Cherry Bomb: On Ellen Willis

By Sara MarcusSeptember 19, 2011

Out of the Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis

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 with men to whom they were not married. Having accomplished the matrimony and, some years later, the relocation, she started graduate studies in comp lit at Berkeley, but neither early marriage nor grad school suited her, and by 1966 Willis was a 24-year-old divorcée, living the counterculture life in Greenwich Village and writing forgettable women's magazine bits on the side. She became managing editor of a new pop-culture monthly, Cheetah, and it was a long exegesis on Bob Dylan she published there — originally run in Commentary, the article was her first piece of music writing, and her first serious published work, period — that caught the attention of The New Yorker, convincing the editors that they needed a pop critic and that it needed to be Willis.

© Nona Willis Aronowitz 2011 Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press

© Nona Willis Aronowitz  2011, Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press 

Willis contributed regularly to The New Yorker for years, holding forth on many iconic artists of the time: the Who, Janis Joplin, the Beatles. Concurrently, she was becoming deeply committed to the radical feminist and antiwar movements; she cared intensely about music, but not only music, and eventually it was time to move on. She left the magazine in 1975, after editor William Shawn remarked that he could never have run the long article about a prominent rape case that Willis had just written for Rolling Stone. (The piece, "The Trial of Arline Hunt," is included in her first book, 1981's Beginning to See the Light, and it's a knockout.) She went on to write about politics, feminism, religion, and all manner of culture for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and The Nation, among other places, until her death from cancer in 2006. Much of this work is collected in Beginning to See the Light and 1992's No More Nice Girls, both of which are excellent, and both of which have been out of print since the early nineties.

I'm thus tempted to indulge in a small spate of griping about the attention that has greeted the recent release of Out of the Vinyl Deeps, which presents nearly all of the late critic's New Yorker columns along with several other bits of her writing on music. All you goobers care about is Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, I want to grumble, when Willis went on to become one of the most ecstatic, intellectually astute, and readable thinkers ever to come out of the radical feminist underground. You're all agog over "My Grand Funk Problem — and Ours," but who among you has read the incisive essay "Lust Horizons" (in No More Nice Girls), which confronts sex and power and morality in ways that still read as mind-blowingly fresh? Ellen Willis, the writer who coined the term "pro-sex feminism," who wrote so insightfully in 1981 that feminism's most sexually conservative viewpoints "induce women to accept a spurious moral superiority as a substitute for sexual pleasure, and curbs on men's sexual freedom as a substitute for real power" — Ellen Willis is going to go down in history as primarily having been a rock critic?

But this may be bad manners on my part; perhaps it is, to use a word Willis liked to lob at herself, ungrateful. For starters, Willis does deserve credit, however belated or limited, for being one of the first and smartest writers ever to cover rock 'n' roll. Plus, even in her rock-crit mode she was always far more than a rock critic, and Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a terrific book about far more than rock. It's about women, men, and sex. It's about acid and pot and dancing. It's about the cultural revolution known as the sixties, and the process of making sense of it known as the seventies. It's about all these things via music, and about music via all these things, and as such it will be a great boon to accidental young rock critics of the future who get suckered into the game by reading Greil Marcus and then wonder where all the other great politically-minded critics have gone. (I hope these seekers will also have discovered Nitsuh Abebe's writing in New York magazine and Pitchfork, and Ann Powers's on NPR's music website.) If we're lucky, this book will usher in a change in the kinds of stories our culture is capable of telling — and interested in hearing — about the tunes we dig.

Willis understood rock to be not the solid monolith its name might suggest, but rather a permeable pavilion through which currents of cultural change flow, and within which agglomerations of human desires gather. As we see throughout Vinyl Deeps, she was concerned with what songs meant, and what bands' particular existences in the world told us about the culture we desired and deserved. What is sometimes missing, ironically, is how the actual stuff produced by these bands — the songs themselves — encoded these values and trends and forces. I mean that Willis rarely wrote in depth about how things sounded. She listened less with her ears than with her brain and hips and feet, far more likely to tell us what a song's lyrics seemed to be saying, or whether she enjoyed dancing to it, than to delve into what it was about a song's construction that made it feel a certain way. Simon and Garfunkel's "Fakin' It," she wrote, "had strong, direct, colloquial lyrics, an excellent melody, and a beat" (What made the melody excellent? What kind of beat, for god's sake?); and a beautiful passage on the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" could only muster this much detail about the music: "Although there is a tremendous amount of musical activity going on throughout the song, it sounds totally simple and straightforward. The word that best describes it is mellow." Maybe so, but why?

Yet this lacuna did not greatly hobble her writing — her reading of "Here Comes the Sun" is no less rhapsodic and clear for all its vagueness — and perhaps her audience didn't notice it at all. The reach of the top artists of her time was hegemonic; she knew her readers would have the songs running through their heads already. This is a far cry from today's fractured, atomized music culture, but Willis's assumption that the music wouldn't need much description has worn quite well in an era when the instant availability of sound files has rendered the descriptive function of criticism largely redundant. (It also helps that much of the music she wrote about has survived and is still listened to in 2011.) Today it's simple enough to be listening to a song while you read a review of it, which means the critic doesn't have to tell you that the song is nine minutes long and punctuated with harsh birdcalls; it might really free up a writer to delve more deeply into what it means that you are listening to it at all.

Of course, just because there's now more space to do this doesn't mean it's any easier to do well, and Willis raises the bar so high it's tempting to suspect other critics of having colluded to keep her obscure all these years in the interest of sheer self-protection. Consider, for instance, her play-by-play narration of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" — where, notably, she finally gives a song's actual sounds a good hard (if partly stilted) read:

The song is built around the tension between the rush and the nod — expressed musically by an accelerating beat giving way to slow, solemn chords that sound like a bell tolling [...] In the beginning he likens shooting up to a spiritual journey: he's gonna try for the Kingdom; when he's rushing on his run he feels like Jesus's son. At the end, with a blasphemous defiance that belies his words, he avows, "Thank your God that I'm not aware / And thank God that I just don't care!" The whole song seems to rush outward and then close in on itself, on the moment of truth when the junkie knowingly and deliberately chooses death over life — chooses damnation. It is the clarity of his consciousness that gives the sin its enormity. Yet the clarity also offers a glimmer of redemption. In the very act of choosing numbness the singer admits the depths of his pain and bitterness, his longing for something better; he is aware of every nuance of his rejection of awareness; he sings a magnificently heartfelt song about how he doesn't care. (A decade later, Johnny Rotten will do the same thing in an entirely different way.) A clear, sustained note runs through the song like a bright thread; it fades out or is drowned out by chaotic, painful distortion and feedback, then comes through again, like the still small voice of the soul.

Or this, from the same piece on the Velvets:

Their music was as painful as it was compelling, assaulting the ear with excruciating distortion and chaotic noise barely contained by the repetitive rhythms of rock and roll [...]. Musically as well as verbally, they insisted that possibility, far from being limitless, was continually being stifled and foreclosed. At a time when hippie rock musicians were infatuated with the spontaneous jam, the Velvets' music was cerebral, stylized. They maintained a poignant ironic tension between the tight, formal structure of the songs and their bursts of raw noise, between their high artfulness and street-level content, between fatalism and rebellion.

She was gifted at explaining both how culture at large elucidated something about a band, as in the passage above, and how a band pointed to a truth about culture at large, as in this excerpt from the same essay:

The Velvets were the first important rock-and-roll artists who had no real chance of attracting a mass audience. This was paradoxical. Rock-and-roll was a mass art, whose direct, immediate appeal to basic emotions subverted class and educational distinctions and whose formal canons all embodied the perception that mass art was not only possible but satisfying in new and liberating ways. Insofar as it incorporates the elite, formalist values of the avant-garde, the very idea of rock-and-roll art rests on a contradiction. Its greatest exponents — the Beatles, the Stones, and (especially) the Who — undercut the contradiction by making the surface of their music deceptively casual, then demolished it by reaching millions of kids. But the Velvets' music was too overtly intellectual, stylized, and distanced to be commercial. Like pop art, which was very much a part of the Velvets' world, it was antiart art made by antielite elitists.

These cracking quotations, I should note, come not from a New Yorker column but from a longer piece she wrote for Stranded, an anthology Marcus edited in 1979. "Ellen was a slow writer," a friend of hers recalled at a recent symposium on her music writing and legacy; and what the Velvet Underground piece, produced without week-to-week deadline pressure, reminds us is that responses to pop music can grow even richer and more profoundly intelligent if they are given time to unspool. There was never much tolerance for this in rock criticism, and there is less now than ever before.


Willis had a political activist's conviction that nothing comes into being accidentally and nothing is immutable, and consequently in these works we often see her trying to figure out why rock exists. It's moving to witness her attempts to home in on the actual relationship between rock music and social revolution, an alliance that may have seemed axiomatic to less rigorous heads all along the political spectrum. But Willis was not one of those heads. "Rock, however ambiguous it may be as a revolutionary force, does hold the culture of social rebellion together": she wrote this while living (and organizing radical GI's) in the conservative military town of Colorado Springs, a place of voluntary exile where listening even to Crosby, Stills, and Nash (whom she had earlier deemed "too polished, too sentimental, and too soft, in the Simon and Garfunkel manner") or to — God forbid! — Vanilla Fudge's The Beat Goes On, "which must be one of the worst albums ever made," provided a surprising solace. It made her feel less isolated. It was better than nothing.

The folk-dominated National Women's Music Festival provoked a more demanding attitude: "Rock is, among other things, a potent means of expressing the active emotions — anger, aggression, lust, the joy of physical exertion — that feed all freedom movements, and it is no accident that women musicians have been denied access to this powerful musical language. I think it's crucially important for female performers to break that barrier and force rock to reflect their experience and aspirations." Willis was an intellectual, and her criticism reflects this, brilliantly.

She also had a real economy of means. In her writing, Mick Jagger was "the Stanley Kowalski of rock"; Carly Simon was "a rich little rich girl"; an eager ticket seller "said 'You bet!' so heartily you could see his teeth over the phone." Or consider this, written after seeing the Stooges for the first time: "Iggy's thing is hostility; he leaps into the audience and grabs people by the hair. His best song is called 'Hungry.' He is also a great rock-and-roll dancer. Unlike David Bowie, he sweats." There is poetic compression in that passage, and also a Didionesque coolness, a bemused distance even as she spotlights carnal participation. This contradiction — Willis, influenced by Marx, was ceaselessly attuned to contradictions — recurs in a piece about a Rolling Stones concert:

At the end, the lights went out and the crowd waited tensely for the encore. Suddenly, a cherry bomb exploded four rows in front of me. A woman was led out, her hands over her face; I couldn't tell whether she was hurt or just stunned. The lights went up immediately, and the loudspeakers broadcast a firm good night. I was angry and upset. And yet with my critic's head I had to acknowledge that although the opening concert had been more fun, in a way this one had been better. The challenge of a difficult, capricious audience had forced Jagger to be harder, more serious, more real. It was an irony I might have appreciated more if that cherry bomb had not hit quite so close.

Much of this passage would be right at home in Didion's famously detached essay about Joan Baez and her milieu, "Where the Kissing Never Stops." But all the critical distance imparted by Willis's profession, and by her impeccable use of language, can't get her more than four rows away from that cherry bomb; moreover, she is "angry and upset" to have had her night ruined — that is, she's invested. At the "more fun" concert a few nights earlier, she had "spent most of the evening dancing in my seat — and in my seat merely because the people behind me insisted." Even though rock to her was always at minimum a reflection of social and political truths and at maximum a hammer with which to shape them, she also loved music purely, irrationally, for the pleasure it brought. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is full of her passionate reactions to what she was hearing and experiencing — dancing in her living room to five Creedence records in a row, wandering the city streets high from the vibes of a club performance, ardently working through the evolving emotions brought on by a new album by Joni Mitchell or, more often, Dylan.

Willis wrote pop criticism as few do anymore, as a radical for whom dancing was a necessary but not sufficient component of a revolution. Her insistence on pleasure as a political principle would persist in her essays of the 1980s — in her intellectual work on the pro-sex, pro-transcendence side both of the feminist wars over pornography and sex, and of the discord among Reagan-era leftists concerning the importance of cultural issues. (Some progressives, primarily male, were arguing that the cultural rebellions of the sixties had alienated the working class and fractured the Democratic coalition, leading to the triumph of Reaganism.) Her 1981 introduction for Beginning to See the Light, reprinted in Vinyl Deeps, stands as a classic argument for the liberatory force of even the most corporatized rock 'n' roll, taking on the commodify-your-dissent critique avant la lettre:

By continually pushing the message that we have the right to gratification now, consumerism at its most expansive encouraged a demand for fulfillment that could not so easily be contained by products; it had a way of spilling over into rebellion against the constricting conditions of our lives. The history of the sixties strongly suggests that the impulse to buy a new car and tool down the freeway with the radio blasting rock and roll is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements. [...] On one level the sixties revolt was an impressive illustration of Lenin's remark that the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps was lovingly assembled by Willis's daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, and includes an introduction by her, a foreword by current New Yorker pop-music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, and a concluding essay, mapping Willis's influence on a new generation of rock critics, by Best Music Writing's Daphne Carr and Rolling Stone's Evie Nagy. The book is getting a good bit of attention, and I'm glad: I hope it inspires contemporary critics to do the hard work of asking what our culture and art can tell us about the way we live now, to do it with humor and ecstasy and zero tolerance for lazy, mushy thought; and I also hope it kicks off such a run on used copies of her other books that somebody is forced to issue new editions of them. Why stop there? Let's see a major publisher bring out an Essential Ellen Willis anthology, uniting in one volume her strongest music criticism with the best of her political essays, offering once and for all a worthy testament to a writer who saw clearly how rock, sex, politics, and pleasure are intimately connected — not walled off from each other in ghettos, but occupying a brilliant landscape together, expansive, joyful, alive.

LARB Contributor

Sara Marcus is the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Her writing has appeared in publications including Bookforum, Artforum, the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, and Salon. She is a founding editor of New Herring Press.



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