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Singles Girls: The Rise of Female Rock Writing

By Rachel Maddux
Oxford American

Willis_Out coverWhen Ellen Willis was hired by The New Yorker as pop-music critic in 1968, she was not just the first woman to hold that post—she was the first person, period. But until earlier this year (and even still now) mentions of her name have called up few sparks of recognition, even among those who bandy around the names Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau.

Vinyl Deeps mostly compiles selected editions of Willis's "Rock, Etc." music column, which she wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1975, plus a number of pieces published around the same time in the Village Voice and other outlets. The collection offers context for Willis's career with a few supplementary pieces by current writers who bear deep marks of her influence, each offering a glowing remembrance of her life and work but all tempered by bashful admissions of ignorance. In his foreword, Sasha Frere-Jones, who now holds Willis's old job at The New Yorker, recalls digging up her clips shortly after taking his post at the magazine, his mind warping at the discovery of this inimitable writer whose legacy he hadn't been aware he was carrying. Willis's daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, who spearheaded and edited this collection, leads off her introduction with an anecdote about buying her mother a Janis Joplin CD as a birthday gift, only to learn that Willis not only already owned the album but had written its liner notes.

Joplin was a recurring character in Willis's columns; The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Dylan were, too—and, especially in the case of Dylan, Willis would certainly agree that "character" is the most appropriate term to use. Willis's first piece of pop-culture reporting was a 1967 deconstruction of Dylan's public persona(s) for the underground-ish rag Cheetah, which she pulled off with a crucial combination of unrelenting, steely-minded intellectual rigor ("When critics call Dylan a poet, they really mean a visionary.... But it evades an important truth—the new visionaries are not poets") and the very particular affection of a fan who would very much rather not watch her favorite artist sink into a sack of his own bullshit but who isn't above applying her own vast catalog of knowledge to expose every hairline fracture in his act.

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