FOR A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE, music can feel downright limiting sometimes. When I was 26 and reviewing records for Time Out New York (the weekly magazine's pop section was then in its golden age) and The Advocate (the gay one) and a few smaller rags besides, my then boyfriend, a noise guitarist, bought me a copy of the writings of Lester Bangs. "You can't be a rock critic without reading this," he decreed.
I had never meant to become a rock critic — my bandmate and I moved to Philadelphia after college, and when I presented myself to the alt-weekly there as an aspiring political journalist, the editor-in-chief zeroed in on the two record reviews in my file of clips and shunted me over to the music section. In the four years since that development, I had read Greil Marcus's (no relation) marvelous postpunk reviews, collected as In the Fascist Bathroom, and not much other music journalism at all. It seemed to me that most contemporary rock magazines were propagating an artless scorecard-genealogy version of criticism, treating music in isolation from other art, culture, and political realities. And I had certainly never read Bangs, whose irascible, rambling rock-crit from the 1970s many considered to be classic examples of the genre. I gave him a solid try, but every page I opened to just turned me off. This was the canon? If all those dudes at Rolling Stone and Spin were taking their cues from a nihilistic, homophobic, apolitical speed freak, it was no wonder the whole game left me cold.
Shortly afterward, I visited the apartment of a friend of a friend, an older critic of some renown, to take a bunch of old jazz cassettes off his hands. He asked me what I wrote. Mostly record reviews now, I told him, but I planned to expand my purview, write more about politics, teenagers, women...
The critic gave a small snort. "Good luck getting out of the music ghetto," he said.
His tone spooked me. I took my plastic spork and started digging an escape tunnel right then. That tunnel led to the writing of my first book, Girls to the Front, a history of Riot Grrrl, a feminist movement of young women. It always gets shelved in the music section.
Ellen Willis, who was The New Yorker's first popular-music critic (and, with half a million readers each week, among the nation's most widely read critics), worked both in and out of the music ghetto. Born in the Bronx and raised in Bayside, Queens, she majored in English at Barnard in the late fifties and early sixties, commuting to class from her family's outer-borough home. She married at 19 because, as she later told a friend, she wanted to go with her boyfriend to California, and in those days women didn't move cross-country...read more