Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ellen Willis

I'm late this morning. Going through the e-mails there were a number of people highlighting a piece at The Nation that I really didn't want to read. It's entitled "Ellen Willis, 1942-2006" and is various writers sharing their impressions of Willis. (The one that most jibes with my own memories is Richard Goldstein.) Our focus has become Iraq (as members wanted) and I've gone back and forth or what to write about Willis, if anything?

I really don't care for obits and, after my own health scare in 2005, have little interest in noting deaths. (Which is why we started relying on Democracy Now!'s headlines to note a passing in 2005.) But there are enough e-mails on this from members that I've decided we'll note it in some way.

I thought we could do a cutting of various things on Willis but, outside of The Nation piece, I'm not seeing much. So I'll share a few thoughts.

Willis was prickly, passionate and a pain in the ass. None of which is a bad thing. She had a very concrete set of principles that she stuck to and she could (and did) cut anyone out that didn't adhere to them. Not because she was a bad person, but because she was very committed to change and didn't have much use for those who kind-of, sort-of were.

Along with a very small group of women, Willis was there to chart the sixties music scene. Patricia Kennealy Morrison, someone I have tremendous respect and love for, was also present at that time and making a difference. The two had very different writing styles but if you wonder why music sucks so bad, so often, today, blame it on the bad critics.

Willis and Kennealy Morrison were among the women who made huge contributions. Not just in terms of our understanding but in terms of using their power to push music further. Even then, there were the male critics playing whose stats were bigger, trying to turn art into a sport.

When you read a really bad piece of supposed music criticism noting the yard-sticks (monetary) of an artist, it's because the other set of critics moved on. What you're largely left with are pieces by people who don't feel much or, if they do, can't share it. That reviews are now thumbnails in most publications is sad until you grasp that all the majority of writers today can offer really can be boiled down to one or two paragraphs.

For every Ellen Willis, there were ten to twenty Arnold Shaws -- determined to beat all the life out of music. It's not surprising that Willis or Kennealy Morrison (who is now known today for her books that make up The Keltiad) walked away from music criticism. Or that while every male who ever flashed the text equivalent of the back of a baseball card is the subject of attention while Willis and Kennealy Morrison (and Lillian Roxon to cite another) are largely overlooked for their own contributions.

It has to do with lifeless prose vs. writing on a subject you care about. Willis belonged to the latter group and had little use for the nostalgia that you still see so many males trot out today when one of their rock "gods" issues another generic release. The same stat keepers were nostalgic in real time as well.

I'm focusing on that period even though Willis left long ago (returning to the landscape to pen an essay for Janis -- the boxed set of Janis Joplin recordings that was issued in 1993, which also includes an essay by one of the best critics today, Ann Powers) because that was where she first utilized her voice and spoke to many. The 'rules' were already present but could be broken and Willis was one of the ones breaking them.

In 1968, in The New Yorker, she wrote:

What all this adds up to is an increaing tendency to judge pop music intrinsically, the way poetry or jazz is judged. Social context is still important, as it is for most art. But although social and economci factors were once an integral part of the rock aesthetic -- indeed defined that aesthetic -- they are now subordinate to the "music itself."
On balance, in spite of all the good music that would never have happened otherwise, I think this tendency is regrettable. What it means is that rock has been coopted by high culture, forced to adopt its standards -- chief of which is the integrity of the art object. It means the end of rock as a radical experiment in creating mass culture on its own terms, ignoring elite definitions of what is or is not intrinsic to aesthetic experience.

In the lines above, I think, you can find the basis for everything she wrote, before or after, regardless of the topic. (That's from memory. I believe the title is "Records: Rock, Etc." and it was summer of 1968.) (I've never been able to get my New Yorker set to work on the bedroom computer -- where I am unless I'm on the laptop most days. But if a member needs a citation, I'll get on another computer and look up the date of publication.)

All the issues that captured and concerned her over the years are in that highlight.

After I decided I didn't want to put myself through the process of writing obits here, a woman who had written for Rolling Stone died and I thought it would be noted somewhere (outside of the Times' obit which I found insulting) and we could note it that way. It really didn't get attention and that may have been due to the 'controversial' nature (to some) of the woman's life.
Hopefully, that won't be the case for Willis (who was more 'controversial' -- to some -- for thought as opposed to some supposed transgression).

Willis was a feminist and I'm sure that will be noted. It should be. But her writing was feminist long before the second wave took off. So, possibly assuming wrongly that aspect will be covered elsewhere, I wanted to note her contribution to the music scene which wasn't merely as an observer but as an active participant (on the page and off) that encouraged experimentation and adventure. Had Willis, Kennealy Morrison and others won out, you wouldn't have sappy pieces hailing Dylan doing a radio oldies show as a 'break through.' Their minds didn't go soggy and they didn't mistake flashing the back of sports trading card for critiques. They defined the critics role as something other than:

On __'s latest CD, s/he is returning to the sounds of ____ after the previous CD resulted in disappointing sales. "____" kicks things off with a slow jam that borrows heavily from the work of the Neptunes. S/he is in a playful mood on "___" which sounds like the mating of the Yardbirds and Abba. Thumbs up!

The groundbreaking pioneers, often overlooked today, championed independent thought and exploration. That was at the heart of all Willis' writing throughout her life.

Richard Goldstein can be on the money or dead wrong. That's probably why I recognized the Willis he wrote about. Like her, he searches and explores. He doesn't phone in it. (Neither does our own Kat.) But if you read Rolling Stone, for instance, today and often finish an issue feeling either insulted or robbed of the time, it has a lot to do with the fact that another school of 'criticism' won out -- the easy school, the insta-critic.

In 1986, I phoned a friend at Rolling Stone to find out how the hell a review made it into print? It was on a nothing (talent and sales wise) and fawned over the artist (who soon would be without a recording contract in the United States for good reason). How did that get into print? Why was the album even reviewed? Letters.

Letters had come in from readers who found the artist "hot." So a pedistrain critc was assigned to make sense of the album (which would bomb) and the critic compared the artist to a number of musicians known for their serious explorations of topics. (I'm biting my tongue so hard right now. But if I said, "They compared ____ to ____ and ____," everyone would burst out laughing with good reason. It was laughable at the time as well.)

Willis never would have written such a piece. She wouldn't have fawned over sales (and would have pointed out that the 'sophomore slump' had taken hold previously and that the artist's sales were already in decline). But that's the mentality that won out. Not an attempt to cover music as if it was worth covering but a desire to fawn over something expected to sale. (You can still see that in RS' reviews today.) The convergence of supposed sales to come and bad music wouldn't result in a puff piece from Willis so, as that has become the state of music 'criticism,' it's probably best that many of the pioneers of rock criticism found other outlets.

To end on a things-to-do note (as opposed to leaving us all down), The Nation would be wise to stop farming out music reviews to really bad non-staff writers (who often don't know their facts -- the Courtney Love review contained 'facts' about Love's past albums that weren't 'facts' because they weren't true -- that includes the reference to song lengths) and instead offer the space to Goldstein to write essays (not reviews) that could engage and enrage the readership.

There's more than enough detachment and stats in the world of music 'criticism' today -- it could use some life. And the nation itself would be better off if we all brought even a little of the passion to our own lives that Willis brought to her own. She lived it like it mattered and that's why it did and why she (still) does.

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