Lessons for Pop Music Writers From a Former 'New Yorker' Critic

Ellen Willis' Out of the Vinyl Deeps serves as a challenge for people trying to write about music in the Internet age

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Univ Of Minnesota Press

You've heard the news. In the post-Internet world, everyone's a critic now. So when it comes to pop music criticism, why is it so difficult to find a voice that's at once provocative and lucid? Pop music writing is seemly dominated by three following camps: Writers who construct dense, hyperbolic prose that is ostensibly only written for other music writers, consumer-guide reviewers whose meme is "quantity beats quality," and the sycophant. "How is it that writing about music now is everywhere, and yet seems to be nowhere at all?," John Harris pondered in a 2009 Guardian essay.

Against this backdrop, the recent publication of the late Ellen Willis' rock criticism, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, amounts to a guiding light for the drifting rock journalist. This anthology of Willis' essays and reviews, edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz, not only saves from the abyss one of the premier founding voices of pop music criticism, it also illuminates the genre's possibilities. For, as Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy quote the music writer Jessica Hopper in the compilation's afterword, Willis' "writing is a dare as much as it is a lens."

Willis, who died from lung cancer in 2006 at the age of 64, was the New Yorker's first pop music critic, writing the magazine's Rock, Etc. column from 1968 to 1975. Like the film critic Pauline Kael, who joined the magazine just a year earlier in 1967, Willis broke with the publication's previously haughty position on popular entertainment and instead approached the medium with a personal tone and a fan's mentality.

But rock music as mere entertainment wasn't an end in itself for Willis. Rather, she used pop music as a launching pad for exploring larger cultural concerns, everything from politics to gender to sex to her preeminent concern, freedom. She favored depth over breadth, and she acted as a discerning filter by deliberately choosing to pay no attention to certain music and movements she considered useless. "She never stressed much about coverage while writing her Rock, Etc. column and especially in her writing that followed," Willis Aronowitz says in the introduction. "[S]he tracked every move of the Who, Bob Dylan, the Stones, Janis [Joplin] and the Velvet Underground as she blatantly ignored others."

And this sensibility is why Willis' style of criticism makes a bigger impression than most of its current counterparts. Whereas so much cultural commentary on pop music comes off as hopelessly grandiose due to that all-too-often-used "I know everything" tone, everything she wrote displayed a critical habit of mind, what she called a "cultural conversation," in which she projected onto the page the private argument she was having with herself over the cultural issues or objects at hand.

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Eric Been is an associate editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Wall Street Journal.

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