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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.

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 Voice and 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: