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From The 'Vinyl Deeps,' Ellen Willis Wrote About Rock

The late Ellen Willis was the first pop-music critic for <em>The New Yorker</em>.
University of Minnesota Press
The late Ellen Willis was the first pop-music critic for The New Yorker.

Ellen Willis was one of the first rock critics — at a time starting in the late 1960s — when serious writing about rock, pop and R&B was rare. She was the first pop-music critic for The New Yorker, starting in 1968. She combined a love of pop culture and an active engagement with feminist theory to create a unique body of writing, which finally gets a proper showcase in a new anthology titled Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz.

The anthology leads off with a remarkable dissection of Bob Dylan circa 1967. Typical of this long piece, which appeared in a short-lived pop magazine called Cheetah, were assertions about her subject that no one had ventured before, yet which afterward became common wisdom.

"His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker's ultimate antagonist," Willis wrote. To have seen this in Dylan in 1967, at a time when he was very much a public pop star, is typical of the way Willis combined close listening to songs, adding everything she knew about the subject's public image and private life, to arrive at a critical position. Willis, Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus were among the very few writers working through this method, and the clarity of Willis' prose and thinking was so immediately striking that she leaped with a single bound from Cheetah to The New Yorker, where she'd captured the attention of editor William Shawn.

Willis loved counterculture stars from Dylan to Janis Joplin, but she also championed cult bands such as Joy of Cooking and the New York Dolls. Her judgments were never predictable. She argued that The Rolling Stones' "diatribe" "Under My Thumb" was less sexist than Cat Stevens' condescending "Wild World," because "Mick Jagger's fantasy of sweet revenge could easily be female" as well as male.

Crafted with a directness and utter lack of fan gush, many of Willis' observations sound as fresh and as appropriate to the present music scene as they did decades ago. Her 1971 criticism of pop music's tendency, among both the audience and the critic, toward "a tedious worship of technical proficiency" would be as appropriate now regarding TV shows such as American Idol and The Voice as it was in addressing music-on-vinyl back then.

At a certain point in post-punk, around the time hip-hop became the dominant sound of popular music, Willis lost interest in rock criticism and pursued her other interests: feminist theory and activism, politics and the philosophy of Wilhelm Reich, among many other topics. She'd become impatient with pop in part for its failure as an agent of social and political change, writing, "There can't be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution." She was the founder of New York University's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program and, by many accounts, an inspirational teacher. Willis died in 2006 at age 64. Out of the Vinyl Deeps — whether she's writing about Elvis Presley or Moby Grape — resurrects a nearly lost, vital, invaluable voice.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.