Ellen Willis wrote about music during a focused period within her capacious but incomplete intellectual journey. The majority of the essays collected in Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (Minnesota; paper $22.95)—the editing of which by Willis’s daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, remedies a scandalous lacuna in the library—come from her tenure as The New Yorker’s first pop music critic, and date from 1968 through 1975. Her ordinal points are familiar: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, John before Paul but Stones before Beatles. She loved Janis Joplin. Her sentences were frank, unmannered, limpid. Her taste was suspect. She claimed Creedence Clearwater Revival was better than the Stones. She held “Masters of War” to be a “simplistic diatribe,” and the best she could say about Ziggy Stardust was that “some of the songs are okay.”
Anyone who reads music criticism for taste is misguided. One reads art writing to encounter the stuff in question through the consciousness of another—the actuality of which is nothing but language, in its ideas and its movement. If this encounter makes the stuff more compelling, more thinkable, more intensely available, then we keep reading—and go on to watch, read or listen to a work for the first time, or again. If the writing grants us, similarly, an enlarged access to the world, well, now we’re cooking with fire. This is the least that can be said for Willis, who died in 2006. In passing the music through her sensibility, she gives us its particularity, its thisness. But she also gives the sense that it is more than this, that the world at large is more than this.
Her pop years were momentous for music, as the Heroic ’60s gave way to reaction and corporate consolidation in all its forms (some of them quite appealing, as always). In the early pieces Willis is gnawed at by the sense of a lost paradise, and discovers there will be much to say nonetheless, even before the handful of valedictions and overviews written later. Inevitably, those years were significant for American history, as the economic golden age foundered and the single-income suburban family began to recede into myth, albeit an unshakable one. When Willis’s gig at the Gray Gentleman began, the GDP was growing at 7 percent; when she deemed Before the Flood the third best album of 1974, it was declining at 4.8 percent, and the word “stagflation” was working its way into the vernacular of New York City dinner parties.
This is not to make Willis a prophet of economic crisis. She describes her beat as “the bloody crossroads where rock and feminism meet,” and that seems right, just as when she tacitly implicates herself by describing a forgotten band as “integrating a feminist consciousness with a love for rock and roll and an acute fan’s sense of their own place in its tradition.” If that captures her own mission eloquently, it does not quite get at the era’s context. An irreducible truth of this historical turn is the mass entry of women into the workforce (something Willis both chronicled and enacted). This change is sometimes celebrated as a victory toward job equality, sometimes decried as the brutality of the “double day,” wherein women were compelled to contribute income in addition to the burden of domestic labor of all kinds. The change was both, and the riptide of this dialectic summoned forth some of the great feminist writing—by Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Angela Davis. These are Willis’s peers, as much as the trinity of the rock critics Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau.
The standpoint that arose in this historical confluence provided Willis with her orientation, previously absent from much popular criticism. The cultural sphere seemed fluid, up for grabs. It is perhaps this that allowed her such lucid access to pop music, also then still up for grabs. One photo in the book shows Willis wearing sunglasses and a mysterious smile, reading issue No. 3 of No More Fun & Games: A Journal of Female Liberation, on “The Dialectics of Sexism.” (All in a day’s work for a woman who was instrumental in organizing the radical feminist group Redstockings in 1969.) It was an orientation of increasingly magnetic pull in Willis’s writing, eventually beckoning her away from rock criticism. But it was always with her to some degree, even in 1968, when she was still calling women “girls”—not as polemic but as a way of understanding the world, often with anger, exhaustion or generous but firm refusal. In this regard, it is perhaps superfluous that one of the book’s sections is headed “The Feminist.” There is no moment in the collection not thereby illuminated, from the assessments of Dylan’s gender politics to Janis’s fatal entrapment, the dynamics of Newport Folk to the talents of Miss Clawdy, a singer here restored to memory.
Willis’s music writing was clear and direct, without gamesmanship, but never one-dimensional. No one had previously captured the nuanced double motion in which rock could generate untold pleasures, presentiments of freedom and equality and unfettered sexuality—but could never escape the gravity of the exclusions and inequities and unacknowledged labor on which it depended. This dialectical conception of the world and its workings can be every bit as revolutionary as rock, the last great invention of the postwar boom. We are after that now. Ellen Willis is missed. We search for books that can help orient us in the spiral of revolution and reaction: to help us understand whether it is before or after or during—probably during—the flood. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is one.