The test of a critic’s impact isn’t how often we agree with her judgments; it’s whether, years after she’s gone, we still long for her singular voice. That wistfulness was the recurring theme at Saturday’s "Sex, Hope, and Rock 'n’ Roll" conference on the writings of Ellen Willis. What might she have written about Lady Gaga or Odd Future , panelists wondered. Lying awake Sunday night, I tried to imagine how she would have reacted to Osama Bin Laden’s death.
The conference at New York University coincided with the publication of her posthumous anthology Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music , compiled by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz. Until now, those of us born in the ’80s and beyond might have assumed that early rock criticism was solely a male domain, presided over by the likes of Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, and Lester Bangs. Out of the Vinyl Deeps restores Willis’ legacy as one of the first critics to write about rock 'n’ roll for a wide audience. Her deft, dense prose, inquisitive and passionate persona, and insistence on rock as a political force set a high bar for what pop criticism could be-a bar that today’s critics are still striving to reach.
Willis became The New Yorker ’s first pop critic at 26, on the strength of a single essay about Bob Dylan (PDF), published in the magazine Cheetah . Reading the piece now, it’s easy to see why The New Yorker scooped her up: From her precise, evocative language to her astute observations about rock 'n’ roll’s dual origins, rising out of both record-label board rooms and the garages of regular teenagers, Willis’ writing reverberates with intelligence, authority, and style.
Willis wrote the "Rock, Etc." column for seven years, producing 56 pieces between 1968 and 1975, all but a few of which appear in Out of the Vinyl Deeps , alongside a smattering of other pieces. She frequently returned to the musicians she cared about-a pantheon that has, mostly, aged well: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin. Despite her love for these artists, she freely probed their flaws, challenging Dylan and Mick Jagger’s misogyny and complaining that, for all her originality, Joplin still conformed to the stereotype of "the ballsy, one-of-the guys chick who is a needy, vulnerable cream puff underneath."
Although she was constantly dismantling cherished cultural myths-that Woodstock was three days of utopia, that Lou Reed is a nihilist-Willis was never a simple devil’s advocate. Her arguments came, instead, out of her sincere belief in rock 'n’ roll as a force to be taken seriously, both as a tool for building a better society and for giving ourselves pleasure. (As a feminist who bemoaned the dreariness of early-’70s women’s music and spoke out against censorship, she understood how closely related those aims are.)
But Willis’ criticism isn’t just smart; it’s viscerally thrilling, largely because it’s so personal. Here’s how she begins a stunning 1972 piece about Creedence Clearwater Revival:
One day, sometime during Creedence Clearwater Revival’s banner year, 1970, I was feeling depressed and confused about music, politics, and almost everything else that was important to me. In an effort to shake off the mood, I stacked all five of my Creedence albums on the stereo and danced to them, one after another …
Willis never failed to place rock in the context of life, an approach that has become lamentably rare today, when breadth of musical knowledge and ever-tightening deadlines take precedence. As Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone observed at the conference, "Music takes time to live with."
Disillusioned by pop in the ’80s, Willis rarely revisited rock criticism in her later career. She spent her last quarter-century producing essays on feminism and politics and running NYU’s graduate Cultural Reporting and Criticism program (which I attended after her death in 2006). Although she switched her focus to more sober subject matter, her writing never lost the lively, sensual tone of her best music pieces.
In 1973, Willis paid the Rolling Stones’ song "If You Really Want to Be My Friend" one of her greatest compliments ever: "It’s only human, and I like it." I feel just the same way about her work.
Photograph of Ellen Willis from Out of the Vinyl Deeps, University of Minnesota Press