Jessica Hopper, Women Who Rock and Subverting the Ways We Tell Women’s Stories

Jessica Hopper is a storied music critic, one whose work has appeared in places like SPIN and The Chicago Reader. She was the music editor at Rookie mag, the editor-in-chief of The Pitchfork Review and music supervisor at This American Life. She’s written a memoir, Night Moves, and compiled a collected work of her music journalism over the years titled The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, which saw a reprinting last year.

This is all just a scratch of the surface—peel back the layers of modern music criticism and you will see the mark that Hopper has left on writers and the industry in some way or another. Her hand has helped shape the industry, animated by her desire to see others uplifted within it, to see the stories she knew needed to be told come to light, and to make space for new and varied voices to find themselves.

It’s fitting, then, that she is the director of Women Who Rock, a four-part docuseries streaming now on Epix. It’s a series that digs into the long history of women in rock music, who themselves shook an industry, compelling it to meet them where they were and create ineffable space where it did not exist previously. The series opens in episode one with the legendary Mavis Staples, and from there intersperses the stories of Chaka Khan, Nona Hendryx, Macy Gray, Sheryl Crow, Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs, St. Vincent and so, so many more.

It’s rare to watch a conversation about music entirely uninterrupted by men. These are women uplifting each other, sharing stories and telling tales of their time together and apart, and speaking to the love they have for each other. It’s fitting that Hopper is behind the camera of these stories, as she, too, has endless love and admiration for the world of music that came before her, the one that exists under her feet in this moment and the future of it all.

Hopper and I spoke over the phone at length about the documentary, what it meant to witness and the promise of its message.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Paste: How has the reaction been so far?

Jessica Hopper: It’s been great. I think some people really get the specialness of it and the ways in which I think it—some quietly and some really overtly—subverts a lot of the ways that music fans have gotten some of these histories before. The people who notice that, that makes me really happy. I was trying to make something for myself in a way but also for, I think it was a PopMatters review or something said basically, if you’re a fan of Pat Benatar, you’re used to be almost like a camel, where a little bit will keep you going for a really long time. Some of these people just don’t do interviews, or we don’t get the kind of deep dive and exposures where maybe there’s some other people who have been a little bit more canonized. It just feels good to have it meet an interested audience.

Paste: I had this dawning realization that I’m so used to seeing Henry Rollins show up in a thing and it was like, “Oh, wait, he’s not here, but here’s [former Black Flag bass player] Kira Roessler.” The fact that she got some face time and we got to hear stories from her when normally we would be so used to seeing Rollins, I thought well, this is an interesting thing, I’ve never seen this before.

Hopper: Right? I’ve never seen Kira in anything! It’s always Rollins, this is something I’ve thought a lot about. As a teen girl punk when I was coming up, that was really at a time where some of the only books that you could get about punk in the 1990s were all the Rollins books, because a lot of times record stores carried them. There’s a footnote in my book when I wrote about [D.C. band] Chalk Circle that was something that literally came from interrogating: Why do I resent Henry Rollins? I think it’s that he’s the de facto historian, and that we believe punk was whatever Henry Rollins saw and experienced and vice versa, and it just becomes very narrow. I just think about all the punk experiences and punk books we so desperately need from the Kiras of the world. Kira was a weird mystery to me and also she was someone that, when I was coming up, cis dudes around me really talked about her in a different way. I think that’s this ingrained teenage self that I still carry around, this idea that Kira was this woman [who] somehow surpassed gender and gendered experience in punk. And you know she’s like, I never thought about it in this way, and then find out that she had a totally gendered experience, but what her experience was was really important to me. And she was one of the handful of people where I was like, ”It’s really important that we get this person.” There were a handful of people that I really insisted on, because the show was partially cast when I was hired as the director. It was Kelis. It was Kira. There was Nona Hendryx. Debora Iyall from Romeo Void. I just think these are people who are just so under-chronicled and that they were just like linchpins for so many people. I just really wanted to make sure those histories were included in particular.

Paste: I think about somebody like Aimee Mann. There’s a whole swath of people that maybe don’t even realize that Aimee Man was in ‘Til Tuesday. They forget that she has this whole past.

Hopper: Part of the reason that we really wanted her is that she was one of the first iconic artists of the ’80s to go independent in the ’90s. She was somebody that so many people look towards as a woman who was like, “You know what? Fuck this system, I don’t want to be part of it either. Me and my fucking craft are gonna go.” And some of the earliest people crowdsourcing albums in the early ’90s [were] women who decided that they were just unwilling to endure what the music industry had cut out for them. For me, the whole kind of framework that I was aiming for, that we’re kind of trained to work with, was artists whose stories are reflective of how things were changing. Anything that’s a labor issue is fundamentally a women’s issue. So if we’re going to talk about how things are changing, we’re going to talk about the work and we’re going to talk about technology—women are going to obviously be at the forefront of that. But then also, we’re talking to a lot of women whose stories are really a way to lens the broader change that’s happening at the time, which is of course, with Mavis [Staples], with Chaka [Khan], of course with Nona [Hendryx], especially if you know Labelle’s story, being the first Black group on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1975. They were at the vanguard of so many spaces and places. So in just telling their story, we’re telling the story of what is changing in that place in time and what it meant to be on the vanguard of that and granted, as a director, we’re summing it up in seven minutes [laughs]. The other thing that’s really important, we’re really building the rungs the people that we meet in the next episode are standing on. Their innovations and their incursions into the spaces that make space for the folks that come after them. And that was kind of just always my hope, that a big part of that was trying to make sure that we had some of these women whose stories have been pushed to the margins, even though they were so influential. At least to have them contextualized, have their expertise as eyewitnesses.

Paste: A thing that happens often in the music industry is women that work in even somewhat complementary mediums, they’ll so often get pitted against each other, like The Go-Go’s and The Bangles. I really appreciated how many people had so much love for each other.

Hopper: Susanna Hoffs, she actually had a whole story about putting together The Bangles and how she put up this flier that nobody replied to, but it said, “must love The Go-Go’s,” and they were just so pitted against each other. So many of the folks talked about how it was this idea that only one could survive and that lots of times, as they got further and further into the industry, they just realized what bullshit that is. We even had, I think it’s episode three, having Sheryl Crow acknowledge that Aimee Mann was someone who had really encountered that, in part because of the deal she had with A&M. And that’s what happened to Aimee Mann, they said, “We already have a blonde lady who writes her own songs with a guitar,” and it was Sheryl Crow. So she said, “Fuck you, I’m just gonna take my record and peace out.” It’s just really wild to think that somebody was like, yeah, there’s just too much of the same thing about Aimee Mann and Sheryl Crow. Women talking about how all the way back in the ’70s, the truth of it was really that we all loved each other, we all cheered for each other. I mean obviously there was some animosity, but still.

Paste: This is the first rock documentary I’ve ever seen that Dave Grohl doesn’t eventually show up in.

Hopper: [laughs] It’s so wild, not that comment, but something to that effect of people saying this is the first time I’ve seen anything that covers punk that doesn’t have Henry Rollins or Keith Morris in it. Or this is the first time I’ve seen something that doesn’t have cis male talking heads as the experts. It’s a funny thing to say that I’m really wary of a gendered canon anything. I just wanted to present these women as reliable narrators of their own experience.

Paste: Another thing I really appreciated: With the talking heads, you didn’t just have musicians, you also had women that are music critics and women that are journalists. You know, Ann Powers is in there and Suzy Exposito, and people that are contemporary music writers that are also women. That was also a thing that I don’t see that often, either, that idea of women as reliable narrators from a journalistic storytelling standpoint, too, and like they don’t often get their credit.

Hopper: Thank you for noticing that. And the other thing, too, that was really important to me is that we have a real range in age and the backgrounds of the folks that are in here. I think Suzy is the youngest person in this and having Ann [Powers] and Holly [George-Warren], who’s like an unparalleled historian of country music and Janis Joplin’s official biographer and all of these things, and Ann, who paved the way and made careers for, God, for all of us. You know, but that Mavis [Staples], I think turned 82, we have this real age range. And we have folks who are indigenous and folks who are disabled, folks who are decades older than the youngest person and all of these people are experts, and all of these people are on equal footing. Ayana Contreras is not a name that people necessarily even know outside of Chicago, but we need a real Chicago expert; she wrote a book about Black creativity in Chicago. She’s singular as an expert on the Chicago women and Black Chicago in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s—who else can give us that context? I hope that it just makes the folks who are watching dig a little deeper, find these people’s books. I think younger music fans and also people who come from backgrounds where, typically, their perspective has been marginalized or it’s been really hard to find something like a documentary that talks about punk that talks about Jane County, let alone has her in it.

I have these books about John Lennon that I read as a teenager in order to get information on Yoko Ono. I read Yoko-hating books to get whatever information I could on Yoko, because there wasn’t a Yoko book yet. It’s hard now to fathom a time when there just weren’t books about women in music, or if there were, it was super few and far between, or it was some, like, badly written, quickie craft book about, like, Courtney Love. We’re progressively working more and more towards having a greater perspective on everybody’s contributions to music and everybody’s experience of what it was like to be an artist, and we still have a really long way to go. But if you love music, and you love music culture, or you make music, I think these things are so valuable, and I just am always interested in making things that broaden our understanding of what it takes to be an artist, particularly when we’re coming from so much history that just only prioritizes white cisgender heterosexual [artists]. Like, how many documentaries do we need about The Eagles when we have none about folks that really changed the shape of things and kicked doors open, the Alice Bags of the world?

Paste: When I was watching Chaka Khan talk, I just thought “Well, there’s a whole documentary just with her alone.”

Hopper: I mean, I’m really hoping that there will be one soon, making something that’s certainly a far cry from being definitive about anybody. We have a grand total of maybe 80 minutes of Chaka Khan in this whole time. And she’s literally the most charismatic person you’ve ever seen.

Paste: There was a scene that really stood out for me, I think maybe in the third episode, the scene where everybody is just talking about how much they love Sheryl Crow and listening to “All I Wanna Do” is such a great moment. It was just so affirming to see all these people be like, “Man, Sheryl Crow fucking rules.” So thank you for including that.

Hopper: I think that’s the other thing, too: I think if you’re old enough to be a teenager cognitive of music when Sheryl Crow was first coming up and having real popularity, some folks saw the misogyny of what happened to her and other people were like, “It’s minivan mom music,” or whatever people say. Her commercial breakthrough carried all of Lilith Fair in a big way and helped so many people’s careers. She helped bring Liz Phair to another level and she’s just really durable and totally no bullshit. She’s still around. Anything that people said back in the day, she’s proved the haters wrong. Getting to interview Sheryl Crow, I had to be really prepped and ready, because this woman has done more press than God.

She knows so much contemporary music, she knows Courtney Barnett and was talking about learning Phoebe Bridgers’ “Kyoto.” Those were some of the most geeked-out moments for me, we get a little bit of it; Nancy Wilson talking about when riot grrrl came along and she was like, “Oh my God, finally, this is what I thought was gonna happen in the ’80s,” and she talked about how much she loves Sleater Kinney and Bikini Kill. We don’t expect artists to know what came in their wake, per se. That was always the stuff where I was like, “Oh, yes.”

And Pat Benatar talking effusively about Billie Eilish and being like, this is someone who really was able to break through in the way that she was always trying [to], but it was 1981. Or the way that Shania gets choked up talking about Taylor Swift. I don’t know if people can see it, but in the room, her eyes got wet and she choked talking about what Taylor Swift has been able to accomplish. And like, oh, this is all the stuff that you had to fight so much more viciously for 20, 25 years ago.

Paste: The nice thing about presenting a history like this, especially now, because everything in our lives is so immediate, we kind of forget about the length of progress and you know, it is interesting to look at a longer history, especially in terms of women in the music industry. You can see we have made these drives over time and like we have, this is where we were and this is where we are, and these are these generations intersecting, and maybe things are getting better, and there’s always room for improvement, and maybe things will continue to get better.

Hopper: I mean that’s the thing, some of these conversations —particularly about women in music, historically—can really focus on just the marginalization and the trauma. And obviously we had to balance it, we can’t make a show that’s just a bummer. So how do we balance the truth of people’s experience with the history that we’re living in? How do we honor that and represent that but also not mire there?

Women Who Rock’s fourth and final episode, “Success,” premieres tonight, July 31, at 9 p.m. ET on Epix.

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Autostraddle, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.