The Girls’ Guide to Rocking

Michael Louie


The Girls’ Guide to Rocking
by Jessica Hopper
Workman Publishing, NY

Earlier this year I gave my good friend’s baby a mix CD for her fifth birthday. In a way, I wanted to impart some kind of influence on her young life that she might appreciate later (similar to how I gave her Edward Gorey’s The Object Lesson when she was born). Little did I anticipate that my mix, which ranged from kids songs like They Might Be Giants’ “Don’t Let’s Start”  to The Pixies, David Bowie, Electric Light Orchestra, Cat Power, The Pipettes (“Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me!”) and Queen (“You’re My Best Friend”), would have such little effect on her. She liked it just fine, a lot actually, especially the Queen and the Pipettes songs, but when she brought it in to school to share with the other kids, they just didn’t get into it like she did. “They just need to listen to it a few more times and then they’ll like it,” she told me. She already knew what was cool. I was heartened to see a little girl with such discerning and distinctive taste.

[I also gave her baby brother a CD for his first birthday. It was decidedly more aggressive, don’t ask me why I started that one with “I Shot the Devil” by Suicidal Tendencies.]

Earlier this month I received a copy of The Girls’ Guide to Rocking by Jessica Hopper, a long-time music journalist I’d last read in Punk Planet magazine back in the 1990s. I thought maybe this book would be good for Kaija, my friend’s daughter, but maybe she’s a few years away from this one still since the book is supposed to be aimed at teenagers and those just at the cusp—what’s that awful word newspapers use? Still, and I know we usually do reviews of books aimed at a more literate audience, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking struck me as relevant because I know I’m not alone in getting old, having friends who have kids, who are in the process of making kids, and who are raising kids to be cool, productive, and creative people. And with all these kids and making kids etc. comes those how-to books, books produced by those big publishing houses you can usually find for about a dollar in Wal-Mart that are written by like 15 people who awkwardly try to explain concepts and teach you how to wrap your brain around an idea that can only be articulated by action. Now picture a book like that, but one about learning how to play music and all the ins and outs of starting a band as a girl.

Books like this can be notoriously hard to read and even more frustrating for kids who are trying to learn, who are probably now at an age where they don’t really want to ask their parents and too shy to ask too many questions from the dudes at Guitar Center. They just want to get out of there without feeling embarrassed and figure it out themselves (Hopper says she herself left the store with her first guitar without cords, a case, or even picks). It can be pretty intimidating, especially for young girls but hell even I don’t want to ask too many questions or play my guitar too loud because I suck so bad.

But this is what The Girls Guide to Rocking does right: it explains the very basics of starting a band from the ground up. Hopper doesn’t talk over her audience’s heads, nor does she talk down to them even though she’s been writing music and writing about music for over 15 years and has a wealth of music connections and friends in the punk rock, indie and otherwise music, scenes. Being one of (probably) thousands of girls who were told their hands were too small for the bass as she says in her case “by a couple of guys on the JV Bowling team in Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirts,” Hopper takes her predicament in her young music life and uses it for a better perspective to show other girls how to buy new and used guitars, come up with band names, tips for keeping bands together, how to DIY home and studio record, how to score shows in any town where one grows up (you don’t have to grow up in the Big City to find a good place to have a show), self promote, and how to write songs—which has some of my favorite advice (“Don’t use words you don’t know the definition of” and “Don’t use words just to sound super-smart”).

The thing I like best about The Girls’ Guide to Rocking is that Hopper never makes anyone feel like they have to be—or can’t be—a weirdo, a punk, a kid with fucked up parents and a fucked up childhood, a goth, a girl with musicians for parents, a rich girl, a runaway, or a cheerleader to be able to start writing music and making a band and rock out. She treats the aspiring pop stars, the punks, the singer/songwriters, the Miley Cyruses, Hayley Williamses, Donna Dresches, Lilly Allens, and Chryssie Hyndes with equal effortless regard, which is a remarkable achievement on its own.

Hopper has a gentle, informative tone that doesn’t get overly pedantic or showy of her musical knowledge as to be overwhelming. And yet she maintains an air of an experienced authority. She takes the time to explain the differences between telecasters and stratocasters, chorus pedals and tremolos, tube amps and solid-state amps, and lists her favorite recommended records from across the genres of country and soul, punk and (gasp!) emo. I guess Paramore broke down that last door though, and Hayley Williams gets a mention among the quotes and notes of the likes of Kim Gordon, Chryssie Hynde, Nancy Wilson, PJ Harvey, Nina Simone, Chan Marshall, Kathleen Hanna, Taylor Swift, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry and other great heroes. She doesn’t teach you how to play a G chord, but what Hopper creates here is like the secret bible for girls who want to rock, the study guide for girls who want something to help them figure it out for themselves, something to keep as a reference and an inspiration to create. Don’t worry about political angst just because Hopper used to write a riot grrl fanzine—your kids probably have had enough of your parenting to write their own book.