Ellen Willis was the pop-music critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1975. She was an extraordinary writer, infusing pungent cultural and political insights into breathtakingly lucid prose. When she passed away, in 2006, many of my colleagues in the pop field, notably Daphne Carr and Sasha Frere-Jones, resolved to make her music writing better known. University of Minnesota Press has now published Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a collection of Willis's music pieces for The New Yorker and other publications. Nora Willis Aronowitz, Willis's daughter, edited the volume, and Sasha, Daphne, and Evie Nagy contributed commentary. Yesterday, NYU hosted a conference about her work; I was happy to take part, alongside the likes of Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, Nitsuh Abebe, Rob Sheffield, and Irin Carmon (Jezebel writer and Bach enthusiast).
I quoted a favorite passage from Willis's writing on this blog back in 2006. Here's another gem, from a review of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks that I hadn't read until I received an advance copy of the Minnesota volume:
On this record the relationship between Dylan's self and his persona seems richer, scarier, and more intense than it has in years. The role I take him to be playing — and my sense of it has as much to do with his former happy-husband posture as his present agonies — is embarrassingly ordinary: it comes from a stock postfeminist drama that appears to be settling in for a long run. A man is married to a woman who has made him a home, in every sense of the word. He assumes that she is as content as he is. Suddenly, she declares that their marriage is intolerable. She reveals needs, expectations, bitter resentments that he never suspected; makes demands that he doesn't know how to meet. He reacts with love and hate, guilt and self-pity, fear and despair. He is angry that she has disrupted not only his comfort but his sense of reality, that she is not what she represented herself to be; and at the same time he is deeply wounded that she has guarded her secret self from him. Eventually, the marriage ends or survives, and he learns something about himself and women or doesn't. In assuming this role, Dylan risks seeming pathetic, even ridiculous. Instead, he makes us see in his dilemma our own unreasonable yearnings, punctured illusions, furious defenses, painful accommodations.
What's wonderful about this passage is that Willis expresses admiration for her subject without coming anywhere near idolatry. Indeed, she frames him in a feminist perspective that might make a lot of male rock fans uncomfortable. Yet she doesn't take him to pieces, either. She simply sees right through him. The political-cultural insight is indivisible from the lyrical-musical insight. Pop-music writing doesn't get better than this.