Ellen Willis and the art of no-bullshit rock writing

Posted by Jason Diamond

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

University of Minnesota Press

I’m sure that when I first began writing about music, my motivation was the same as it is today: to get as much free music as possible.

The only difference present Jason and teenage Jason is that I’ve learned that writing about music is more rewarding when you push yourself to determine whether or not something possesses any redeeming critical factors: does it make me think?  Does it make me challenge a socially accepted convention?  Does it make me less ignorant as a person?  Being able to answer these questions is what makes a music piece interesting to me, and when a music critic that I’m reading follows these lines, it makes the album more interesting when I listen to it afterwards.  Our climate of cultural laziness tasks critics with the job of elevating a product to a place where it has meaning or intellectual weight, but I am often disappointed when my fellow critics rely on easy comparisons or masturbatory rants.

In the last ten years, no art form has seen its criticism shit the proverbial bed quite like music has.  Maybe it is because of the commodification of the industry, or maybe we’ve just run out of things to say.  Maybe it’s Pitchfork’s fault, or maybe we’re all just mentally burnt out and would rather know if the album good or bad instead of reading some lengthy diatribe as to the deeper meaning behind the recording.

Sometimes I worry that I’m asking for too much.  There are plenty of brilliant music writers out there who I respect and whose opinions I take to heart.  But for every great music writer, there are five who think that writing about music is an easy “in” to the world of letters, and this diluting has pulled the actual art of music criticism down with it.

This is even more noticeable once you’ve read Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music.  The collected writings Willis did during her time as the New Yorker’s popular music critic from 1968 to 1975 showcase top notch music writing from one of the three most important periods in rock n’ roll history, providing what should be a bible for aspiring music writers.  From her position at one of the leading intellectual institutions in the country, Willis was able to give opinions on music while also commenting on bigger issues from sexism to classism.  This book of essays is less Lester Bangs, rather inhabiting the middle ground between Greil Marcus and Joan Didion.  Willis was a no-bullshit artist, and just reading one essay will make you rethink everything you know about music writing.

Compared to now, when genres with absurd names like “rape gaze” and “chillwave” come and go without saying much at all, the period covered in Out of the Vinyl Deeps seems almost unreal. It’s impossible that Bob Dylan or The Velvet Underground could emerge now, but at this point, I’m tired of hearing the same rehashed idol worship in book form for these artists.  Yes, Bob Dylan changed the entire landscape of popular music, and sure, everybody that heard The Velvets started a band after listening to them for the first time.  All this has been said, but with Willis, it’s different.  Her vantage point is not one of hindsight.  She wrote about Dylan as he was creating his legacy.  She watched Bette Midler as she went from a campy cabaret singer to one of the biggest stars in the world.  She talked up the New York Dolls even though most of the world thought of them as garbage, and she saw Bruce Springsteen as a work in progress.  She did it all with a very critical eye, and it’s all collected in this book.

Willis wrote knowing that nothing was perfect, and that includes her own life.  This is noticeable early on when you read the footnote where it’s explained that for no matter how much it conflicted with her political ideals, Willis decided not to censor words like Negro out of her early work.  She also keeps ‘man’ and ‘he’ as generic terms for both sexes all for the sake of historical accuracy.

The book is smartly not broken down chronologically, but in chapters that focus on Willis as “The World-Class Critic,” “The Feminist,” “The Sociologist,” etc.  Willis was actually all of these things.  She didn’t play around, or make hyperbolic statements for the sake of making them.   Every word mattered, and everything said is as relevant today as it was when she created the body of work presented in Out of the Vinyl Depths; possibly the most important collection of writings to come out this year.


  1. Jason, I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on the current state of music criticism. Yeah, a big part of why crit today is largely useless is because music has become such a commodity, but the larger problem, I think, is access. I mean, why would I read what a critic thinks when, in less time, I can download an album or song and decide for myself? I know, the natural next question is, “well, how do you sift through it all?” But, I don’t think that’s a question of criticism. It’s a job for a curator.

    That being said, I love good rock writing and am totally stoked to read this book. So thanks!