Out of the Vinyl Deeps

Ellen Willis on Rock Music


Ellen Willis
Nona Willis Aronowitz, editor
Foreword by Sasha Frere-Jones
Afterword by Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy

Rediscover the astute and passionate music writings of the pioneering rock critic for the New Yorker

In 1968, the New Yorker hired Ellen Willis as its first popular music critic. Out of the Vinyl Deeps collects for the first time Willis’s Rock, Etc. columns and other writings, reasserting her rightful place in rock music criticism. More than simply setting the record straight, this book reintroduces Willis’s singular approach and style to a new generation of readers.

I’d call Ellen Willis the Ida Lupino of music writing, but even that wouldn’t say enough about this book's value. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a time capsule, the publication of which invigorates and illuminates our grasp of the period it covers—but it is also a timeless compendium of clear thinking and fresh, humane, and persuasive prose.

Jonathan Lethem

In 1968, the New Yorker hired Ellen Willis as its first popular music critic. Her column, Rock, Etc., ran for seven years and established Willis as a leader in cultural commentary and a pioneer in the nascent and otherwise male-dominated field of rock criticism. As a writer for a magazine with a circulation of nearly half a million, Willis was also the country’s most widely read rock critic. With a voice at once sharp, thoughtful, and ecstatic, she covered a wide range of artists—Bob Dylan, The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, the Velvet Underground, Sam and Dave, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder—assessing their albums and performances not only on their originality, musicianship, and cultural impact but also in terms of how they made her feel.

Because Willis stopped writing about music in the early 1980s—when, she felt, rock ’n’ roll had lost its political edge—her significant contribution to the history and reception of rock music has been overshadowed by contemporary music critics like Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and Dave Marsh. Out of the Vinyl Deeps collects for the first time Willis’s Rock, Etc. columns and her other writings about popular music from this period (including liner notes for works by Lou Reed and Janis Joplin) and reasserts her rightful place in rock music criticism.

More than simply setting the record straight, Out of the Vinyl Deeps reintroduces Willis’s singular approach and style—her use of music to comment on broader social and political issues, critical acuity, vivid prose, against-the-grain opinions, and distinctly female (and feminist) perspective—to a new generation of readers. Featuring essays by the New Yorker’s current popular music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, and cultural critics Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy, this volume also provides a lively and still relevant account of rock music during, arguably, its most innovative period.


No. 1 Music Book of the Year from SPIN Magazine

Finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award

Ellen Willis (1941–2006) was a groundbreaking radical leftist writer and thinker whose true loves were rock music, feminism, pleasure, and freedom. She was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker and an editor and columnist at the Village Voice. She wrote for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Nation, and Dissent. She was the founder of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University, and she published three books of essays, Beginning to See the Light, No More Nice Girls, and Don’t Think, Smile.

Nona Willis Aronowitz has written about women, sex, music, technology, film, and youth culture for publications such as the Nation, the New York Observer, the Village Voice, and Salon. She is coauthor of Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. He is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a member of the bands Ui and Calvinist.

Daphne Carr lives and writes in New York City. She is the editor of the Best Music Writing series.

Evie Nagy is an associate editor at Billboard Magazine.

I’d call Ellen Willis the Ida Lupino of music writing, but even that wouldn’t say enough about this book's value. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a time capsule, the publication of which invigorates and illuminates our grasp of the period it covers—but it is also a timeless compendium of clear thinking and fresh, humane, and persuasive prose.

Jonathan Lethem

Finally, Willis’s game-changing music writing is available in one place. It is like unearthing the holy grail of rock criticism!

Kathleen Hanna

A pleasure to read and a crucial challenge when truly considered, Willis’s essays on rock, freedom, sex, and dancing in your bedroom continue to teach me every time I return to them.

Ann Powers

Rock criticism abounds with competitive white guys suffering from pop music Asperger's; to make a living at it and own a vagina you need to be a powerhouse. In 1968, Willis got there before nearly anyone—even anyone male—when she became The New Yorker's first pop critic. With incredible exuberance and voracious intelligence, she focused her floodlight on Dylan, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, and Mott the Hoople alike. This, her own greatest hits album, compiled by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, both restores her reputation and fortifies the rock journalism canon.

The Village Voice (April 5, 2011)

Out of the Vinyl Deeps belongs on the bookshelf of every library as proof that women could and did—and do—rock, and can write intelligently and entertainingly about it.

ForeWord Reviews

What clearly sets Willis apart is how she integrates her feelings into the essays. Many critics write as if their opinions are definitive interpretations; a personal connection to the music elevates her work and creates a touchstone to the moment of the music.

Library Journal

Prescient and irreverent . . . most compelling is how Willis linked popular music of all genres to social themes—sexism, commercialism, feminism, and, especially, freedom. A great introduction to her work.

Elle Magazine

Here, [Ellen Willis's] witty, cerebral essays finally get the compilation they deserve. She grapples with voices who inspired her . . . and relates feminism to music in revelatory ways. Vinyl Deeps is the testament of a crucial voice. At a time when rock clichés were still being invented, Willis was already leaving them behind.

Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone

[Willis] wrote with fervor, passion and authority. Willis made statements that were bold, sometimes snarky, and always loaded with carefully considered analysis.

New York Press

Willis's work is crystalline enough that reading each essay takes the reader on a trip back to the era when it originally appeared, but it's a testimony to her intellect and talent that those journeys look completely unlike any hagiography you might stumble across. She cuts through clichés nimbly . . . and the essays vibrate off the page.

Village Voice (April 27, 2011)

Willis was a feminist, both as a writer and an activist. It might even be more accurate to call her a liberationist: All through Out of the Vinyl Deeps, she’s incredibly sensitive to the idea and the feeling of liberation and attentive to every last nuance of how people use music to find it—the small details of how records can help people be more free.


For anyone who’s interested in music, and especially for anyone who believes they deserve to be called a “music critic,” you must read Out of the Vinyl Deeps at least once, both to understand what’s possible with music writing and to affirm why it matters.


So much of rock criticism is stale these days and reading Willis is like a gasp of fresh air.


[Willis’s] deft, dense prose, inquisitive and passionate persona, and insistence on rock as a political force set a high bar for what pop criticism could be—a bar that today’s critics are still striving to reach.


In the early days of talking about loving music while not giving it a pass for misogyny, the late critic Ellen Willis showed us how it was done.


[Ellen Willis], possibly more than anyone else, shaped my thoughts on feminism, sexuality, and rock’n’roll.

Sarah Jaffe, Bitch

At a time when music was less understood than it is today, Willis appreciated why musicians combined passion and intellect to not only document their time, but also influence movements.

Publishers Weekly

[Willis] didn’t play around, or make hyperbolic statements for the sake of making them. Every word mattered, and everything said is as relevant today as it was when she created the body of work presented in Out of the Vinyl Deeps; possibly the most important collection of writings to come out this year.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn

Willis made sure her mental footwork was easy to follow, and that's what makes Out of the Vinyl Deeps so relevant. Post-Internet, everybody's a critic, but the best writers know that what matters isn't showing off, but starting a conversation that feels relevant and real. Pick up her book, and you just might discover a voice you've been ready to love for years.

Ann Powers, National Public Radio

Willis writes with a directness and utter lack of fan gush, and her observations sound as fresh, as appropriate to the present music scene, as they did decades ago. . . . This book resurrects a nearly lost, invaluable voice.

Entertainment Weekly

The enduring image of this book is one of [Willis] testing the worthiness of a record by dancing to it. When she made the language dance with her, and she often did, she was easily the equal of any peer, male or otherwise.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Unless you’ve been struck by a car, or lightning, this collection will change your idea of rock criticism, Ellen Willis, and, in a minor way, The New Yorker, that old broad side of a barn. Don’t read these pieces once. Like great singles, they get better if you ask more of them. Play them again and again.

The New Yorker

The tone and detail mark these as exemplary works of criticism, but more than anything, the personal details... mark her work as a clear forerunner of today’s confessional style.

Rock Star Journalist

Five years after her death, this is Ellen Willis’s moment.

Inside Higher Education

The compendium is a revelation, both for [Willis’s] staunchly feminist viewpoint and for the sheer pleasure of reading her work. She writes with a cogent intellectual urgency, yet balances it with an easy voice that is utterly open and congenial. The most important trait for any cultural critic is that the reader gets the sense they’re being honest, and truthfulness is one of Willis’s greatest strengths.


A welcome re-introduction to Willis.

New York Post

Ellen Willis was The New Yorker’s first, and best, rock critic: a ferociously intelligent, penetrating, incorruptible woman who saw right through to the music’s center, at a time when other rock writers were still arguing that Jim Morrison’s lyrics were, like, poetry, man.

Very Short List, New York Observer

It is through Ellen Willis’ determination to say what she believes — no matter what, that makes her work so endearing. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a long-overdue collection of some of her best writing, and shows why she has always belonged in the pantheon with the greats.


Willis’s acute observations about rock music’s misogyny are tied up in her admiration for its mostly male practitioners and her reflections on that tangled situation are astute and intriguing.

Winnipeg Free Press

Willis’s sharp critique reads like a shout from the wilderness.


Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a perfect cultural artifact.

The New Inquiry

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is much more than the sum of its parts—not just because it’s organized beautifully by editor Willis Aronowitz, but because the pieces, gathered together, form a kind of personal history of the pop music of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s essential reading not just for rock fans, but for fans of any kind of nonfiction.


Though the title suggests recovering something antiquated and forgotten, Vinyl Deeps proves that Willis’ criticism is just as relevant as ever, both in the work it has influenced from others (myself included) and in it’s own write.

Feminist Music Geek

Her criticism could be feisty or dismissive, but it was always sharp.

The Paris Review

A guiding light for the drifting rock journalist.

The Atlantic

This is a very important and recommended collection for both rock and roll fans and those interested in the development of music journalism, particularly from an alternate point of view that swims against the mainstream of orthodox criticism.


Out of the Vinyl Deeps should take its place alongside Marcus’s Mystery Train and Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung as one of the canonical documents of early pop music criticism. Even with her tendency to use big words and big ideas, Willis always knew at heart that music was a gas, gas, gas. She celebrated the seriousness of pleasure and relished the pleasure of thinking seriously. She followed in the footsteps of the New Yorker critics Dorothy Parker and Pauline Kael, and elbowed her way into the men’s club of music criticism. Maybe she didn’t even realize it was a men’s club—Willis seemed fiercely independent that way. Ultimately, Out of the Vinyl Deeps makes you want to do what the best music criticism should: pull out a record and listen to it with new ears.

New York Times (June 12, 2011)

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is without question an overdue collection, not least because of the consistently high quality of Willis’ writing.

Hartford Courant

She wrote beautifully on The Velvet Underground and brought stimulating insights to Dylan, the Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the push and pull of bohemianism and commercialism.

Shepherd Express

Willis provided a strong, well-formed opinion on rock ’n’ roll’s serious cultural and political import, both positively and negatively.

Oklahoma Gazette

Willis’s criticism demonstrates a forceful and forthright mind that is rare among writers of any kind, on any subject. Through Willis’s prism, the world becomes at once more clear, and more complicated. Though she was a seeker who took emotional and spiritual experiences seriously, it is apparent, from her writing on music, that she could never really be taken in by any kind of fundamentalism.


Her writing is rigorous, unrelenting, in your face: not in the sense of mindless provocation, but because she was so smart.

Los Angeles Times

Great read for music and literature lovers alike.

The Music Mamas

Remarkably consistent . . . bristle with Ellen’s signature clarity and idea density.

Robert Christgau

This is a very important and recommended collection for both rock and roll fans and those interested in the development of music journalism, particularly from an alternate point of view that swims against the mainstream of orthodox criticism.

Tim Niland, Jazz and Blues

While on one level, I thrilled to read these up-close and personal reactions to the music of the day that over the years is simply thought of as iconic and inspiring, on another level I was saddened because we don’t have this kind of writing about popular music anymore.

Book End Babes

Willis ran critical circles around her counterparts and took pop culture as truth, rather than passing fad or obsession, something sorely lacking in rock criticism today.

The Austin Chronicle

If you’re going to buy one single author rock writing anthology this year, it should be this one.


For those who know music, it’s fun to see Willis wrestle with Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, the Beatles and David Bowie and the Who. But it is more fun—and infinitely more important—to see her wrestle with herself.


Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a long overdue and most welcome collection, full of insight and surprises.

The Oregonian

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a fabulously well-compiled collection of some of the best rock journalism on the planet, and a hell of a good read.


It’s a fun and edifying read.

American Jewish World

Her anthology, long overdue, puts to rest the notion that a female critic has to compromise, masking her gender or softening her authority.


Out of the Vinyl Deeps — whether she's writing about Elvis Presley or Moby Grape — resurrects a nearly lost, vital, invaluable voice.

Ken Tucker, NPR

Willis was nothing if not scarily smart, but never a show-off. She brought an open-minded curiosity to every judgment, was willing to change her mind, never wanders far from the music itself, and was an incredibly careful listener.

Mojo Magazine

Wise words; excellent reading.

Detroit Metro Times

This affectionate anthology rescues her criticism from the vaults and shows her to be just as alert a listener as more famous contemporaries Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau.

The Guardian

Willis was a pioneer, feeling her way through the underbrush like all of us, who treasured '60s notions of freedom. . . . She was a powerful thinker, and though she never wrote enough she almost always wrote well when she did.


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. Willis has left us with an invaluable chronicle—not just of an era, but of the often slighted perspective of the female rock fan.

N+1 Magazine

Rock writing offered a new way of looking at and talking about the world, and if it seemed, for a flash, to be poised as something rigorously thoughtful, intellectually honest, highly sensitive, good-humored, prodding, passionate, and radically feminist, it was because Ellen Willis was all of those things.

Oxford American

This collection, which gathers 59 of her pieces, showcases her fierce intelligence and her political and cultural engagement as well as her recognition of the abiding contradictions of the music that she loved.

David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

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.

Spin Magazine

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a great read—for music and culture buffs alike.


One of the best collections of pop writing released this year/ever. Most of The New Yorker’s first-ever pop music critic Ellen Willis’s columns and pieces on pop and rock music of the ’60s and ’70s are assembled here, for your enjoyment, devotion and study. There are few writers in music since who have been so casually brilliant, keen and joyous. A hero of mine, a great gift.

Joe Dimuzio, The Michigan Daily

Few writers of the rock era have written with Willis’s depth and heart.

David Hajdu, The New Republic

Whether dissecting Bob Dylan or celebrating Janis Joplin, she makes the music sing through her words.

Jim Macnie, VEVO.com

Whether you read Willis' work the first time around, or if you've never heard of her but have an interest in music, you should buy this book. Simply put, it contains some of the best writing on American pop music ever published.

The Prague Post

Ellen Willis, who became the New Yorker magazine's first pop music critic in 1968, is probably
America's best music writer who never really considered herself one.


This collection, which gathers 59 of her pieces, showcases her fierce intelligence and her political and cultural engagement, as well as her recognition of the abiding contradictions of the music that she loved.

David Ulin, The L.A. Times

A collection of insightful essays by someone who is genuinely excited about music and the role it used to play in culture.

Mobtown Shank

Willis weaves a rich tapestry that presents an important era in rock music in a unique light.

The Vinyl District

Her writing is incredibly vibrant, and she’s got a distinctive voice that’s really easy to
get wrapped up in. Reading her immediate responses to, say, Exile on Main St. or Blood on the Tracks is really fascinating.


What defines the book is Willis’ intention as a critic, which was to confront her readers with strong judgments, to highlight her own thinking while making us think, as well.

The Rumpus

If you care at all about Rock & Roll or Pop music you should read Out of the Vinyl Deeps. If you ever subscribed to Spin or Rolling Stone you should read Out of the Vinyl Deeps. If you ever searched for most of your adult-life for a smart, female perspective on being a Rock & Roll fan and all but gave up on it, you should read this book.

Minnesota Reads

Ellen Willis was a wonder. Here’s your chance to catch up with her powerful writing.

Pacific Rim Review of Books

Perfect reading for record geeks everywhere.

Rock’s Backpages Writers’ Blogs

Out of the Vinyl Deeps is nothing short of a revelation.

American Quarterly

Foreword: Opening the Vault Sasha Frere-Jones

Introduction: Wake-up Call Nona Willis Aronowitz
Before the Flood: “Dylan,” from Cheetah (1967)
1. The World-Class Critic
“Two Soul Albums” (November 1968)
“The Who Sell” (July 1969)
“Songs of Innocence and Experience” (February 1970)
“’New Morning’: Dylan Revisited” (December 1970)
“Breaking the Vinyl Barrier” (July 1971)
“Morrison Live” (June 1972)
“‘Elvis Presley? In Person?’” (July 1972)
“Bowie’s Limitations” (October 1972)
“Frankenstein at the Waldorf” (November 1973)
“The Rolling Stones Now” (December 1973)
“The Best of ’74” (January 1975)
Liner notes from Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Diary, 1967–1980 (1980)
“The Velvet Underground,” from Greil Marcus’s Stranded (1979)
“The Decade in Rock Lyrics,” from Village Voice (January 1980)
“The New Talking World War III Blues,” from Salon.com (2001)
2. The Adoring Fan
“The Big Ones” (February 1969)
“East versus West” (July 1971)
“Their Generation” (August 1971)
“Yesterday’s Papers” (August 1972)
“Creedence As Therapy” (September 1972)
“Believing Bette Midler, Mostly” (December 1973)
“Dylan and Fans: Looking Back, Going On” (February 1974)
“The Abyss,” from Village Voice (June 1979)
3. The Sixties Loyalist
“Pop Ecumenicism” (May 1968)
“Randy Newman” (August 1971)
“George and John” (February 1971)
“Consumer Revolt” (September 1971)
“My Grand Funk Problem—and Ours” (February 1972)
“Into the Seventies, for Real” (December 1972)
“Roseland Nation” (October 1973)
“Sympathy for the Stones” (July 1975)
“Creedence Clearwater Revival,” from Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ’n’ Roll (1980)
“Janis Joplin,” from Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ’n’ Roll (1980)
Selections from “Don’t Turn Your Back on Love,” Liner Notes to Janis, a Janis Joplin Box Set (1993)
4. The Feminist
“But Now I’m Gonna Move” (October 1971)
“Joni Mitchell: Still Traveling” (March 1973)
“Women’s Music” (June 1974)
“After the Flood” (April 1975)
“Beginning to See the Light,” Village Voice (1977)
Preface to Barbara O’Dair’s Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock (1997)
5. The Navigator
“Newport: You Can’t Go Down Home Again” (August 1968)
“The Scene, 1968” (November 1968)
“Summer of Love in Queens” (July 1969)
“Elvis in Las Vegas” (August 1969)
“The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning” (September 1969)
“Stranger in a Strange Land” (December 1969)
“The Return of the Dolls” (January 1973)
“San Francisco Habitat” (August 1973)
6. The Sociologist
“Pop Blues” (April 1968)
“The Ordeal of Moby Grape” (June 1968)
“The Star, the Sound, and the Scene” (July 1968)
“Roots” (February 1969)
“Dylan’s Anti-Surprise” (April 1969)
“Elliott Murphy’s White Middle Class Blues” (February 1974)
“Mott the Hoople: Playing the Loser’s Game” (May 1974)
“Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent, and the Street Kid Myth” (November 1974)
“The Importance of Stevie Wonder” (December 1974)
Introduction to Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock ’n’ Roll (1981)
Afterword: Raise Your Hand Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy