Jessica Hopper on Her Lost Notes Podcast and Music Journalism’s Changing Landscape

Photo: KCRW

At a time when multiple lifetimes’ worth of music is more accessible than ever, it feels harder than ever to know the stories embedded within it. I have no particular nostalgia for what came before this world of music-streaming platforms, but I can’t deny that something — historical knowledge, culture, moral process — has been lost through the flattening of time and space into tiny, algorithmically sorted bars. Weirdly, it feels as if we’re living through some infinite present at the expense of a living past.

That sense of absence looms over Lost Notes, KCRW’s audio documentary series serving up “the greatest music stories never told,” and its weight deepens with each passing episode. The podcast recently wrapped a spectacular second season, which was executive-produced by Jessica Hopper, the veteran Chicago-based journalist and critic who has been covering music since the early aughts. While she now operates primarily as an author and documentarian, Lost Notes marks a return to radio for Hopper, who for a number of years served as a music consultant and contributor to “This American Life.”

In the most recent season, Hopper assembled an eight-story collection defined by a vivid sense of moral balance. Each story honors its subjects as specific products of their time, reserving sharp condemnation while not necessarily letting them off the hook. What’s being pursued isn’t an allocation of judgment but a deeply felt acknowledgment of complication.

Among the stories on tap: a founding member of a punk band, now a middle-aged father, reckons with the misogynistic elements of his earlier work (“Teenage Offenders”); the legacy of a genius is reevaluated through the eyes of the women who were crucial parts of his life (“Living With John Fahey, a.k.a. A Room Full of Flowers”); a poet performs his letter to Cat Power, whose work and public pain he says probably saved his life (“To Chan Marshall”).

Speaking with Vulture from her home in Chicago, Hopper discussed the unifying ideas of the season, how her work as a music writer has changed over the decades, how she got involved with the show, and what comes next.

How would you describe the thread connecting the stories this season?

Oh, that’s hard. I think the season gets at some of the bigger questions we’ve been discussing in culture recently about legacy. It touches on some of the ways we’ve been talking about the past — in music particularly but also elsewhere — and the ways we’ve been holding the past up to the light of day in 2019.

It’s not as simple as we think. Many of the pieces we made try to complicate some of the narratives we know … in a good way. Sometimes they’re complicated because we’re hearing from those people directly for the first time, and sometimes it’s because people were shaped by various moments and times in their lives, which are often based on the opportunities that were available to them and what they were struggling against. Maybe that’s the thumbnail right there.

So much of my work as a writer and a producer these days is about looking at some of the contours of music history. This digital era we’re in, our sense of history, particularly with music, feels really flattened by virtue of, like, “Well, if something isn’t on Spotify, does it even exist? Did it ever exist?”

In your mind, how has the work of music journalism changed since you started writing in the early aughts?

So let me take a roundabout way into this question. As you might know, there’s been a lot of consolidation in journalism over the past eight years. Or 20, I guess, if you count magazines. Which means there are fewer opportunities to do, like, deep dives into music history unless there’s a news peg or it’s like, “This person is problematic, end of story.”

But there are still so many people out there — music nerds, music fans, people with marginalized histories within music — who still want those kinds of stories. And there are still so many people who are really eager to tell them. Some of them are print journalists, some maybe work in other mediums. It’s just really hard to find more of that stuff today. In music journalism right now, people just aren’t getting assigned those stories.

With Lost Notes, we felt like we had the format and the ambition to take those stories on. We had a ton of people sending in pitches for the season, so much that [KCRW senior editor] Nick White was like, “We need four seasons to get to some of these.” They’re really eager to tell those stories even though there isn’t a news hook or it has too much gray area or something.

A good friend of mine, Hanif Abdurraqib — poet, writer, who’s also on the season — said something recently, and I’m paraphrasing: “An uninterrogated past in music isn’t worth the nostalgia.” That’s become one of my abiding interests as a producer, writer, and critic now in a way that maybe wasn’t so much 15 years ago. I’ve gotten a lot more interested in history, and what nostalgia has glossed over. I’m really interested in returning to these times and spaces and ask, like, “Okay, this is how I experienced this; is this how everyone else felt about it?” But also “What did we miss? Who is not in this history? Who is on the fringes of this moment?”

Maybe it’s just a function of being older, but maybe it’s also a function of seeing a broader culture catch up with some of the ways I was writing and thinking about, like, emo 15 years ago. Or, you know, R. Kelly. At the time, it sometimes felt like I was being a killjoy. “Hey, guys, let me just tell you, I feel really alienated by emo, it’s super-sexist, and a bunch of these guys are creeps.” And then to see the long tail of that, to have that position be validated 16 years later by the culture at large …

Anyway, even with that in place, I’m interested in knowing: What did I miss? Who has been written out of history?

Does today’s music-journalism landscape address these questions enough?

I think the millennial sensibility about music and music history these days is to be cynical. To be suspect of some of these things because of how certain artists’ legacies and careers were shaped by systemic racism, sexism, and misogyny. At the risk of sounding academic, we need to interrogate the canon. To revisit who mattered and why and who were forgotten because they were difficult or because critics and audiences at the time just didn’t understand what they or their music meant.

How did you come to be the executive producer for the season?

So I was approached by Nick White, who created and produces the show, and Myke Dodge Weiskopf, who mixes the episodes. They reached out and were like, “Would you be interested in contributing?” We started talking, and I started telling them, “Oh, you should speak to so-and-so, and what about this writer, and you should be talking to so-and-so.” I have an editorial function that doesn’t shut off.

Then really quickly it went from “Do you have an idea?” to “Actually, we’d like to talk to you about hosting and producing and bringing all that you can bear onto the season.”

I think one of the reasons Nick reached out was that I had a Twitter thread a few months ago where I went off and asked, “Where are the music podcasts that are hosted by women and produced by women? Where it’s just women’s voices and not two guys talking about indie rock or to guests promoting their new record?” That got a ton of response, and from the replies, it became really clear that there was a palpable hunger for that — for deeper stories about women and queer folks and marginalized folks within music.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

I have two other pods in development. One, which we’re about to go out with, is going to be created by me and Alex Pappademas, and that’ll be a serial reported podcast that’s somewhere in the intersection of true crime, the dawn of electronic music in America, drugs, and peak ’80s excess. That’s going to be really fun.

The other one is about riot grrrl. [Bratmobile’s] Allison Wolfe, who was instrumental to the movement, has a podcast about the history of riot grrrl, and we’re about to go out with it.

I’m also developing a few other documentary projects, but I’m spending the bulk of the next year working on my own book about women in pop music in 1975. My entire world now is basically music history in all formats.

Jessica Hopper on Lost Notes and Music Journalism