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Posts Tagged ‘Ellen Willis’

A Week in Culture: Carlene Bauer, Writer

February 5, 2013 | by


Tonight I went to my first Spanish class at Idlewild on Nineteenth Street. 7:30 to 9 P.M.. When I signed up for this class in November, shortly after I came back from spending a few weeks in Barcelona, I was flush with the joy of recent travel, and intent on injecting some novelty, intellectual and otherwise, into my life. I had an idea that I might try to make it back to Spain at the end of this year, and if that happened, I'd like to be able to do more than buy a few peaches without tripping over my tongue, or wanting to revert to French, the only other foreign language I know. And if that never happened, I would at least be doing something to forestall dementia. But as the intervening weeks, growing colder and darker, put more and more distance between me and that trip—I dreamed that, didn’t I?—I started to wonder why I’d done such a thing. It seemed as unnecessary and out of character as signing up for ten colonics through Groupon. But when, after the fifteen of us had gathered in a circle in the back of the store, and the teacher welcomed us in Spanish, something in me quickened in response to hearing the language. Maybe it was just sound as souvenir, but some sleeping dog in me perked up. Something similar had happened back in Barcelona, while standing in the La Central bookstore, looking at all the books I wanted to read but could not, feeling a strange urgency to get the key that would unlock what lay between those covers, a strange feeling that this was a language I needed to know deeper. Read More »


Out of the Vinyl Deeps

May 27, 2011 | by

Ellen Willis in 1981. Photograph by Jade Albert.

I have never particularly enjoyed rock criticism. It has a tendency to read bombastic, and the references feel dated almost instantly. None of this is true of Ellen Willis. When I first started reading her a few years ago, I wondered if I liked her writing simply because we share the same gender; now I think I like her because she was right.

Willis, who was a native of Queens and a Barnard graduate, was hired by The New Yorker as the magazine’s first pop-music critic in 1968. Her tenure lasted seven years, and her column, Rock, Etc., covered everything from The Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell to the birth of punk and Bette Midler.

Her criticism could be feisty (Carly Simon’s “wide-eyes lyrics inevitably aroused my class antagonism”) or dismissive (The Velvet Underground’s eponymous album was “all about death, junkies, Delmore Shwartz—stuff like that”), but it was always sharp (Elvis was “John and Paul in one package”).

She understood fandom and feminism equally—something all too rare in the present, where music criticism is still dominated by men. Willis was able to love Patti Smith as a rock-and-roll heroine but criticize her identity. She found Smith’s “androgynous, one-of-the guys image” to be problematic. “Its rebelliousness is seductive, but it plays into a kind of misogyny that consents to distinguish a woman who acts like one of the guys (and is also sexy and conspicuously ‘liberated’) from the general run of stupid girls.”

Which is why it’s so unfortunate that she stopped writing about music in the early eighties. She felt like music had lost its edge after punk. She certainly didn’t disappear—she taught at NYU, wrote nonmusic criticism, and occasionally chimed in with a review of a Bob Dylan album when she felt like it—but her legacy became somewhat obscure. Her death from lung cancer in 2006, at the age of sixty-four, only made it worse.

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