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One of the First Female Rock Critics Battled Sexism and Obscurity To Document the 1970s

Willis was The New Yorker’s first pop music critic, but to her, everything was open for criticism

Ellen Willis in upstate New York in 1970 (Courtesy Nona Willis Aronowitz and University of Minnesota Press, publisher of The Essential Ellen Willis)
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Ellen Willis saw it all, and wrote about it too.

Willis, born on this day in 1941, was, among other things, The New Yorker’s first pop music critic and a leading light of the women’s movement, writes Suzy Hansen in Observer. In a field that former Village Voice editor Robert Goldstein said was "more macho than the sports page," Willis made a name for herself with her clear critical tone that cut across the fanboy air of rock writing.

But unlike some of her male peers, Hansen writes, Willis moved on from rock writing and that part of her legacy has largely been forgotten. It helps that her career is in one sense hard to pin down: she was a rock writer, a passionate feminist, a journalism teacher and even a TV writer. In another sense, it's very easy: Ellen Willis was a cultural critic, and a deeply feminist one. Rock was just a lens.

In a piece for Guernica, Willis wrote about her path to criticism. After an unsuccessful first marriage, in 1966 she made the break for New York. No jobs are forthcoming "above the secretarial level." Then, in the Times help wanted section for men (there was a separate help wanted section for women), she found an ad for a staff writer at a small magazine. The publisher hires her for a different editorial job. "I ask why he doesn't list the staff writer in the help female section," she writes. "'It never occurred to me,' he says. The pay is terrible, but I get a prestigious title and a pep talk about my potential." 

After a year of navigating the sexist world of writing ("No man would put up with his total intolerance of self-assertion. I stay twice as long as any of my male predecessors.") Willis began her career as a critic in 1968, aged 26, writing about Bob Dylan for Cheetah, a now-defunct magazine. The New Yorker quickly picked her up. In the 56 pieces she did for the “Rock, Etc.” column over seven years, Willis wrote about many of the artists we still know today, writes Judy Berman for Slate: Dylan, of course, but also the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, among others.

She loved the musicians of the 1970s, but she challenged them, Berman writes: she skewered Dylan and Mick Jagger’s misogyny, Joplin’s just-one-of-the-guys bravado and the utopian myth of Woodstock before abandoning rock criticism in the 1980s. She had a serious belief, Berman writes, “in rock’n’roll as a force to be taken seriously, both as a tool for building a better society and for giving ourselves pleasure.”  

“For Willis, rock was sex, which was Freud, which was Marx, which was labor, which was politics and therefore a reason to vote or protest,” writes Emily Greenhouse for Dissent Magazine. “She was at her best when writing about the shifting locus of freedom, in those early years viewed through the lens of American music.”

She also kept writing elsewhere, on topics not related to rock. In “The Trial of Arline Hunt,” written for Rolling Stone, she examined the trial of a man accused of raping Hunt. She wrote about abortion, also for Rolling Stone.

Disillusioned by ‘80s pop and music criticism in general, writing “There can’t be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution,” Willis moved on to writing essays about feminism and politics, writes Ken Tucker for NPR. She also founded New York University’s cultural reporting and criticism program in 1995, writes Fox, and was its first director. She kept writing—about Monica Lewinsky, O.J. Simpson and Tony Soprano.

Several years after her 2006 death of lung cancer, her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz put together a collection of Willis’s “Rock, Etc.” columns, followed by a second book of her other critical essays.

"Ask most music nerds of my generation who they think the top rock and roll scribes of the 1960s and '70s were and they'll likely—rightly—offer the names of a handful of brilliant men," writes Julianne Escobedo Shepherd for Alternet. In the field of professional music criticism, "women tend to remain opaque, if not invisible," she writes: in spite of her talent and her ability to "convincingly" call out the likes of Bob Dylan, Willis has found the same fate.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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