Ellen Willis was the first person to be given the pop-music beat at The New Yorker, and five years after her death in 2006, some of her work—including a few essays written for this paper—has been collected into a single volume. Out of the Vinyl Deeps (Minnesota) is a seemingly bottomless treasure chest filled with new insights on pop. “Like great singles, they get better if you ask more of them. Play them again and again,” current New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones instructs the reader in his preface. He’s not wrong.
Willis’s work is crystalline enough that reading each essay takes the reader on a trip back to the era when it originally appeared, but it’s a testimony to her intellect and talent that those journeys look completely unlike any hagiography you might stumble across. She cuts through clichés nimbly, whether they’re about the utopian nature of Woodstock or the prescribed feminist reactions to outrageous manifestations of male-dominated culture, and the essays—even the getting-to-know-you pieces about artists who have been elevated to the canon and featured ad nauseam in nostalgia-jangling commercials—vibrate off the page.
Most of the essays in Out of the Vinyl Deeps were new to me, and it was tempting to contrast Willis’s work, particularly the pieces from the ’60s and ’70s that make up the bulk of the book, with the State of the Music-Writing Union today. The sheer length of most of the pieces, and the amount of intellectual calisthenics that long word counts provide, is one thing to sigh over in the 140-character era. But most striking—and inspiring—is Willis’s willingness to engage with herself as she tries to grapple with the cultural artifacts she covers. Yes, when she has an opinion, she isn’t afraid to matter-of-factly state it. But there’s a strong intellectual through line in the book, and it’s brightest when Willis is debating herself—a quality that’s lacking from too many writers right now, when brute force seems to count more toward one’s intellectual heftiness than any sort of conviction or willingness to learn. Whether it’s her struggling with the gap between her intellectual-feminist and primal-fan reactions to the Sex Pistols’ brutal “Bodies” or noting that New York’s frantic pace made her more likely to require that the music she listened to grab her right away, to read her work is to watch someone bristle against the idea of a music journalist merely serving as an objective pair of ears. The idea that music is the most subjective of all cultural products is one that isn’t discussed much of the time—although the difference in reactions to the word “soundscape” and a concrete description of a music-inspired emotion should serve as closure for any argument—but Willis’s writing was aware of and honored that fact. The result was criticism that not only places music into contexts both (to borrow a phrase) personal and political, but it helps the reader—even those reading her words well after the fact, which in this moment of endless newness is supposed to be an anomaly—understand why she chose to engage with it.
On Saturday, April 30, NYU will host ‘Sex, Hope & Rock ‘n’ Roll–The Writings of Ellen Willis,’ a three-panel conference devoted to Willis’s work and influence; register at ellenwillis2011.blogspot.com