Ellen Willis, feminist music geek

Cover to Out of the Vinyl Deeps (University of Minnesota Press, 2011); image courtesy of upress.umn.edu

Many have praised Out of the Vinyl Deeps, an anthology of former New Yorker pop critic Ellen Willis’ essays from the late 60s to the early 80s edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz. Julie Zeilinger sung its praises. Maura Johnston noted that Willis’ radical politics still hold relevance. Nitsuh Abebe and Sarah Jaffe opined who Willis would be listening to if we hadn’t lost her to lung cancer in 2006. NYU recently held a conference in her honor to coincide with the book’s release, and moderators Aronowitz and Devon Powers also spoke with GRITtv. Allow me to join the chorus. I loved this book. Reading it felt like a personal affirmation. I literally hugged it upon completion.

Vinyl Deeps is a necessary intervention. I’ve neglected Willis for some time. I read a reprinting of her essay “The Star, the Sound, and the Scene” in Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock and her forward to Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock, compiled by Willis protégées Evelyn McDonnell, Ann Powers, and Barbara O’Dair, some years ago. Yet I took for granted her streamlined prose, vital ideas, and compromised historical significance. I rectified the situation by reading her work online after Amanda Petrusich gave her a shout out during a roundtable discussion about female music critics for NPR.

By the time I got around to knocking out In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press, an oral history I’d borrowed and left unread by my bedside table for over a year, I knew enough about what Willis contributed to music criticism to recognize that treating her like a footnote was an injustice. Indeed, In Their Own Write spends chapters volleying opinion between critics about just how brilliant Griel Marcus, Robert Christgau, and Lester Bangs were and whether Bangs would like Radiohead (he wouldn’t, but I bet he’d love Monotonix). Willis is basically reduced to being one of Christgau’s ex-girlfriends who stopped writing about pop music before Ronald Reagan was comfortable enough in the White House to locate the big red button. No mention is made that she started a criticism program at NYU and abandoned music writing because she knew she couldn’t use the master’s tools to dismantle his house. If I lived through the New York Dolls’ implosion and Rolling Stones erecting massive stage shows sponsored by Jōvan Musk, I’d probably quit too. Inflatable penises are one thing. Brokering endorsement deals elicits no sympathy for the devil.

Mick stating the obvious; image courtesy of intlmusicsnobs.com

This is especially vexing because I think Willis would be an exceptional gateway into rock criticism for people who might be put off by the bloated prose of pretentious fanboys with Artistic Inclinations. Marcus and Christgau were singled out for trying to intellectualize the form, and Bangs’ gruffness was largely posturing. Willis, however, didn’t couch or embellish. Her formidable intellect meant she didn’t have to. As a feminist, she probably couldn’t. When you’re so often silenced, you learn how to state your case in ways that are succinct, clear, and indestructable to outside manipulation.

Reading for the revolution; image courtesy of newyorker.com

What I love most about Vinyl Deeps is Willis’ honesty. She brings in personal experience to inform her biases but doesn’t let it overshadow her work. I especially relate to her conceptualization of fandom. She loved Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, and because their work meant so much to her, she had to call them out on their misogynist tendencies. She empathized so deeply with Janis Joplin, who she believed to be a genius, that she proudly refused to straighten her hair. She felt Creedence Clearwater Revival’s music so deeply that she had to dance to their records in order to clarify her thoughts when drafting an essay. While I don’t personally understand how someone can listen to CCR’s plodding choogle and not be offended each time John Fogerty announces that he “hoid” it through the grapevine like he’s in blackface, I do believe that you have to experience music through the body to get it. If you get sweaty like Iggy Pop, so much the better. But I do have a similar need for corporeal abandon when listening to the John Spencer Blues Explosion, a band that endured the same charges of minstrelsy that I believe CCR deserved to have waged on them.

It’s also a treat to see her evolve opinions on Dylan, Reed, David Bowie, punk, race, and the British Invasion’s Big Three, as well as roll her eyes at Simon and Garfunkel’s pretensions and call out the Newport Folk Festival and Woodstock as shams. And while some may object to how much she writes about white dudes, it’s also quite refreshing that she wasn’t a chick writer relegated to covering dolly pop stars or obscured all-female rock bands. She does lionize Joplin. She also contends Joni Mitchell’s mystical old lady persona, argues that Patti Smith is playing into misogyny by assuming a rock god pose (an argument I’ve made and Ann Friedman insinuated), calls bullshit on Carly Simon’s class privilege while digging on “You’re So Vain,” and deconstructs Bette Midler’s stardom. She also champions long-forgotten bands like Eyes. Refreshingly, she doesn’t give female artists a pass by virtue of their sex. One of my favorite passages in Vinyl Deeps is in a write-up on the National Women’s Music Festival, where Willis admits that many of the acoustic acts’ tentative, sensitive music and performance styles made her want to crank up “Satisfaction.” Having seen Radical Harmonies, I certainly understand that inclination. I’d pipe in some Gravy Train!!!! or Nicki Minaj. I’d refuse a cutesy acoustic cover of Khia’s “My Neck, My Back.”

Though the title suggests recovering something antiquated and forgotten, Vinyl Deeps proves that Willis’ criticism is just as relevant as ever, both in the work it has influenced from others (myself included) and in it’s own write. In the forward, current New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones encourages readers to play these essays again and again. I’d recommend dancing with them too.

3 comments

  1. deannamcmillan

    I haven’t read Vinyl Deeps yet, but I found some of Willis’ earlier anthologies at the library last year. Staggeringly great. Her essays about things other than music (Beginning to See the Light contains some of them) are especially insightful–the one in which she describes her visit to her brother in Jerusalem (can’t remember the title) is particularly well-written and honest.

  2. Pingback: The Week As We Read It | Canonball
  3. Martha Tompkins Wood

    I think Ellen Willis is one of the great rock crtics of the 20th century. I discovered her when I got The New Yorker on discs and could go through the entire collection. She was a writer who stood out.
    However “bullshit” on Carly Simon?
    It’s funny that’s the most cited thing in all of Ellen Willis’s music criticism. Tear down a woman and, baby, you will be famous.
    And if you think about it, you realize why the men always include that attack on Carly in their bad books you can find at any suburban garage sale. It’s sexist.
    Ellen had no problem with James Taylor or Lindsey Buckingham or any number of men who grew up well off. But for Carly, she had a problem? The girl who grew up with a stammer couldn’t understand pain?
    Ellen was completely off on Carly and the writing read like East Side vs. West Side rivalary on Willis’s part and confusing feminism and music criticism with Marxism. But mainly it’s just the petty sour grapes of Ellen along with Ellen’s ignorance on Carly shining through.
    I’d consider Carly to be one of the great American songwriters and consider her, Joni Mitchell and Roberta Flack to be among the important 70s artists. I haunt garage sales (even driving out to the suburbs) in search of vinyl on these three women.

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