Sad news: the journalist, essayist, and feminist thinker Ellen Willis died yesterday at the age of sixty-four. Among many other things, Willis was the New Yorker's first pop critic, from 1968 to 1975. She had an intense feeling for the spiritual power of pop music and a merciless eye for its compromises. She wrote defiantly from the left end of the political spectrum, yet she was a realist on every front. And she had force. Here is the somewhat terrifying paragraph that clangs shut her report on the Woodstock Festival of 1969:
What cultural revolutionaries do not seem to grasp is that, far from being a grass-roots art form that has been taken over by businessmen, rock itself comes from the commercial exploitation of blues. It is bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power. Its rebelliousness does not imply specific political content; it can be — and has been — criminal, fascistic, and coolly individualistic as well as revolutionary. It can simply be a more pleasurable way of surviving within the system, which is what the pop sensibility has always been about. Certainly that was what Woodstock was about: ignore the bad, groove on the good, hang loose, and let things happen. The truth is that there can't be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution. In the meantime, we should insist that the capitalists who produce rock concerts offer reasonable service at reasonable prices.
From the collection Beginning To See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll, which should never have gone out of print. At the New Yorker website, read the entire Woodstock piece and an appreciation by Sasha Frere-Jones.