Where the Girls Are 

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Music critic Jessica Hopper’s new book, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, is a spectacularly comprehensive how-to manual for young women (ages 10-16) yearning to stomp onstage and shred. We talked to her about being in a band with your friends, boys who are into the Doors, and the future of rock n’roll. (Hopper will read from the book on Saturday at Littlefield in Brooklyn, where she’ll be joined by These Are Powers, Katie Stelmanis, and the Ghost Bees.

The L: As a critic and a writer, you typically write for an older, probably more male audience. Was it a challenge to get the tone of the book right?

Jessica Hopper: That was one of my publisher’s concerns. They were like ‘Obviously, you can write, but can you write for someone who’s in sixth grade?’ They had me write the entire book proposal and some other stuff in the tone of the book. I thought it was going to be harder, but it’s mostly that you just can’t make snarky in-jokes and you can’t make cultural references unless you’re positive that everyone will get them. Like, Elvis, the Beatles, or shoes--something that everyone knows. The tricky thing is that the book is for ages 10 to 16, and probably skews a little bit older than that. But if you’re writing a book for 10 year olds, they don’t want a book for 10 year olds. They want a book for 12 year olds, and 12 year olds want a book for 14 or 15 year olds, and if you’re writing for 14 or 15, you’re writing for 16, and if you’re writing for 16, you’re writing for 18. So basically I was writing for an 18 year old who can’t drive and doesn’t have any of their own money. Some of that was tricky to figure out, because there are all these givens, as an adult musician, that you forget about when you crossover into the grown-up realm. It’s like, oh, that’s right, your time is not your own; if you have any money, you probably have very little, or you’re asking to borrow it; you probably don’t have a practice space; you can’t drive. All these things – in some ways, it simplifies the situation, but in another way, I had to find a way for kids to do this, and to explain how to do it. What if the only room they have where they could potentially practice is their bedroom? Let’s figure out a way they can do it in there, quietly. I had to bring in some of my friends who helped me be resourceful, and I asked my friends who had started playing young, even younger than I did, about what they did, what were their various conundrums were, just to make sure I had everything addressed. In another way, it wasn’t that hard, because I was doing a fanzine [Hit It or Quit It] at 15, so all of my early triumphs and sorrows of being in a band, I still have a document of those.

The L: Did you find yourself going back through things you had written at that age?

JH: I skimmed through it. Mostly I just had to think about it a lot. What was it like then? How hard was it for me to be friends with my bandmates, or bandmates with my friends? It’s the first time you do a lot of things – the details are etched in your mind. I couldn’t tell you the kinds of details about my last three bands as I can my first three. But it’s so embarrassing to read old Hit It or Quit Its, I can’t even tell you. I feel like I only learned ‘how to write’ in the last four years – my editors at the [Chicago] Reader whipped me into some kind of shape. But the stuff I wrote then – I turn crimson. I’m like ‘I can’t believe these still exist in the world.’ But at the same time, it was really useful, because it was like ‘Oh my gosh, that’s right, I couldn’t find anyone to be in a stable band lineup with. I was bouncing from band to band, because my friend who was the drummer always insisted on having whoever was her boyfriend that week by our bassist, and he was always some bossy kid with a mohawk who was into Beat Happening.

The L: I know that guy.

JH: I think we’ve all played in a band with that guy. Or dated him in tenth grade.

The L: As you were researching the topics to cover in the book, did you draw mostly from your own experience, or also from the bands and artists you’ve interviewed over the years?

JH: I think most of my knowledge of trouble spots for bands came from publicizing and managing bands for ten years. Seeing really good bands with nice, smart people just shoot themselves in the foot, over and over again. Sometimes they’re incredibly talented musicians, but have no sense for how to do any of the work that comes with being in a band – the interpersonal skills to be in a band with your friends, to navigate group dynamics. Once you start getting ego and ambition worked into something that was previously about friendship, it can really mess things up. I did want it to be something that was technical, but just really practical, really pragmatic. While some of these are really universal band problems, some of them are specific to when you’re young. I went to a Girls Rock camp last week and had a little talk with some of the girls, and some of the girls that I knew who were there asked me to sit in on one of their practices. They were 8, 9, and 10. And there was a full-on battle – with tears – about whether to yell “Sea Monkeys!” in the chorus. The thing is, I’ve been in adult bands where that’s basically the same situation. You can get into huge fights about the smallest things. So there’s a lot in the book about how to stay friends with your bandmates. I wanted it to reflect the reality of being a teenager in a band, but also be something that will help guide them once they start playing at clubs or bars, or can book a tour without a chaperone.

The L: I love that you encourage girls to let the technical stuff go when they’re just starting out. Music can be this visceral, emotional, universal thing, but it can also get transformed into a math equation. That can be intimidating for anyone.

JH: There are some technical things in the book, but I put them in an appendix. I didn’t want people to roll up to that chapter and be inundated with all this technical stuff about recording – I just didn’t want it to slow anybody down, or for them to get to that and think ‘This is boring, this sucks, I don’t understand it’ and give up the book. I didn’t want to give up on the technical stuff, but the main idea of the book is: However you’re doing it, however you want to do it, is the right way of doing it. Just start where you are, and express what you want to express. There’s not just one right way to do it. When I was first playing, that was the message I encountered. I write in the introduction about Andrew and Ted, who say next to me in health class, and they were about as expert as it got because they had a band that did Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction covers. And where are they now? [Laughs.] I think there still is a pervasive idea that you need to be some sort of virtuoso to get going in band, and that’s just not true. Everybody has to begin someplace, and I just wanted to make it as open and encouraging as possible, and not to present it as a struggle. Because it’s fun. Making music is fun. There will be times when you’re frustrated and annoyed because you can’t get your hands to do what you want them to, and you can’t play as well as you’d like, but just don’t let it stop you. Just keep playing. Have fun. I just wanted it to be fun, because if it looks like fun, everyone will do it. I didn’t want to be like ‘This is gonna be hard, and people are gonna be sexist.’

The L: Do you think things have gotten easier for girls in bands since you were 15?

JH: Oh yeah. I think there’s always the unfortunate thing of being surrounded by 15, 16, 17-year old guys who worship the Doors [Laughs]. I talk to girls now, and sometimes the only band they can find to be in is with these metal dudes from their school, who will jam with them but won’t start a band with them because they don’t take them seriously. The age range of boys that they’re dealing with may not be as seasoned or as evolved as the older musicians that they’ll encounter when they’re older and starting bands. That’s the universal hurdle. But the idea of being in a band, or of young women having musical talent and endeavoring on that, is so much more commonplace now. The biggest selling video games for girls are the ones where they get to be pretend to be in a band. The biggest selling line of Bratz dolls are the ones that come with guitars and drumsticks. Whether it’s Taylor Swift or Demi Lovato, who plays guitar and sings, girls are getting into it at a much younger age. These [artists] are icons, and they’re two grades older. They’re playing to 40,000 people. When I was growing up in the 1990s, we had the golden age of female women in rock bands – the Breeders, Hole, women being on TV and playing drums. Then there was a lull for awhile, and then this totally intense paradigm shift, and now there are 24 Girls Rock camps. Even Disney has Camp Rock. There are all these different things, and all these women in different types of music, presenting different archetypes. You can see a version of yourself, no matter what you’re like. That’s different than when I was younger, and you had the sensitive pseudo-Joni, or you had Joan Jett. And that was kind of it.

The L: I know your readings draw a mix of adults and teens. What kind of reactions do you get from the girls who show up?

JH: The girls that come have so many questions – sometimes they’re technical questions about Garage Band, sometimes they’re questions like ‘How do you know if you have enough talent to be a singer in a band?’ Or ‘What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened on tour?’ It’s just the most heartening thing in the world. I just think oh my gosh, I’m meeting myself at 9, I’m meeting myself at 15. These girls are so much more determined than I even was – they have two bands, and in one they play drums and in the other they play bass. I’m meeting 15 year old girls who have been playing drums and taking lessons since they were 9. I just think that when they’re 20 and they start to gig and tour, they’ll have been playing for 10 years. That’s a total – I don’t want to make it sound too academic, but I’m witnessing a total paradigm shift, in motion. I’m meeting the future of rock, today. These girls are so excited about playing, some of them have been going to rock camps, and they’re just totally determined. Being in a band is not a weird thing at all. They just love and absorb music and have access to so many things that inspire them. It’s just – really, it’s the most awesome thing I’ve ever gotten to do in my life. I pretty regularly cry after everybody leaves.

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