Ellen Willis, rock and roll writer
(Ellen Willis, photographed by Jade Albert, circa 1981, via rockcritics.com)
In the blur of recent weeks, I somehow missed that Ellen Willis has died, at a youthful 64. I have not read enough of her, but for years I devoured whatever appeared under her byline, sometimes disagreeing, never regretting the time spent (thanks to Keith Harris for recommending her 1999 book). Willis struck me as almost Dickensian in her insistence that pleasure be at the center of any notion of social good, and her allegiance to both Freudian socialist humanism and rock and roll made her a kind of bridge between Erich Fromm, sex-lib feminism, and rock criticism.
(Ellen Willis photographed by Harvey Wang, in the New York Observer)
Women are not manipulated by the media into being domestic servants and mindless sexual decorations, the better to sell soap and hair spray. Rather, the image reflects women as they are forced by men in a sexist society to behave. Male supremacy is the oldest and most basic form of class exploitation; it was not invented by a smart ad man.
From an essay on Janis Joplin (in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, 1992, via Salon):
Both formally--as a low-keyed, soft, folkie tune--and substantively--as a lyric that spoke of choices made, regretted and survived, with the distinct implication that compromise could be a positive act--what ["Me and Bobby McGee"] expressed would have been heresy to the Janis Joplin of "Cheap Thrills." "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" is as good an epitaph for the counterculture as any; we'll never know how--or if--Janis meant to go on from there.
From an essay on crime (in Don't Think, Smile!: Notes on a Decade of Denial 1999):
I was not incognizant of my own privilege in relation to the punks I feared. Yet I knew that the core of my fear was not about begrudging a bit of property redistribution. Nor was it only about the threat to my physical person, though that was important; at bottom it had to do with a radical loss of control over the space I occupied in the world. Even before feminism made the implications clear, I knew there was something deeply arrogant about the guys' outlaw fantasies, something I couldn't be part of...
From her essay on The Sopranos (in The Nation, 2001):
The murderous mobster is the predatory lust and aggression in all of us; his lies and cover-ups are ours; the therapist's fear is our own collective terror of peeling away those lies. The problem is that we can't live with the lies, either. So facing down the terror, a little at a time, becomes the only route to sanity, if not salvation.
From an article on the Village Voice and the women's movement (in the Village Voice, 2005):
Though pretty mild by today's standards, at the time [Ingrid Bengis's 1970 essay "Heavy Combat in the Erogenous Zone" and its sequels] made a sensation. You just didn't read this kind of stuff outside hermetic movement circles. This was what the Voice became for many of us: the place where we could read about what we were feeling and thinking, and the arguments we were having, in the kind of language we actually used.
More Ellen Willis Links:
Ellen Willis, 1941–2006 (Village Voice)
"Remembering Ellen Willis, Rock 'n' Roll Feminist Superhero" by Suzy Hansen (New York Observer 11/20/06)
More links at Rockcritics.com
The Complete New Yorker Portable Hard Drive (including Willis's otherwise unavailable pop music columns)
"The original riot grrrl" (Salon)
Ellen Willis on pornography, excerpted at Bitch Lab (scroll down)
Audio: Ellen Willis on Behind the News with Doug Henwood (2003)