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The Reading Life: Ellen Willis' vinyl deeps

By David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times / Jacket Copy

This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I've long considered Ellen Willis something of a hero. I hope I live longer than she did (Willis died in 2006, at 64), but otherwise, it's an exemplary life. She was the first pop music critic of the New Yorker, writing 56 pieces for the magazine between 1968 and 1975 that trace her relationship with "music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated ... [and] challenged me to do the same."

In the mid-1970s, she began to focus less on music and more on feminism and her own stunning brand of liberation politics, becoming an editor and writer at the Village Voice and later founding the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU. Her writing is rigorous, unrelenting, in your face: not in the sense of mindless provocation, but because she was so smart. "Students and colleagues fondly describe her as shy," recalled Robert Christgau in a 2007 tribute, "but she wasn’t shy -- she was thinking, and ignoring you."

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