on Ellen Willis’s escape from the music ghetto.
© Nona Willis Aronowitz 2011Courtesy of University of Minnesota PressEllen Willis
Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
University of Minnesota Press, May 2011. 272 pp.
For a universal language, music can feel downright limiting sometimes. When I was 26 and reviewing records for Time Out New York
(the weekly magazine’s pop section was then in its golden age) and The Advocate
(the gay one) and a few smaller rags besides, my then boyfriend, a noise guitarist, bought me a copy of the writings of Lester Bangs. “You can’t be a rock critic without reading this,” he decreed.
I had never meant to become a rock critic — my bandmate and I moved to Philadelphia after college, and when I presented myself to the alt-weekly there as an aspiring political journalist, the editor-in-chief zeroed in on the two record reviews in my file of clips and shunted me over to the music section. In the four years since that development, I had read Greil Marcus’s (no relation) marvelous postpunk reviews, collected as In the Fascist Bathroom
, and not much other music journalism at all. It seemed to me that most contemporary rock magazines were propagating an artless scorecard-genealogy version of criticism, treating music in isolation from other art, culture, and political realities. And I had certainly never read Bangs, whose irascible, rambling rock-crit from the 1970s many considered to be classic examples of the genre. I gave him a solid try, but every page I opened to just turned me off. This
was the canon? If all those dudes at Rolling Stone
were taking their cues from a nihilistic, homophobic, apolitical speed freak, it was no wonder the whole game left me cold.
Shortly afterward, I visited the apartment of a friend of a friend, an older critic of some renown, to take a bunch of old jazz cassettes off his hands. He asked me what I wrote. Mostly record reviews now, I told him, but I planned to expand my purview, write more about politics, teenagers, women…
The critic gave a small snort. “Good luck getting out of the music ghetto,” he said.
His tone spooked me. I took my plastic spork and started digging an escape tunnel right then. That tunnel led to the writing of my first book, Girls to the Front
, a history of Riot Grrrl, a feminist movement of young women. It always gets shelved in the music section.