Meme of the Week: Ellen Willis (I)

A sampling (not comprehensive, possibly more to come, etc.) of critical responses to Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the new Ellen Willis anthology, interjected on occasion with a few thoughts from yours truly as one possible way of overcoming the perpetual writers block which has thus far prevented me from laying down my own actual thoughts on the thing:

  • Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly: “Willis writes with a directness and utter lack of fan gush, and her observations sound as fresh, as appropriate to the present music scene, as they did decades ago. Her 1971 criticism of pop music’s tendency toward ‘a tedious worship of technical proficiency’ is as apt now about ‘American Idol’ and The Voiceas it was then.” (Hmm, I’d quibble a nibble re: her “utter lack of fan gush”; rather, I’d suggest that her gushing — which, granted, is far from her signature style — doesn’t cancel her hard-as-nails critique. I might even suggest that when it does rear its head it actually enhances it.)
  • In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross, after quoting Willis on Dylan, writes: “What’s wonderful about this passage is that Willis expresses admiration for her subject without coming anywhere near idolatry. Indeed, she frames him in a feminist perspective that might make a lot of male rock fans uncomfortable. Yet she doesn’t take him to pieces, either. She simply sees right through him. The political-cultural insight is indivisible from the lyrical-musical insight.” (“Admiration for her subject without coming anywhere near idolatry…” Again, I’m struggling a bit with that. “Idolatry,” I sort of get, though only if you limit the word “idolatry” to people. In other words, it’s true that Willis never comes across as merely idolizing Dylan and Lou Reed — but is she not entirely enraptured by the best of their work? Maybe I’d be more accepting of “idolatry” here if it were preceded by the word “blind” or “thoughtless” — in short, yes, I’m being extremely nitpicky. “Admiration,” on the other hand, just does not suffice. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t come away reading Willis on Dylan or the Velvets or Creedence with the sense that she simply “admires” their work; there’s far more passion in her critique than that, no?)
  • Some good thoughts on Willis’s “easy voice” by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: “Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music… is a revelation, both for her staunchly feminist viewpoint and for the sheer pleasure of reading her work. She writes with a cogent intellectual urgency, yet balances it with an easy voice that is utterly open and congenial. The most important trait for any cultural critic is that the reader gets the sense they’re being honest, and truthfulness is one of Willis’s greatest strengths. Whereas some music critics write like they want to impose their opinion, Willis wrote like she wanted to have a conversation.”
  • Nitsuh Abebe in his “Why We Fight” column in Pitchfork: “It’s also that she writes about shows, nights out, and conversations; about dancing in her apartment, talking over Bowie, and watching people throw paper at one another before a Who show. In one column, she deploys the following (weirdly thrilling) sentence: ‘The concert was fun.’ The overall effect is as if you’d spent these years abroad and out of touch, periodically receiving boxes of vinyl — and passionate, luminous letters about the music inside — from the friend you used to obsess over records with before you left.”
  • In NPR, Ann Powers makes similar observations: “Most important, Willis wrote like someone who lived in a body. Her reviews are peppered with scenes of her standing on theater seats, dancing in her bedroom, or having a flash of insight while waiting for her clothes at the laundromat. She wrote about laughing, and having doubts… Willis made sure her mental footwork was easy to follow, and that’s what makes Out of the Vinyl Deeps so relevant. Post-Internet, everybody’s a critic, but the best writers know that what matters isn’t showing off, but starting a conversation that feels relevant and real. Pick up her book, and you just might discover a voice you’ve been ready to love for years.”
  • Sasha Frere-Jones, who writes the foreword to the book, engages in a Q&A about Willis: “No other pop critic has ever seemed so unbiddable. There was no ‘liking’ a performer or an album — everything on the table was an idea or a feeling or project that Willis wanted to measure, to assess which bits worked and which didn’t. The variables were of more interest to her than the people or the recordings. I never found that cold; I found it liberating. The ecstatic feelings music gave me were never going to make their way onto a piece of paper.” (Hmm, similar to what Ross and Tucker are saying above, that last line loses me, though partly it loses me because I’m not certain if Frere-Jones is suggesting that that is Willis’s modus operandi, or his own. Regardless, getting your “ecstatic feelings” “onto a piece of paper” — um, that’s kind of my definition of one of the things all great criticism does.) (And actually, on a similar note, one thing I noticed while reading OOTVD — and should have taken a proper tally of — was Willis’s propensity to use drug metaphors to describe her personal experiences with and feelings about rock, i.e., she would sometimes note that certain shows or records made her feel “high.”)
  • A terrific quote about Willis, which Frere-Jones puts in his foreword to the book (and which praises the “ecstatic” bent of E.W.’s work!). The quote is from Willis’s longtime friend, Karen Durbin: “Ellen was that wondrous creature, an intellectual who deeply valued sensuality, which is why she wrote with such insight about rock and roll but also with such love. She respected the sensual; in a fundamentally puritanical culture, she honored it. She saw how it could be a path to transcendence and liberation, especially for women, who, when we came out into the world in the early to midsixties, were relentlessly sexualized and just as relentlessly shamed. Rock and roll broke that chain: it was the place where we could be sexual and ecstatic about it. Our lives were saved by that fine, fine music, and that’s a fact.”

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