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.
This month, University of Minnesota Press published the anthology Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis in Rock Music. It was edited by Willis’s daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz. A conference was held recently at New York University to explore Willis’s writing, how she laid the groundwork for a new generation of writers (music and otherwise), and how she passed the torch.
The room was filled with many of her confidantes and colleagues, including her longtime partner Stanley Aronowitz and the critic Karen Durbin, who shared a colorful anecdote about Willis fighting with then New Yorker editor William Shawn about allowing the word menstruation to be used in one of her pieces on women’s music. On a panel called “Ellen Willis and the Cultural Conversation,” NPR critic Ann Powers noted that the genius of Willis’s writing was that “Ellen felt like she was talking to you. With you.” That intimacy was something Nona Willis Aronowitz wanted attendees to come away with. The day was “giving my mom’s work hand-to-mouth,” Willis Aronowitz said a few nights after the conference.
The conference also worked as a celebration of a bygone era, both for writers and New Yorkers, where deadlines were flexible and rent was cheap. “Editors now wouldn’t be satisfied with the ambivalence she had in her writing,” Willis Aronowitz noted.
And yet while the world has changed since the heyday of Willis’s music writing, much of it still sounds prescient. In 1969, she wrote, “It’s my theory that rock and roll happens between fans and stars, rather than between listeners and musicians—that you have to be a screaming teenager, at least in your heart, to know what’s going on.” In 2011, it’s now commonplace, fashionable even, for critics and fans alike to pledge their eternal, teenage-style love for popular music, from Katy Perry to Taylor Swift to Justin Bieber.
Which comes to no surprise to Willis’s daughter. “Every time someone takes pop culture seriously,” she said, “they’re showing the influence of my mom.”