Ellen Willis: The Fearless Critic, Her Times and Today - Women's Week


Ellen Willis in 1977, photo courtesy of ellenwillis.tumblr.com.

Written by: Matthew Waters

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a recently released compilation of popular music criticism written by Ellen Willis. Willis was a force in the world of cultural opinion throughout her distinguished career in journalism and as a college professor at New York University. Her writing could be absorbed from hundreds of different perches, ranging from pure musical critique to razor sharp societal observance, and countless worlds between.

While listening to music, people often allude to feelings of absorption, as if songs form a reality apart. Lauded musician Van Morrison named one of his albums Into the Music, perhaps referencing the invisible melodic plane. Other types of art are capable of providing a similar transcending effect.

Back when Willis was establishing herself, this special enveloping power of sound was worshiped. Such religious movements are usually threats to established power structures, and the counterculture movement in the ‘60s was launched into history accompanied by a contemporary soundtrack.

All times are unavoidably marked by turbulence, but the ‘60s were especially troublesome. The changes of that era were born of violence and sacrifice, a time individuals found themselves in a reality shaped by shifting social paradigms. The writing of Ellen Willis captures that vital element of individualism, and remains relative today.

Willis is a reliable narrator, looking back upon the idealism of the ‘60s and facing the inevitable punk backlash unattached to any ideology, aside from artistic merit. Despite her voice and opinions being debtless to revolutions and movements, the actual writing is steeped wondrously in the transcending qualities of our country’s decade on the precipice. This distinct split between her voice, and the presentation of her opinions, creates a fascinating balancing act. The reader is simultaneously hypnotized and challenged. The challenge is to think critically while being dropped into a writing world where oft-repeated words like ‘bohemia,’ ‘myth,’ and ‘society’ have both submerging and affirming qualities.

Dr. Donna Gaines is an experienced journalist who has written for publications such as Rolling Stone and Salon. She also earned a Ph.D. in sociology and a Masters in the field of social work, authoring the critically lauded Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids. Willis was Gaines’ editor at The Village Voice.

“The use of self in the narrative reflects the feminist doctrine that the personal is the political,” writes Gaines in an e-mail to BreakThru Radio. “It would be impossible for the critical feminist sensibility to separate the reflexive from the analytic. In the late 1980s I began working with Ellen, who was my longtime editor at the Voice. There were ongoing wars with traditional (male) ‘objective’ reporters at the paper who viewed this emergent methodology as solipsistic and self-indulgent. We laughed at the ‘trench coat guys,’ an ancient regime Ellen’s pioneering work buried somewhere in history.”

Willis was convinced that the individual interior played a pivotal role in the critiquing process. “Willis taught her writers and later, her students at NYU, that the experience of the music mattered in the critical process,” explains Gaines. “Reception theory allows us to link the individual to the social. Ellen Willis broke that ground for feminist writers, and where she entered, generations followed.”

How does a culture go about defining itself? Willis freely utilized terms which could potentially alienate readers because her culture was shifting. Individuals surviving in a shifting culture are forced to both acknowledge, and summarily rise above, the definitions of an assessment obsessed society.

An important facet of Willis’ thesis on white musicians adopting the blues was that color should not define an individual. And not simply color, but all the generalizations and expectations associated with color. Happiness and love were to be sought, not found at assigned stations of class and status. Worthwhile creative expression would generally fail to find an acceptable landing place in the surface society.

The seeming lack of a unified front among young people today, partly due to endless avenues for entertainment, distraction, and opinion, may falsely present a passionless face. But as Gaines explains, looking deeper reveals the ideas philosophized by Willis playing out in modern life.

“I think young people today are still seeking truth and hope in music, same as it ever was,” Gaines states. “What’s different is of course, the ’60s boomer sensibility seemed monolithic & (falsely) unified. Today, the markets are far more fragmented. It would be difficult to find consensus among the various music subcultures. This has made it harder to measure the possibilities of transcendence we boomers treasured about our music, but they are there.”

Toward the end of the book, in an article concerning a Stevie Wonder concert but initially pondering Otis Redding, Willis is saddened by the realization that our culture could have evolved further while experimenting, and that an opportunity had been missed within the window of a bygone era:

A few years ago, I saw the Monterey Pop Festival movie for the fourth or fifth time. I had always loved Otis Redding’s performance, but this time I heard intimations in his music that I’d never picked up before. Sung by a black man to an audience of white freaks-‘the love crowd,’ as he had labeled them (us), with amusement and affection and who knows what cynicism- a ballad like ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ became more, much more, than a simple love song. The line ‘Please Don’t Make Me Stop Now’ was both a plea and a warning. It spoke of human relations in general and race relations in particular. It reminded the love crowd that in their naive rapacity they had taken what sustenance they needed from black music and the black outlaw culture without much thought about what they could give back. And it insisted, sadly but firmly, that that one-way transfer of energy, of love, if you will – could not continue forever. This is your chance… if you do something about love instead of merely talking about it… (Willis, 216)

Divided ideas and people form a whole in America. In the ‘60s, when the American citizen became more conscious, Willis noticed an opportunity for taking and giving back. If the musicians who were inspired by the blues could have, in turn, given back something of equal value to those who inspired them, sharing would have occurred, and the very direction of society may have changed, as sharing denotes community.

It is fascinating how relevant these issues remain, especially as it concerns the culture of youth. Social media just may represent this generation’s soundtrack to a (hopefully peaceful) evolutionary movement.

“We are already seeing it locally (OWS) and globally (Arab Spring),” offers Gaines. “The possibilities are limitless. But the onslaught of commercial culture and corporate intrusion is also massive and requires savvy consumers–which most young people are. The music subcultures that grew beyond borders to international fandom have multiplied. For decades, bands like Metallica, Ramones, and so many who followed have created international communities. Remember “Iron Maiden Behind the Iron Curtain?” It’s global and local at the same time—social, cultural & economic. Amazing (and scary) times, I would give anything just to hear Ellen Willis speak on all of this.”

Ultimately, the work of great artists will burst through categories. Because rock criticism was brand new at the beginning of Willis’ career, the founding mothers and fathers of the field could qualify their own styles. Forget about working within established rules, which she often would have defied two sentences into her articles.

She incorporated countless personal variables while reviewing singles, albums, or concerts. She did not attempt to disguise her past, or make herself a formless figment presenting facts.

Instead of attempting to shield the obvious, Willis embraced reality. Through their lives, critics will develop preferences inevitably coloring their analysis. Is it the job of a critic to be truly objective? Does true objectivity even exist? Modern reviews sometimes regard music as science, instead of art, locked into definitive genres, influenced by obvious sources, and assigned a rating. The objective merit of songs and craft are discerned, without being funneled through the panorama of existence. Does complete objectivity, in a sense, make this type of review unreal, in that it exists as beyond the influence of what could have lead the reviewer to eventually arrive at his or her opinion? Does any opinion exist outside that influence?

Making special music is a tough job. An album of boring melodies, blown chords, or uninspired lyrics is almost always discarded. High quality music gets discussed, and remembered. And should high quality music be observed by reviewers stationed behind glass cases, separated from their very real lives beyond journalism, and even music itself? An ocean of circumstance forms human opinion. Ellen Willis swam fearlessly into the deepest depths. Evolved communities probably would do that kind of thing together.


1. Willis, Ellen. Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Minneapolis, MN. University of Minnesota Press. 2011. Print.