Willis and Nelson: anti-eclectics?

“[Willis] never stressed much about coverage while writing her Rock, Etc. column, and especially in her writing that followed; she tracked every move of the Who, Bob Dylan, the Stones, Janis, and the Velvet Underground as she blatantly ignored others.”
– Nona Willis Aronowitz, introduction to Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

“‘I get so many records,’ Paul said, ‘but I go through most of them and, after one listen, that’s that. But I find a good one and it doesn’t come off the turntable for six months. I’ll play three records all year.'”
– Paul Nelson, quoted in Kevin Avery’s Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson

I’m just floating these words out there, don’t really have much to say about them. I’ve been reading the two books in tandem — they’re both wonderful, though the Nelson bio, I have to say, is completely amazing, one of the half dozen greatest music books I’ve ever read, maybe — and one thing that struck me about both Willis and Nelson (and about the era in which they participated as rock critics) was their general disinterest in trying to “cover the bases.” Their frames of reference — at least within the sphere of music — were relatively tiny compared to most rock critics. (This is not to suggest that they did so as any kind of self-imposed rule, anymore than it’s to suggest that they didn’t on occasion surprise you with a left turn in their tastes. I’m talking in fairly broad terms here, of course.) It’s kind of astonishing when you think about it. One of the primary functions of rock criticism has been precisely the opposite — to cover as much stuff out there as possible. (cf. Christgau’s comment somewhere — can’t recall where exactly — something to the effect that “eclecticism is the first cliché of rock criticism”). Today, you simply couldn’t do what Nelson or Willis did. Well, you could, of course, on a blog (or in a boring specialist punk ‘zine or some such), but you’d never get paid for it, not by the New Yorker, not by Rolling Stone, or Spin, et al. You need to express (or feign) some interest in all (or anyway, most) of what’s going on. The irony being, of course, that it’s more impossible than ever to do so, given the infinite glut of genres, sub-genres, etc.

One thought on “Willis and Nelson: anti-eclectics?

  1. In the ’60s, “eclectic” was rock criticism’s first cliché (in re this synthesizer-saboteur controversy). Right, what Luc calls sabotage is everyday life.
    –Robert Christgau, in Why Music Still Sucks or Why “Why Music Sucks” Sucks a.k.a. Why Music Sucks #2 p. 14

    (Xgau is referring to a discussion betw. me and Luc Sante in the previous issue, Luc plumping for “sabotage,” the audience expecting one thing and the performer, who seems to be going along, then cutting the ground out from under them. And I was arguing that performers do unexpected varying and mixing all the time, but it doesn’t usually result in sabotage, is rather just everyday creativity. Hence, what Luc would call “sabotage,” I would call, simply, everyday life. Why Music Sucks #1, pp 15 and 16.)

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