SPIN's 10 Best Music Books of 2011
The words we'd use to describe the best pop music to an alien are pretty close to the ones we'd use to describe the best pop music criticism to a slightly more bookish alien: Passionate, freewheeling, playful. With their prose, critics try to capture their subject's energy and physical pull. Think of Lester Bangs' antic neologisms, Greil Marcus's allusive incantation, or Nick Tosches' hard-boiled mythmaking.
Ellen Willis, who died in 2006 at the age of 64, wasn't interested in that kind of mimicry. She was different than those dudes, and not nearly as lionized (though this book could change that). Here is a not atypical and extremely telling excerpt from Out of the Vinyl Deeps, which collects the entire output of the former New Yorker and Village Voice writer: "[Rock and roll] is structured life: history. Like most critics — and ideological fans — I identify with performers who share that assumption. As a critic, I prefer it to the competing premise — that rock and roll is music — because it's more interesting to write about."
For Willis, criticism wasn't about music-as-jargon. You'd be hard-pressed to guess what Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin or the Velvet Underground or any of her other favorites sounded like based on these articles. Instead you'd know exactly what they meant to her, how she saw them politically, and the ways in which she believed their music functioned in listeners' lives. She excised all descriptive huffing and puffing from her work. Her arguments — frequently feminist, usually focused on matters of connection, always illuminating — are what mattered, not finding new synonyms for "angular."
The writing isn't all spinach, though. She pegs Patti Smith as "half cranky messiah, half messianic crank." She dances to CCR records in her apartment and has a goofy knack for employing the fake-alien conceit I copped up top. And it's a kick to see such a brilliant brain trained on lowbrow lunks like Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad and Mott the Hoople. Willis's affection for music is palpable — she wouldn't have spent so much time thinking about it if she didn't believe it mattered deeply. She thought pop was the sound of liberation, but, taken alone, it couldn't set us free. That's the mind's job. The rest, she hoped, would follow. — D.M.