Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
Product Review (submitted on January 30, 2012):
Originally, I thought this book was going to be just another collection of self-important, Boomer-era rock criticism, with a slightly more pretentious edge since Willis was a writer for the New Yorker. I love being wrong. It's a collection of insightful essays by someone who is genuinely excited about music and the role it used to play in culture. And it's especially interesting to look back and see how certain godlike bands were seen at the time of their peak. Willis gave me the vocabulary to address a problem I see in modern music (clearly it's not a new problem) - Songs of Me versus Songs of We. And I don't recall ever reading, for example, a more perfect take on one of my favorite bands, The Velvet Undergound:
"In the midst of all this euphoria the Velvet Underground began performing in New York's East Village with Andy Warhol's mixed media show, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Their publicity, which ran to phrases like "a total bombardment of the sense," suggested that the Velvets were yet another psychedelic band - and in a way they were. But their brand of sensory bombardment could not have been more at odds with the era of good feeling. Their terrain was the city at its hardest and sleaziest. Their music was as painful as it was compelling, assaulting the ear with excruciating distortion and chaotic noise barely contained by the repetitive rhythms of rock and roll. Their themes were perversity, desperation and death. Instead of celebrating psychedelic trips, they showed us the devastating power, horror, and false transcendence of heroin addiction; they dared to intimate that sadomasochism might have more to do with their - and our - reality than universal love. Musically, as well as verbally, they insisted that the possibility, far from being limitless, was continually being stifled and foreclosed. At a time when hippie rock musicians were infatuated with the spontaneous jam, the Velvets' music was cerebral, stylized. They maintained a poignant ironic tension between the tight, formal structure of the songs and their bursts of raw noise, between their high artfulness and their street-level content, between fatalism and rebellion."
See? Doesn't it make you fall in love with the Velvet Underground all over again? And that's one thing that good rock criticism (like Greil Marcus) does, it makes you excited for music. But the other thing it does is it puts the music of a time into a cultural context, and we need critics who do more than say something is good or bad - we need critics to help us understand the significance of what we're listening to, and few did it as well as Willis.
As she explained, "I was interested in writing about rock and roll as an expression of a radical cultural and political force. To be honest, it became divorced from all those things for me in the eighties. I moved on to feminism and politics."
In the end, rock music broke Willis' heart. And it can, and will, only do that to those who love it.