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


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.

In a 1967 article from the short-lived magazine Cheetah—which was Willis' first essay on rock music and the piece that landed her the New Yorker job—she wrote a nuanced deflation of Bob Dylan and his put-on personas, which shifted, as she put it, from "proletarian assertiveness to anarchist to pop detachment." But rather than reaching an all-or-nothing conclusion about Dylan, she deconstructed the singer-songwriter's public image without discarding what she found valuable in his music.

Elsewhere in the collection, her article on Woodstock is a fine example of historical criticism at its best, in which she demystifies the festival of its alleged revolutionary implications: "Woodstock was about: ignore the bad, groove on the good, hang loose, and hang loose. The truth is that there can't be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution. In the meantime, we should insist that the capitalists who produce rock concerts offer reasonable service at reasonable prices."

And her 1977 essay "Beginning to See the Light" from the Village Voice—where she went on to serve as a columnist and editor—is equally sharp, illustrating her "uncensored thoughts" on punk, folk, feminist music, and the myths still circulating at the time about the 1960s counterculture. Like most of her work, it blends together cultural theory with New Journalism techniques, while at the same time being both iconoclastic and optimistic. Towards the end of the work, she cuts against the grain by defending the Sex Pistols anti-abortion tune "Bodies" from a feminist perspective. As she saw it, the song contained a "paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated--as good rock and roll did--challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation."

Vinyl Deeps ends with an abridged version of Willis' introduction to one of her other collections, Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock 'n' Roll (1981). In the piece, Willis railed against those who assume "that because mass art is a product of capitalism, it is by definition worthless." Nonetheless, she concludes that "[a]rt may express and encourage our subversive impulses, but it can't analyze or organize them."

And it is at this point where Willis poses a challenge to the serious pop exegete. At its best, the point of music criticism is not to persuade someone to listen to music (they'll do that regardless), or merely evaluate an album with a five-star scale. Rather, its purpose is to put pop music in a cultural framework and, in the process, offer new ways of seeing the world and perhaps even the human condition. Sure, these are lofty goals, but as Willis' rock writing shows, they're achievable.