The Very Necessary Ellen Willis

I had read a few Ellen Willis essays on music in the past, but until Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press) was released last year, I’d never had a chance to sit down and immerse myself in her writings. Simply put: Reading Ellen Willis’ thoughts on music was a revelation. Willis had this ability to mix the personal with the political when talking about music that I can’t recall ever reading before–she was truly in a league of her own. I said this when it came out, and I can still say that there is no collection of essays on music more worth having than Out of the Vinyl Depths. 

The book’s release came with a good deal of fanfare and sparked a renewed interest in the late writer’s work that included a conference at NYU that offered a lineup of esteemed speakers and panelists like Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, Kathleen Hannah, and a handful of other names wanting to pay tribute to the patron saint of music criticism.

But as it was noted in the dozens of pieces written about the book, Willis was more than just a music critic; she co-founded (with the recently deceased  Shulamith Firestone) the feminist group Redstockings,  and left behind a treasure of commentary on a variety of subjects that has been collected in No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays. Much of the work is taken from various Village Voice essays, and the bulk of the book is dedicated to her feminist writings, but also shows that Willis was able to navigate various subjects with ease. While Out of the Vinyl Deeps did a fantastic job of showing the entire spectrum of Willis’ work by breaking up the chapters of her music criticism into categories (the 1960s, music criticism as sociology, feminist critique of pop music), No More Nice Girls is about Willis the political writer. And just like her music writing collection, this newest book is a welcomed revelation of insightful and brave writings that focuses a good deal on feminism, but also finds Willis talking Andy Warhol to the American Jew convicted of spying for Israel, Jonathan Pollard, and the effect his crimes might have on the Jewish community (this was in 1987). Weighty subjects no doubt, but while Willis moved away from music writing for the second half of her career, the love of music never went away, as Willis even titled the Pollard piece, “Exile on Main Street: What the Pollard Case Means to the Jews,” and her essay on Simone de Beauvoir was titled after a Bikini Kill song, “Rebel Girl: What De Beauvoir Left Us.”

Since reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps, I’ve become convinced that Ellen Willis was the best music critic of her time (and possibly any time…). Now that I’ve read No More Nice Girls, itself another enlightening collection, I’m convinced that Willis was without a doubt one of the finest essayists of the last fifty years.

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