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n+1: Rocks Off (on Ellen Willis)

By Erin Sheehy

Willis_Out coverAround the time someone started spray-painting “Clapton is God” in an Islington Underground station, rock fandom took a turn towards what Ellen Willis described as a “tedious worship of technical proficiency.” Willis condemned this art-snob model of fandom, and in Out of the Vinyl Deeps she largely eschews it; her writing focuses very little on the sound of music itself. This approach could be said to contain within it a feminist critique: “the pretension, competitiveness, and abstraction from feeling that go along with an emphasis on technique,” she argued, “are alienating to most women.” This pedantic, in-crowd form of music fandom is also characterized by shame and obligation: the shame of not knowing – the shame of being wrong – and a dreary obligation to a canon. These are feelings that have long kept women silent on many fronts, and they continue to shut us out of the discourse on rock music.

For years, talking about music has been my primary mode of bonding with male acquaintances, which means I’m often caught in the conversational equivalent of a mosh pit. I can have a lot of fun, but on some level I’m always conscious of the fact that a bunch of aggressively competitive men are dictating the way in which I express my enthusiasm. I’m not all that keen on digging my elbow into someone’s back, nor am I that interested in defending a top ten list. “Defend” is the key word here: for so many women, to express one’s enthusiasm, knowledge, or beliefs means starting out on the defensive. But Willis’s writing transcends the blunt mode of defend and attack. Her approach is far more subtle, and more beautiful, as she connects her thoughts on music to the other major themes of her life’s work: freedom, feminism, and pleasure. An essay on Janis Joplin expands into a story about what a painful letdown the sexual revolution was for women; a piece about learning to love punk rock ends up indicting cultural feminism and post-1960s conservative backlash. (But that former essay isn’t just about women, it’s about a woman—Janis Joplin—and the latter makes it clear that Willis’s appreciation for punk is genuine. Reading Willis, it never feels like she’s using music as a stepping stone on the way to “more important” points: rock music, inseparable from its context, was the point.) And by avoiding both the false authority used in most criticism and the hyperbolic Benzedrine prose that is rock writing’s special legacy, Willis stakes out her own place in the genre—a clearing for sound thinking and matter-of-factness.

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