Hopper Writes How-To for Girls
Written by Chrissy Mauck
Jessica Hopper’s music background includes 17 years of playing the guitar and bass; recording demos; touring in bands; managing bands; handling the publicity for bands; serving as a rock critic for Spin, Chicago Reader and the Chicago Tribune; dishing up her own popular music-themed fanzine, Hit it or Quit It; and selecting the music for public radio show This American Life.
In a nutshell, her extensive credentials and expert experience more than qualified her to author The Girls Guide to Rocking, a recently published how-to book that covers how to start a band, book gigs and get rolling to rock stardom.
The project got under way about two years ago when Hopper received a call from her future editor.
“She told me they were looking for someone to do this book and that everyone she asked, ‘Who should do this book?’ told her me,” Hopper shared. “So the book came and got me.”
Hopper was more than ready for the opportunity; the phone call merely served as the catalyst for something she’d always planned to do.
“This is a book that I wanted and desperately needed when I was about 15 and 16 years old trying to start my first band with my best friend,” Hopper said. “I had been playing guitar for all of three days, and I can remember specifically having a conversation with her, about how I wished there was a book that could explain how to do all of this. And then thinking, I could make that book, even though I didn’t know what I was doing (at the time).”
Hopper opens the book with a personal tale of her own, recalling a conversation in her tenth-grade Health class with friends Ted and Andrew.
“I want to play bass,” Hopper announced one day in class, to which Andrew replied, “You can’t play bass, your hands are too small. You won’t be able to hold down the strings right.”
“You should get a guitar instead,” Ted added.
It was one of the first of many myths, that with a little inspiration, Hopper would eventually disprove.
“When I was in high school, I had been going to shows for about a year and the first time I saw a woman onstage holding a guitar was in Minneapolis, and it was this punk female trio called Babes in Toyland,” said Hopper of her turning point. “They were big in the mid-’90s, post-grunge world. It was the first time I had seen a woman with a guitar and the light clicked on and I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that, too.’”
And so she did. Even though oftentimes, she was a female rarity.
Hopper once toured with a Chicago band called Challenger, playing the bass for two tours each in the United States and Canada and one in Japan.
“At one point on that tour, we were touring with four other bands, and I was the only girl,” she said. “Twenty-seven other guys and me.”
So although not without overcoming challenges, Hopper is living proof that girls can play bass or guitar, start a band, and pretty much accomplish whatever they so desire in the music world.
“The most fun I ever had in my life was playing music with my friends, and writing songs, and making music that is my own,” she said. “I just wanted to encourage girls to do that for themselves and to express themselves with music.”
Putting together The Girls Guide to Rocking also had its challenges. As its title suggests, the book targets girls.
“I realized really quickly when I was writing the book that a lot of the givens for when you are an adult musician, you have to nix those when you are writing for a younger audience,” said Hopper. “If they have their own money, they have very little of it. They aren’t necessarily in charge of their own time. They probably don’t have access to a practice space, and they don’t drive. So there were different times when I was like how do I figure out how to explain this?”
To dive into the mindset of her target audience, Hopper headed to the basement and dug out her earliest zines; ones that she began writing at 15.
“My first one was about Babes in Toyland,” recalled Hopper. “I really wanted to write about them because lots of times when people would write about them, they’d write about how beautiful the singer was, and I just wanted to write about the music and take them seriously. I felt like I understood them better than anybody else.”
She also engaged a good friend and sound engineer for Sonic Youth for an experiment. The pair pretended they were 12-year-olds whose only option for playing their guitar amplified was in their bedroom, and then asked themselves “How can we muffle the sound?”
“We figured out how to make this sound tent, and make soundproof windows as best you can,” said Hopper. “We also explained (in the book) how sound works so they can understand the best ways to manage the sound so their parents and neighbors don’t complain. Even though some of these things were challenging, I really wanted to find totally workable solutions for girls so that nothing stood in their way.”
In 2003, Hopper published “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” an essay that was a year and a half in the making, and has since been taught in music classes and even at Ivy League schools. Hopper’s no-holds-barred and unapologetic commentary exposed the many misogynistic tendencies of the emo musical movement.
“It was just the way I saw things,” said Hopper. “When it first popped into my brain it was just this little notion that ‘Something is wrong here.’ It took a really long time to write. I’d never written anything like that before. I’d mostly just written band reviews and record reviews. I had no idea that it would be something that people still talk about, but it’s really validating.”
While the essay laments and illustrates the obstacles that do stand in a famela rocker’s way, Hopper’s latest project instructs and empowers young girls to do something about it.
“My main aim with the book is to encourage more women to be involved in music, or to be making it, or to see this as a place where they belong and that’s really the bulk of it,” she said.
Hopper embarks on a 12-city publicity book tour Aug. 20. As well as doing readings at each appearance, Hopper is bringing along some of her favorite female musicians to perform.
“I think for girls just to come and hear me talk about this stuff and be resourceful is great, but it’s a totally different thing to see a walking, talking, breathing, rocking example,” explained Hopper. “That’s what did it for me, and so I just sort of assume that everyone else is the same way.”
Hopper will share tour updates with Fender.com in her own blog that we’re calling, “The Girls Blog to Rocking.”
For a list of tour appearances, click here.
The Girls Guide to Rocking is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and Women and Children First.