Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (2011)

by Carl Wilson

There’s been plenty of praise already for this posthumous volume of work by not only The New Yorker’s first pop writer but one of the first rock critics (as opposed to reviewers) – who went missing from the history because she had dropped out of the game by the time it was first being historicized, and no doubt because she wasn’t a guy. I was a fan of Ellen Willis’s socio-political, feminist writing (many fine examples of which are archived on this Tumblr) long before learning she’d been a music critic. Later I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known.

I’m still struck by the uncanny frisson rereading her work imparts. It feels at once anachronistic and full of unfinished business. Early rock critics generally read more like our contemporaries than other cultural critics of the 1960s and 1970s, save perhaps Pauline Kael. But in part that was because they (Marcus, Christgau et al) were having arguments they then went on to finish, or that other people clearly took up (Lester Bangs). They were able to moderate their various romanticisms, rockisms, exclusions and snobberies.

With Willis, you get reflections on anything from Elvis’s comeback to the social meaning of white electric blues to whether David Bowie was a phony, all as offhand, first-draft-of-history musings, necessarily innocent of the big debates to come, often half-wrong but revitalized by freshness as first thoughts. You also get blind spots – it’s misleading that the first piece in chapter 1 is about “Two Soul Albums,” because contemporary black music just isn’t going to come up in this book very often. It’s not an omission anyone writing retrospectively about the 1960s and 1970s would make. But it was one plenty of people did at the time, and Willis isn’t exempt, nor does she get to go back and revise.

More importantly there are the hints and beginnings of big themes she’d never go on to explore in depth – and neither would many others. Part of what was lost in Willis’s voice going missing was the way she treated music not so much analytically, and certainly not categorically, but dynamically. She had a way of talking about artist-audience relationships, specifically fan relationships, that anticipated what would come in cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s.

But while there was sociology in Willis’s take, it was also self-reflexive and personal – her sense of what she was asking of Janis Joplin and what Janis Joplin reciprocally needed from her, or how she could appropriate the virile aggression of Mick Jagger as a fan, and take on that erotic energy as subject rather than object. (So the Stones’ Under My Thumb is potentially more accommodating to a female point-of-view than Cat Stevens’ Wild World, because a hetero woman couldn’t easily picture herself passive-aggressively controlling an ex-lover by telling him he was too naive and delicate for the big bad world. Molly Templeton has astutely proposed that gender-flip question as Willis’s musical equivalent of the Bechdel Test.)

Here, then, are 5 propositions and maxims that reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps made me think should guide more criticism today.

Music is an embodied experience.

As a feminist, a 1960s counterculture-liberationist and, most of all, as someone who came into a relatively empty field and pursued her passions rather than having a lot of other discourse to answer to, Willis was seldom distracted from the fact that music was something to feel physically – an engine for dancing, a drug for feeling, a massage for pain, an erotic locus and something that pulls you into crowds.

Unlike some members of the boys’ club, she didn’t take that as an excuse for slobbery prose that tried to emulate the music’s (and the drugs’) pulses and waves. She wrote more diagnostically, describing the symptoms caused by these viruses of sound and trying to say what they were good or bad for, and what overall syndromes they might indicate. She knew there were contradictions between rationalism and expressionism, between the body and the mind, but to her that was exactly the meaning and purpose of rock’n’roll.

 It’s natural to have an agenda.

Willis felt no compunction about the fact that Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, The Who and the Velvet Underground (who, amazingly, she’s still written about better than anyone else) were closer and more personal to her than a lot of other figures. She enjoyed keeping in dialogue with them, with each new album or development.

She wasn’t uncomfortable with that commitment and contaminated by ideas of objectivity leaking inappropriately in from other branches of journalism. But she also knew that her fan relationship to them was fraught. She cared about whether they were fulfilling their promises without petulantly implying they owed something to her – as if they were the leaders of a republic in which she was just one highly engaged citizen. Pop is about both identification and objectification of the stars, she knew. But just as with the people around us, the projections, identifications and oppositions we bring in are mainly our own problem.

Pleasure is both a moral imperative and a moral dilemma.

None of the liberating power Willis felt in pop music could function without pleasure. In this way, she was ahead of the back-and-forth that would come between the neo-Adorno undergroundist critics who were suspicious of pop pleasure and the (now dominant) faction of poptimists who insist that’s where it all begins.

But she was always asking herself what pleasure meant: I like that beat, but what do I like it for? It’s not just whether and how it works, but what it works, what it’s propelling. She was alert to the possibilities of masochism, of submitting to the force or insinuation of music without questioning what becomes of the self in the process. She also delighted in finding pleasure that was hard to find – that punk, for example, had a positive life-force to offer within what had seemed nihilistic, anti-pleasure to her at first. But when music had no pleasure in it, she was impatient with any other argument it might have to offer.

Music always suggest a philosophy, a life-world.

For Willis, ultimately, the question was whether music was evoking a world she wanted to live in, or at least wanted to work her way through. Her landmark Velvet Underground essay for the Stranded “desert-island disc” anthology was testing exactly that problem: She saw in the VU, and in Lou Reed’s songwriting especially, a search for salvation in a fallen world. The VU was radical in pop music for its depiction of how deeply, violently fallen the world is – how unlike a mental ideal the embodied life is.

But she was convinced the music was about the struggle against that nihilism. She would have had little time for music that embraced the nihilism, a genuinely gnostic music. (Which may be what she thought she heard in the 1980s, and why she quit writing about it.)

Her writing likewise depicted a fight against cynicism and despair, which partly marks its post-60s era – she’s not that far off from Joan Didion in that way, though Willis could never be mistaken as anything but a New York writer. But the details of the philosophical positions involved aren’t so much the crux as is the constant listening for what’s being proposed and the writer’s honest effort to imagine what that has to do with her.

To live outside the law you must be honest – and hurt the ones you love.

All that said, Willis was never willing to straight-out join up. Perhaps her days of countercultural immersion and unthinking loyalty are behind her by the time she starts writing in public. Perhaps they were just never in her character. She makes her alliances tentatively, the way a feminist who loves Dylan and the Stones and the Who has to if she’s not switching her brain off.

She’s no easier on her female compatriots: She made a huge effort to find nascent feminist musicians who would speak to her. She didn’t find many. She witnesses the beginning of the women’s-music-festival movement, and finds it encouraging, but she’s impatient to find the women’s music that really rocks, or at least doesn’t traffic in feminist platitudes.

She keeps searching, but she doesn’t give away too many points for effort, and she’s not afraid she’ll be kicked out of the movement for voicing her misgivings, in part because she does it so clearly with regret. Just as she listens to the music, it seems as if she listens to her own words, asking how her pleasure in writing serves to create more pleasure, to liberate a larger purpose.

She indulges that ego right up to that line but never across it. At the ends of a lot of her pieces, no matter how big or small her claims beforehand have been, she often threw in a little offhand disclaimer: “He’s right, but I still miss it.” “Well, call it a draw.” “You can’t win ’em all.” “But I guess that I just don’t know.” She brings it back down to that human scale, in which the author is merely, again, one citizen of this republic of song, even when she’s saying what the rest of that imaginary nation hadn’t yet thought to think.

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2 responses to “Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (2011)

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