Feature Story: Teaching girls how to rock
by Nayeli Rodriguez, for The Philadelphia Inquirer
Jessica Hopper says her most important tip for aspiring girl rockers is to just start playing.
When she was 16, Jessica Hopper became obsessed with music.
“I was just listening to everything, and I’d take anything I could get my hands on and absorb it like a sponge,” she recalls.
But she had to absorb it on her own. She could have used something like her recently published book, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking(Workman, $13.95 paperback).
Hopper, 32, now a music and culture critic, has written exactly the type of book she would have devoured at 16. And it offers exactly the type of advice that music-obsessed 16-year-old girls are still seeking today.
“I did an event with the American Library Association,” says Hopper, who lives in Chicago. “A lot of librarians were coming up to me and saying, ‘The girls at my library are clamoring for anything with information about how to make music and how to start a band.’ ”
Out this month, The Girl’s Guide offers young women a resource, as the subtitle promises, on “How to start a band, book gigs, and get rolling to rock stardom.”
On Sunday, Hopper will visit T&P Fine Art, 1143 S. Ninth St., for a reading and book-signing event cosponsored by the local day camp Girls Rock Philly. The camp has no formal connection to Hopper’s book, “but we share a mission,” says founder and director Beth Warshaw-Duncan.
Hopper agrees. “We’re all looking to encourage girls and support them in their love of music,” she says.
Beyond providing practical instructions on everything from how to choose an instrument (“Play whatever instrument your friend doesn’t”) to what not to call a band (“Vomitstorm” or anything with the words “Crystal” or “Earth”), Hopper’s main goal in writing the Girl’s Guide was to inspire young women by introducing them to a history of female musicianship.
“I just really wanted to urge girls to see that they’re part of a continuum of women making music, whether it’s Kim Deal, or Liz Phair, Amy Lee from Evanescence, or Demi Lovato, to whoever it is that they look up to,” she says.
It wasn’t until Hopper herself became aware of this legacy that she was motivated to create music as an adolescent.
“I started going to shows when I was around 15,” she says, “and I was going to shows almost every week, but it wasn’t until I saw one with a woman playing in a band that I thought, ‘I could be doing this too.’ ”
Speaking on the phone from Portland, Ore., after the first signing of her promotional book tour, Hopper, now a music consultant for This American Life, fondly recalls her own experiences performing and touring with bands. She chose to include many of these personal anecdotes in the Girl’s Guide, lending what she hopes is a “big sisterly” tone to her advice and making the book more accessible to an audience of girls just learning to play.
“If you get heckled by someone, you don’t have to respond,” Hopper suggests in a section regarding rowdy audience members. “That said, if the heckler is particularly rude, and if you think of a good comeback, let it rip.”
Alongside her own informal instructions, Hopper includes the wisdom of successful female musicians from Patti Smith to Gwen Stefani.
“I wanted to remind them that there’s other women in this experience and keep it relatable and approachable, because for me being in a band and playing music is the most fun I ever had.”
Hopper says the landscape facing aspiring female musicians has changed since she first took up the guitar in the 10th grade.
“There is a lot more wide variety of examples genre-wise, and examples of personality and women in rock-and-roll than there were when I was younger,” she explains. “The thing that girls today have is a different set of examples of what is possible for women in music.”
While Hopper looked to older role models in the members of all-female bands such as Hole and the Breeders, she says that young girls today are able to look within their own peer groups for inspiration.
“Taylor Swift is an example of a girl who might be a few grades older than some of these girls, who is playing songs that she has by and large written herself,” Hopper says. “And they’re about her life and reflect the reality of teenage girls.”
Though Philadelphia has been known for decades as the home of male musical acts such as Hall & Oates, Warshaw-Duncan points out that there are respected female musicians like Patti LaBelle and Jill Scott who call it home.
“Philadelphia has a scene that is still very guy-based in a lot of ways,” says Warshaw-Duncan. “A lot of the bands that have come out of Philadelphia and get wider recognition tend to be mostly men.”
She adds that this orientation has affected the way some Philadelphians discuss and take ownership of their own music scene. “We’re not necessarily en masse the champions of something local,” she says. “It usually has to have a wider success for us to embrace it. But this book really teaches girls and all kids not to be afraid of starting something locally.”
Warshaw-Duncan cites Frisky or Trusty, Nora Whittaker, and the Oh! Pears as a few of the burgeoning female-friendly acts on Philly’s independent music scene.
Hopper says that even young women hoping to break into hip-hop music will find the Girls’ Guide useful.
“Everything that I’ve heard coming out of Philly for a while is all DJs and hip-hop,” she says. “All that same stuff that’s in the book applies, regardless of what music scene you’re trying to get into. I think a lot of the information and tips that you give to anyone trying to get into the hip-hop scene is the same as the independent rock scene. You go to shows and meet promoters and try to get on bills and make people aware of your music.”
The Internet, Hopper says, has made many of these promotional steps easier for upstart bands, opening doors for the rising generation of male and female musicians alike.
“I think something like MySpace is a huge help just in terms of spreading the word about your band, and it’s really useful in terms of just getting shows booked,” she says.
In addition to MySpace, Hopper mentions Guitar Hero, American Idol, and the Disney movie Rock Camp as being some of the many contemporary influences responsible for the rising interest in music among young women. The increased availability of at-home recording equipment, she says, has also created new opportunities for independent and solo artists looking to get their start.
“You can start recording without even owning a mike,” says Hopper. “You can just go with what you have. You can exist online only - look at Lilly Allen. She was practically a pop star before she was even playing shows because she was posting her stuff up on MySpace,” she says.
“I think we’re just starting to see the very tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s to come.”
Hopper is particularly optimistic about the prospects of the incoming class of girls who will enter Girls Rock Philly on Aug. 3. The camp, which is held at Girard College, was started in 2007 after Warshaw-Duncan discovered the Rock N’ Roll Camp for Girls organization through a link on Hopper’s blog. For seven days of camp, female volunteers foster the talent of aspiring female musicians by helping them to form bands, write songs, and explore new instruments.
“The book and the camp itself are inherently very similar in what they’re trying to do and the audience they’re trying to reach,” says Warshaw-Duncan.
“I think it’s a really complementary book to the camp because it provides a lot of really concrete, practical advice,” she says. “We have workshops at the camp about different types of guitars and pedals and amps, so you can read about them in the book and at the camp you can actually try them out and hear how they sound.”
“What Girls Rock Philly and this book are trying to do is say that you don’t need that imitation,” Warshaw-Duncan says. “You don’t need to see yourself out there in order to put yourself out there. You don’t need to wait for an invitation, basically.” The local all-girl band Oak Oak Okay, she mentions, is made up of former Girls Rock Philly campers.
“Girls Rock Philly is one of the best organized and most exciting camps,” says Hopper. “They really do have really incredible organization and really dedicated, awesome women helping out to inspire and encourage young girls in Philly to make music.”
The most important thing for aspiring girl rockers to do, says Hopper, is just to start playing. “You don’t have to learn ‘Smoke on the Water,’ and you don’t need to be some kind of virtuoso before you start a band. You can just be doing what you want to be doing - it’s what you should be doing.”