#121 - What She Said
Ellen Willis, who died of lung cancer on November 9th, deserves a much more prominent place among the developers of pop music criticism in the 1960s. Her ability to take pop seriously, but not too seriously, to move between what she once called the "veneer as an art form" (with Elvis in Las Vegas) and the deeply political dimensions of popular culture, and to do so in crystal-clear language and one ace turn-of-phrase after another, remains unmatched, though much imitated.
Willis always knew how to dramatize the stakes of popular culture, to make one try to gain balance with her, poised together on a tricky see-saw of potential democratic liberation and enslaving mass consumerism. Her own words may be gone, but it is up to us to keep what Richard Goldstein called her sensibility of "radical humanism" vital and alive.
Here is Willis from the introduction to Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll (in its first edition, the subtitle was "Pieces of a Decade"). This only begins to offer a peek into her writing about music (Dylan, Woodstock, The Who, and perhaps most powerfully, Janis Joplin), popular culture (films, television, and the like) and many other topics.
Willis: "By continually pushing the message that we have the right to gratification now, consumerism at its most expansive encouraged a demand for fulfillment that could not so easily be contained by products; it had a way of spilling over into rebellion against the constricting conditions of our lives. The history of the sixties strongly suggests that the impulse to buy a new car and tool down the freeway with the radio blasting rock-and-roll is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements. . . . Art has always been in some sense propaganda for ruling classes and at the same time a form of struggle against them."
Rockcritics.com has compiled links to various tributes to and comments about Ellen Willis. She will be greatly missed.
15 November 2006