Jessica Hopper: Context to culture


By Shalayne Pulia

Editor’s note: The following article was written for an Ebert Fellowship in memory of the late Roger Ebert. The fellowship works with the forthcoming Roger Ebert Center at the College of Media. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips advises the Ebert fellows. 

With a button fastened to her denim jacket reading “Don’t Give Up,” Jessica Hopper refuses to stay quiet. 

The Pitchfork Review Editor-in-Chief mutes only those who tell her she can’t, like the publishers who said her recently released book, “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic”, would fail because it had no precedent. 

She’s a critic; by definition, she has a distinct voice, but she said it’s the “golden age” of cultural critique. She wants to be part of a chorus of women sharing their ideas on stage. 

Her work speaks the language of culture, framed by curated music flooding through her readers’ headphones. It’s an image that makes her recollection of tour chaos traveling in the back of a van from Nashville with the band “Austra” the last time she sped to C-U more believable.

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On Friday, Hopper sat on the Pygmalion tech panel about “The Separation of Editorial and Advertising in Media” that, at best, vaguely pertained to her work. Illinois Public Media’s Lisa Bralts-Kelly sat next to her facing a similar dilemma, fielding questions from moderator Sarah Buhr of TechCrunch. Hopper said the topic could have been more effective in a one-on-one between Buhr and Tommy Craggs, another panelist, considering the controversy of advertising boundaries and his recent departure from Gawker.

While Craggs and Buhr spoke for most of the hour, Hopper sat on the panel, a knowing smirk spreading her lips as she watched the crowd thin in female representation right from the beginning.

“It was like the Internet represented in real-time where it was just a man talking,” Hopper said.

Audience member Maddie Rehayem, senior in Media and writer for Smile Politely, asked how editors would respond to a freelancer working on advertorials at the same time as straight editorial content.

Hopper emphasized full-disclosure in advertorial work.

“Criticism is not a store and we are not salespeople,” Hopper said.

Her writing is a catalyst for conversation aimed at helping 20-something readers make sense of music’s relation to their world, the same way reading print articles helped her form a critical conscience when she started her career at 15 with her own fanzine courtesy of her local Kinko’s.

Hopper walked outside Krannert after Friday’s panel with two excited women flanking her right side.

They spoke about their band inspired by her work, a C-U all-female punk rock group named “La Louve.” Hopper asked them which shows to see that night and wishing them best of luck with trailblazing all-female punk.

On Saturday, Hopper read excerpts from her new book at Exile on Main Street.

“It did give me a new passion, a passion for music that was already there, but it helped me put it into words and figure out what I wanted to do with it,” said Christine Pallon, part of “La Louve” and Buzz Magazine music editor.

Hopper’s work resonates with readers like Rehayem who appreciate her dedication to issues like gender inequality with an intrinsic authority and boldness.

“Without criticism sometimes there’s not a filter, and then we’re just sort of consuming,” Hopper said. “Good criticism honors the work that it looks at, that it challenges. In your loftiest dream of dreams, the conversations that you can sometimes start can have much grander wave effects.”

Hopper’s work carries her readers through analysis punctuated by a dry sense of humor.

“She really knows how to capture exactly what’s in your mind,” said Isabel Skidmore, the second member of “La Louve.”

Her audience at Exile nodded along even when she read from “Nevermind already” a review slamming Nirvana, one of the most revered rock bands of all time:

“All the Nirvana boxes and anniversary editions prey upon a simple wish—the wish to relive the singular moment of revelation, the feeling of being possessed for the first time by ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ its pure abandon, its stuttering pound, the implacable tension between verse and chorus, the feral grain of Cobain’s voice. That wish is there in anyone who ever heard Nirvana and loved them. But you never get as high as the first time.”

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