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Was Ellen Willis – Feminist, Activist, Genius – The Best Rock Critic of All Time?

A new anthology of the New Yorker’s first-ever pop music columnist helps rescue her writing from obscurity.
 
 
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Ask most music-critic nerds of my generation who they think the top rock and roll scribes of the 1960s and ‘70s were and they’ll likely -- rightly -- offer the names of a handful of brilliant men: Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Legs McNeil, plus whomever their personal favorite other dude waxing for Creem or Stone back then might be. Check the Wikipedia entry for List of Writers on Popular Music, which spans the ‘60s to today, and of 23 entries, only one woman is listed – Minna Lederman, who covered mainly classical until her death in 1975. And while that list is grossly incomplete – it doesn’t even include the few high-profile pop music critics currently writing for the New York Times – the oversight is telling. For one, I could probably name 23 female music critics writing in 2011 for you right now – but in the marginal field of professional music criticism, women tend to remain opaque, if not invisible. More tellingly, perhaps, is the fact that the list omits Ellen Willis.

Willis, who died in 2006, is well-known for her political essays in progressive journals like the Nation,theVillage Voiceand Salon, and for her feminist activism – she was a cohort of Shulamith Firestone and an early firebrand of the movement. But despite having been appointed the first-ever pop music critic for the New Yorker in 1968 – at the dawn of a new political America, she would chronicle eloquently through its rock tunes – that work has largely remained obscure. In more recent decades, her work was passed around in Xeroxed notes and through oral history, but for the most part, she wasn’t known enough to be widely considered in the canon with Bangs and Christgau, where she belongs. Yet with a new anthology of her writing, there is no way that won’t change.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, published this month by the University of Minnesota Press, anthologizes some of her best pieces as selected by her daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz, a super-sharp writer in her own right. The compendium is a revelation, both for her staunchly feminist viewpoint and for the sheer pleasure of reading her work. She writes with a cogent intellectual urgency, yet balances it with an easy voice that is utterly open and congenial. The most important trait for any cultural critic is that the reader gets the sense they’re being honest, and truthfulness is one of Willis’ greatest strengths. Whereas some music critics write like they want to impose their opinion, Willis wrote like she wanted to have a conversation.

Admittedly, I’m not so hot for most of the groups she was passionate about – Rolling Stones, New York Dolls, Bob Dylan (she had awesomely complicated/skeptical feelings for that one, and remains one of the only great writers I’ve read who has really ever called Dylan out fairly and convincingly). I’m part of the hip-hop generation, a genre she never wrote about, having become disillusioned with rock’s diluted politics by the early ‘80s and renounced writing about music by then, too. But it’s a testament to her writing that she can make you rethink music you dismissed, and a testament to her prescience that her window into political culture via music can easily be transposed onto any other political music that preceded rock, whether hip-hop, grunge, dancehall, UK grime, or any other music with overt political tones. And she did so confidently – Willis had buckets of what we in the rap world call "swag," with thought in the context and beauty in the prose. In a chapter called "The Sixties Child," in a piece likening John Fogerty’s music to the political transition between the ‘60s and ‘70s, she writes:

...if Fogerty’s sensitivity to the realities of class made him reject the elitist romanticism of sixties revolutionaries, it often led him into the opposite trap, a fatalism best expressed in his repeated use of rain as a metaphor for social ills. Weather, after all is something you can’t do anything about.

Last week, nearly 500 people in New York gathered to remember Willis at Sex, Hope and Rock and Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis, a conference organized by her daughter, Willis-Aronowitz; music journalist and academic Daphne Carr; and music journalist Evie Nagy. Those in attendance included music critics, scholars, academics, students, bloggers, fans; notably, most of us were women. The high ladies-to-dudes gender ratio might be standard at a feminist conference, but is painfully rare to see a majority-female population at one focusing on music criticism. Writing about music, rock jazz or rap, can still seem like the provenance of men, the landscape forged by the aforementioned Lester Bangs rubric. The conference made it clear that, while music-writing bylines skew manward more distinctly than possibly any other arts criticism, there is certainly no lack of women writing about music. We were there to honor Willis and to learn from her legacy, but we were also there to bear witness, to ensure she would not be forgotten. We were many generations, ranging from her former partner Stanley Aronowitz and good friends/amazing ladies Karin Durbin and Donna Gaines, to the women inspired by her in the ‘90s – Ann Powers, Kandia Crazy-Horse, Kathleen Hanna – to her daughter and generations beyond. We won’t let Willis’ name go off the books.

Willis’ politics were central to the conversation that day, as within her writing; not just feminism, though it defined and underscored each of her pieces, but her fealty to progressive causes. As Aronowitz pointed out reading from her final work, an as-yet-unpublished tome about psychology and Wilhelm Reich, Willis identified the economic fragility of the United States years before the 2008 meltdown. But the first example noted that day of Willis’ divinity in progressive causes came during a talk by Princeton University’s Daphne Brooks, who discussed themes in Willis’ work that paralleled and intersected with early black feminism. Brooks presented a picture of a very young Willis, 1960 or ‘61, listening intently to a slightly older Lorraine Hansberry – looking rapt, she’d chosen Hansberry for her interview in Mademoiselle magazine’s college issue. Political interest seems to come at birth; Willis, brilliant cultural critic, was no exception.

Yet it’s her impact on feminist music writing that resonated the most that day. Powers, Crazy Horse, Hanna and Maxim editor Joe Levy sat for a panel on her impact on them when they discovered her in the 1990s, all Village Voice writers with the exception of Hanna, who was then fronting the iconic feminist punk band Bikini Kill. Crazy Horse spoke of her revelation that a woman – any woman – could be writing about rock music, and the other panelist described similar rapture. But getting down to the nuts and bolts of it – and, perhaps, continuing Willis’ legacy – was Powers, who proceeded to call out by name all the women music writers she knew in the room (and later Tweeted those she didn't). If this day was about inclusion, about being heard and felt, that basic act was a banner moment of reclamation.

And it emphasized the point: whether the feminist critics I’ve grown up admiring the most – Danyel Smith, Ann Powers, Joan Morgan, Vivien Goldman, Karen Good, Jessica Hopper – eke out their place in a later canon, at least now we know that Ellen Willis nudged out just a little more space for us.

Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, University of Minnesota Press, 22.95

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.