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Jessica Hopper remembers when cheap rent let you lead a rich life

Jessica Hopper

Jessica Hopper David Sampson

You can’t really talk about the last decade of music criticism without mentioning Jessica Hopper.

As a writer for publications such as the Chicago Reader, Spin, and, yes, even City Pages sometimes, Hopper brought a fresh perspective to music that had already seemed to have been written about to death, while opening up discussions about gender issues that had been shunted off to the sidelines. Then, as an editor at Rookie and Pitchfork, and as an editorial director at MTV News, she shepherded a new generation of music writers into the conversation, especially women and people of color.

But Hopper’s latest book, Night Moves, steps back from the big debates about music and politics, returning to the apartments, clubs, and streets of ‘00s Chicago where she developed her mature voice as a writer and made her best friends. Collecting impressionistic bursts of memory, it’s a book that’ll remind you vividly of certain period of your life, even if your experience were nothing like Hopper’s.

We caught up with Hopper before her reading at Milkweed Books on Sunday to discuss her days as a zine-toting Minneapolis teenpunk in the ’90s, and about how the arty white people who could once afford to educate and entertain and discover themselves in cities semi-unwittingly served as the advance strike force for gentrification.

City Pages: Quickly, briefly, and in whatever way you would like to discuss it, what was life like for young Jessica Hopper growing up in Minneapolis?

Jessica Hopper: I was a feral teen who worked at [downtown Minneapolis record store] Northern Lights, I made a fanzine called Hit It Or Quit It and operated on a track that spanned from the Uptown Kinko’s to 7th St. Entry. I just rode my bike along Hennepin for long stretches—that was my weird orbit, with occasional runs over to St. Paul, taking the long bus ride to go see all ages shows at Speedboat Gallery.

I went to the arts high school and I just… cared about local music, but also had ambitions to move beyond the city. That was it. And I left. When I was 17 I moved out, I moved out to L.A. I’m sorry that didn’t work out well for me. I moved back briefly, and then a few days after Bob Stinson died I decided, probably rather recklessly, that I didn’t want to live in a city that—I didn’t want to live there if Bob Stinson wasn’t alive there. It felt like kind of a crucial turning point. That’s about when I left permanently.

I’ve had a few short stints back, just to hang out, but I’ve been gone—I’ve been in exile from the city since Bob died. [laughs]

CP: You know, the Uptown Kinko’s is kind of still there, believe it or not. Though it’s a FedEx now.

JH: Someone should fucking put—someone should put a little Walk of Fame inside it of all the fanzines that were made there with fucking stolen keycards. Because it was me and Aaron Cometbus and all manner of teenage ne’er-do-wells. I would be there constantly xeroxing my fanzine, running into a stream of people from bands, like Craig Finn, home from college, leaving the Uptown Bar. I would get all the gossip and I would get all the scene reports, hear what were the good bands. A lot of people—old, geriatric people—remember me, back when the Uptown Bar had a window on the side I would pull up a trash can or a dumpster, and balance perilously on top and watch bands through the window. When I was just a wee thing. So that was sort of my spot.

I lived around 24th and Hennepin with my parents—I lived by The Alt, and just sort of constantly milled around that area. I had a bike and I didn’t drive, and when I come home, my way around the city is still—like when I drive I follow the 12 or the 18 or the 4, all of the bus routes that go from one end of the city to other that pass what I think is now Fifth Element. That was around where I caught my bus if I ever wanted to do something, so that’s sort of my axis point from which I oriented myself in the city.

CP: What was it about Chicago that brought you there?

JH: I lived in L.A. for about three years, and while I was there I got really tired of telling people what I was doing—I was doing P.R. for a bunch of little bands and record labels, and I was doing my fanzine, and I would tell people that, and they would go [uses snotty L.A. music biz voice] “Well, what do you really want to do?” Like those weren’t decent goals and aspirations, because who doesn’t want to work at a major label, or with this promoter or that. That was kind of the place that L.A. was, and I got really hungry for a peer community of scraggily punk kids. And I missed trees. There are no trees in L.A.

So I visited my high school friend and bandmate Sean Tillman [aka Har Mar Superstar] and was like, “Hey, I’m gonna go on a road trip to Chicago around Christmastime. Why don’t you come with me?” And I visited Chicago for the first time and met all these bands and cool kids in scrappy scenes, and I’d been contributing to Punk Planet. So I met up with all these people, and bands that I worked with like Joan of Arc and the Promise Ring—I worked with every mid-tier midwestern emo band. So I knew a ton of people here and I was really excited about what was happening here. So I hung out for like a week and every night we’d go out to a show and spend the night at the bar talking about what we wanted to do. Like, “Yeah, man, we’re gonna do all this shit. We’re gonna start a million bands.” That’s just what everybody did—get drunk and talk about what bands they were gonna start.

Rent was super-cheap, bands were always coming through here, I could see every band I cared about, go to three shows a night, I could find people to collaborate with… but mostly, my rent was so cheap I could kind of do whatever I wanted. And what I wanted at that time was to be deeply involved in music and to make a fanzine. And eventually that extremely cheap rent allowed me to leave working with music behind—in a way. I’d spent about 10 years investing really deeply in other people’s dreams and expression and—I just wanted to write. Paying $250 a month in rent allowed me to enter the world of full-time freelance journalism at the age of 28—a little later start than I think most people have. Chicago culturally and pragmatically really permitted me to crack open my life in that way.

CP: So you started freelancing full-time roughly around the time that the book starts, right?

JH: The beginning of the book mostly overlaps with the time I wrote my first major piece for the Chicago Reader. I was mostly subsisting on $60 freelance checks, including the occasional one from City Pages, writing concert previews, and I made the rest of my money any which way I could—DJing parties basically and other punk rock schemes of that sort. Whatever random-ass job you could pick up here or there. Then about ’06 to ’08, I kind of out of the blue get an offer to do my first book [The Girls' Guide to Rocking: How to Start a Band, Book Gigs, and Get Rolling to Rock Stardom]. So it’s really just me toddling into the world of being a writer, and sort of scrapping in that world.

CP: Though you’d been writing for years before that.

JH: Yeah, but I didn’t know how to write. I was reading fanzines. What I was doing was sort of a shitty Lester Bangs impression, shitting on things. And I really didn’t know how to edit anybody’s writing, but I was still “editing” my fanzine. But at that point my fanzine was like 80,000 words, with contributors three dozen deep. So I was writing, and I was working, but it wasn’t journalism. I wasn’t dealing in facts. I was dealing in pure opinions.

CP: It was like the internet, before the internet.

JH: It was all pre-internet. I was writing for my community, I was writing for my friends, for the writers I looked up to who I would send my zine to.

CP: Like who?

JH: Oh, you know—the Ann Powers-es of the world, but also I sent it around to labels, musicians. I found out recently that Ian MacKaye donated his entire fanzine library to the University of Maryland, and they were like, “We’re writing to notify you that every edition of your fanzine has been donated and catalogued as part of this library.” Good work, Hopper!

CP: Do you have a full set of those yourself?

JH: No! Not even. Not even sort of. But all that writing, 80 percent of the time I was just trying to be snarky and clever. My editors at these alt weeklies I wrote at taught me how to write, and that’s when I started doing criticism, all the stuff that was collected in my previous book, [The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic].

This writing [in Night Moves] is sort of the personal writing that was running alongside some of the earliest work that shows up in my other book. Stylistically and voice-wise, it’s really different. Nobody was really editing it. I wasn’t editing myself and some of it was from my blog and some of it was just for me, and that was the space where I continued to speak to my friends directly in a sort of informal language. This book is like—I don’t want to say my “natural” voice, but it’s sort of an unrefined self. It’s not concerned with big-picture conclusions about somebody’s record or what does Warped Tour mean or what does emo mean. It’s just me. It’s a lot more diaristic.

But it was also just me falling in love with Chicago. When I first came to the city—I didn’t go downtown in Chicago for the first year I was here. I lived at [Chicago music club] the Empty Bottle, I lived at the venues and the house shows and the parties I was going to. I was pulling 70-hour work weeks doing P.R. for random Dischord bands or Sean Na Na tours or whatever. Once I made my lasting friendships with the people who were longtime Chicagoans, it really opened up the city to me and I really started to fall in love with it and I started to know its history. And ultimately, what this book is about, is about my love for the city and actualizing myself as a young writer in the city.

Again, my rent was 250 bucks a month, and so I could do things like—at one point, I did nothing but spend four weeks reading bell hooks. I didn’t have any work then and she just blew my mind. I literally just ran around to all the different libraries and read a dozen of her books. Because I didn’t go to college and this was my practical education as a writer, and I found Chicago to be worthy subject, I guess.

CP: I think something younger people, in their 20s, might not know about the ’90s is just how much less money you needed to live.

JH: And this was 2004 to 2008. I lived in a truly disgusting apartment for most of this book—as I write about. But in a roundabout way this book is about the impact of gentrification, from the perspective of someone who was unwittingly gentrifying a neighborhood. I was part of changing a neighborhood, as a whole artistic class of people was, and the impact of that is that we were paving over other people’s existence.

And ultimately, we ushered in changes so profound that we’ve pushed our own selves out of that space.

Jessica Hopper’s Night Moves
With: Danez Smith
Where: Milkweed Books
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23
Tickets: Free; more info here