workers: musicians, sound engineers, mixers, producers, and magazine staff like Christine Doudna, Barbara Downey Landau, Sarah Lazin, Marianne Partridge, and Vicki Sufian — the women who, in an interview with Hopper, tell the story of how they turned Rolling Stone from a rag-tag operation into the most important music magazine in the country.

Their story is compelling; they’re the underdogs; there were questions at every turn; they didn’t know what they were doing; they were getting into arguments with figures like Hunter S. Thompson who had never been edited before. Yes, they turned Rolling Stone into the undeniable behemoth it is now, but with Hopper as the steward of their story, that isn’t the ultimate success. The ultimate success is finding a way to work together in and sometimes against a system not made for them.

“So much of this — by ‘this’ I mean capitalism in music — really wants people to think that they are these atomized beings who have to do everything by themselves, and build everything by themselves, and it’s going to be very hard, because it doesn’t want collective power,” Hopper tells me. “This is such a no-brainer. I am basically the equivalent of an Instagram slide right now,” she laughs at herself. But it’s not a joke, and that’s clear. Music, like everything else, is made in a system out of which there is no way out but through, and together.

Music for a Better World, a Better World for Music

The First Collection gives some glimmers of hope. In a story about The Smell, an all-ages DIY venue in Los Angeles that found mainstream popularity after a few of its homegrown bands hit modest commercial acclaim, Hopper asks whether the venue’s success fundamentally changed its ethos. Jim Smith, who runs the venue by night and works as a labor organizer by day, insists that it’s still the same place, still run by people committed to the vision of an all-ages DIY music venue, still holds together its community, even if some of its bigger stars are spending longer stints on tour.

Thanks to the dedication of Smith and others, Hopper shows, The Smell can still be a place for young artists and musicians to find their way and their voice, to find others like them. But ultimately, there isn’t much solace to be found in The Smell’s survival — it’s the exception to the rule.

The rule, the thing that the billion-dollar music industry is designed to produce, are things like Warped Tour, a “mobile shopping mall” where music-fan status is purchased and where the corporate sponsors are as numerous as the bands themselves, and Spotify, the streaming platform that pays artists mere pennies for thousands of streams.

Jessica Hopper. (Wikimedia Commons)

Hopper renders the industry in its money-grubbing, merch-hawking, exploitative totality. In the book’s most harrowing story, a heart-wrenching and stomach-churning interview with Jim Derogatis, who broke the R. Kelly sexual abuse story in late 2000, Hopper shows just how far those with even a modicum of power in the music industry would go to protect their profits. Hundreds of thousands of music industry dollars were poured into preemptive settlements with R. Kelly’s survivors, keeping the case out of courts for decades so that R. Kelly could continue to make millions.

It would be easy to take stock of all this and become cynical. Music is a big, dirty business. Why listen at all? Why read or write music criticism?

Hopper acknowledges that sometimes criticism doesn’t have anything to do with people’s lives, though she sees that changing in recent years. But music shows much of ourselves to us. It has everything to do with our lives. And so, therefore, does writing that can make that connection clearer.

In an essay about Bruce Springsteen’s “lost album” The Promise, Hopper elucidates the ties between the hope for individual redemption and the impossibility of the American Dream. We feel the profound sense of loss, the inability to “wash these sins from our hands,” as well as the cruelty of a world that makes our individual failures so materially indelible.

While Hopper’s work has always been politically charged, the essays published after 2016, all new in this second edition, read more hopeful. They have more momentum behind them, more of a drive to find another way forward. “This whole system is kind of unworkably rotten,” Hopper tells me she hears her friends, her peers, musicians, writers, artists saying. It’s true.

But for everything music is that we hate — industry, business, cash cow, Big Algorithm, advertisements, mere cents for thousands of plays — it’s also everything we love. From a DIY basement show in Chicago, Hopper insists that you can feel the band’s humanity as well as your own, and no one who has been to a house show could deny it. Music has been salvation, salve, companion, tether to humanity, even — as Hopper, who learned that you could struggle against injustice by listening to Fugazi, insists — a place to find politics.

It’s a business, and it’s our lives, but it’s never just music. The First Collection might not be a guidebook for how to free music from the shackles of the first category, but it’s at least a rallying cry for anyone who’s ever loved music and anyone who’s ever wanted to change the world.