Ellen Willis was one of the first rock critics. She was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker, starting in 1968. She combined a love of pop culture with a passion for feminist theory to create a unique body of music writing, which finally gets a proper showcase in Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz.
The anthology leads off with a remarkable dissection of Bob Dylan circa 1967 (”His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker’s ultimate antagonist”). Willis loved counterculture stars from Dylan to Janis Joplin, but also championed cult bands such as Joy of Cooking and the New York Dolls. She argued that the Rolling Stones’ ”diatribe” ”Under My Thumb” was less sexist than Cat Stevens’ condescending ”Wild World,” because ”Jagger’s fantasy of sweet revenge could easily be female” as well as male.
Willis writes with a directness and utter lack of fan gush, and her observations sound as fresh, as appropriate to the present music scene, as they did decades ago. Her 1971 criticism of pop music’s tendency toward ”a tedious worship of technical proficiency” is as apt now about American Idol and The Voice as it was then.
Willis died in 2006 at age 64. This book resurrects a nearly lost, invaluable voice. A