Feminist rock critic Ellen Willis testing an album by dancing in front of the mirror.
In 1968, when Ellen Willis was 26 years old and pop music criticism was barely even a thing yet, she was hired as The New Yorker’s very first rock critic. One of the only women in the male-dominated scene, Willis wrote 56 columns over seven years and greatly influenced the nascent genre.
By the ‘80s, however, Willis had moved on to focus on the sharp feminist and political writing for which she’s best known. But now, thanks to her daughter and Feministing friend Nona, her impressive collection of music criticism can be found in place: Out of the Vinyl Deeps.
I fell in love with Willis’ writing when I read her essays in No More Nice Girls a few years ago. I was particularly inspired by her belief in pleasure and desire, commitment to striving for utopias, and appreciation for what she called the ecstatic moment.
[T]he power of the ecstatic moment—this is what freedom is like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone—is precisely the power to reimagine the world, to reclaim a human identity that’s neither victim nor oppressor, to affirm difference not as separation but as variation on a theme.
It’s a theme that is present throughout the pages of Out of the Vinyl Deeps as well. As Nona writes in the introduction, Willis used music “as a springboard for social commentary.” And as a fan and a critic, she was clearly most interested in rock’s potential as a libratory force–“as a catalyst for the moment of utopian inspiration, that out-of-time moment when you not only imagine but live the self you would be in the world that could be.”
As a feminist rock fan, the search for that utopian moment was often fraught. Willis wrote, “Listening to most roll and rock music was like walking down the street, automatically checking out the men in my vicinity.” But for all its overt and covert sexism, she was too thoughtful to ever dismiss it out of hand. In one essay, “Beginning to See the Light,” Willis explains how she abandoned her skepticism about punk and came around to the Sex Pistols:
And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good rock and roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.
But, of course, as a feminist, Willis was always searching for music that would offer “liberating form and content both.” She speaks eloquently to the yearning–no doubt acutely familiar to so many feminist fans of male-dominated music, like rock and hip hop–to find a “female rock and roller who would be my mirror.”
Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a great read—for music and culture buffs alike. And, to me, it was reminder that, as Sady Doyle recently wrote, Ellen Willis truly was just so cool. Her feminism is one that it is thoughtful, smart, and uncompromising—and also knows the value of dancing alone in front of the mirror.