Trenchant writings on music and culture from The New Yorker’s first pop critic
In a world where anyone with access to the Internet can deem themselves a music critic, it is fruitful to re-engage with a higher echelon of music writing, much of which has traditionally been propagated by writers who came of age when the preferred – and, for some, the only available – means of disseminating music was vinyl records.
The work of Ellen Willis (1941-2006) is the finest example of high-class Anglo-American music criticism from the 1960s and ’70s, arguably the most inspiring decades in American music. With the publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps, readers can reacquaint themselves with Willis’ seminal writings on music and culture. Whether you read Willis’ work the first time around, or if you’ve never heard of her but have an interest in music, you should buy this book. Simply put, it contains some of the best writing on American pop music ever published.
Many of Willis’ pronouncements on music and on the society from which that music originated remain insightful today, which is a good sign for her writing and a bad sign for our culture and how little progress we’ve made since the breakthroughs of the 1960s. Writing about The Ramones, for example, she states, “The Ramones were stuck with that American dilemma, which is the situation is bad enough to piss us off, but not bad enough for us to do anything about it,” a statement that rings even more true today in the light of the Occupy movement than it did, perhaps, in Willis’ day.
According to Willis, her intellectual territory is “the bloody crossroads where rock and feminism meet,” and a fermentative crossroads it is. Willis’ exploration of this turf is aided by the fact that she wasn’t afraid to do her thinking in public – a trait that was particularly important for a feminist writer and a pop music critic in the 1960s and ’70s who was essentially inventing her disciplines as she went along. One gets the feeling Willis is thinking for an entire generation in many of these essays, writing on the forefront of the women’s movement and rock music and inventing the ways they are intertwined as products of a national culture and consciousness.
If all of this makes Willis sound like a stodgy music critic with a bone to pick, she is anything but. She is opinionated and knowledgeable, but she is also hilarious at times, sometimes inadvertently, as when she complains about the $4 charge for entry to an Eric Clapton concert. These are perhaps the only moments when Willis’ work seems to have aged.
Above all, Willis was a talented writer, as certain razor-sharp phrases here attest: “And yet how long is it since you tried to get tickets to a big-name concert at the last minute and the guy you asked said, “You bet!” so heartily you could see his teeth over the phone?” Willis’ exquisite taste in music seems to have been coupled with an exquisite gift for imagery.
Yet Willis can also be deadly serious, often when you least expect it. In her liner notes for a Janis Joplin box set, she wrote, “Like any other war, the ’60s assault on the culture exacted a price that real people paid: that must never be denied.” It is a cutting observation in which her disappointment with the cultural experiment of the hippie movement is expressed in prose whose anger boils just below the surface.
It is a testament to changes in the music industry spurred partly by the emergence of digital media for disseminating music, and a testament also to Willis’ power as a writer and cultural critic, which she shared with few other writers in her day or ours, with the notable exception of her colleague and friend Greil Marcus, that her music criticism is at once trenchant and encompassing of the entire cultural moment in which it was conceived.
It has long been accepted that Bob Dylan represents a cultural watershed; he is the rare musician who has risen to the status of prophet, so it is no surprise that Willis’ several essays on the songwriter are as much essays on American culture, but Willis seems to reach this level of serious cultural commentary with every piece she writes, whether she is taking on the Credence Clearwater Revival or the Pointer Sisters.
The story goes that many readers were incredulous when The New Yorker hired a pop critic, believing the music to be too frivolous for the magazine’s highbrow reputation. After reading this collection of Willis’… insightful is too weak a word; call it zeitgeist-hunting prose, one wonders how anyone made sense of the ’60s and ’70s without her.
This diverse collection of essays is an embarrassment of riches and an embarrassment of another kind as well, as it points out the paucity of our own musical culture or perhaps the sad inability of our critics to see the relationship between contemporary music and the culture of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
From the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
Edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz
University Minnesota Press