Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Now I Lay Thee Down to Sleep

There comes a time in the life of every writer when they need to let go and set a piece free. In the upcoming weeks I will post pieces written in the last six months that due to one reason or another, could not find homes out in the big bad world. But that is fine with me. The last time I posted something for that reason it turned out pretty alright, ahem, Best Music Writing 2010. So here we go, first up is my review of the Ellen Willis anthology Out of the Vinyl Deeps. An ode to my hero, the great Ellen Willis. Enjoy.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps, Ellen Willis Rock Music

The collected work of Chuck Klosterman, early 2000’s editor of Spin magazine and author of such notable essays as Sulking with Lisa Loeb On Ice Planet Hoth, pre dates this collection of Ellen Willis’ work, Out of the Vinyl Deeps, Ellen Willis Rock Music, by five years. In some ways this bit of information is the greatest unintentional tribute to her work; that Willis indeed had cause and reason to shout from rafters that women weren’t being heard. Willis of course is the pioneering rock critic who went on to shape any music criticism written in the past thirty years, whether the authors of this legacy are aware of that or not. She was the first pop music critic for the New Yorker and as Sasha Frere Jones, who later went on to hold the same position, notes in his superb introduction to the book, it’s longest running pop music crit occupant. By the mid eighties though Willis’ work as a music critic had largely been forgotten, as she turned her razor sharp eye to larger more personal battles: sexual feminist freedom, international women’s rights and a myriad of other social and political issues she saw standing in the way of gender equality.
To female critics of any pop genre however, the work of women like Willis’, Pauline Kael, Jaan Uhelszki, plus a handful of other notable writers, has never been forgotten, in fact her flame has stood as a roadmap for almost any practicing critic of the so called fairer sex. It is fitting then as Jason Gross notes in his recent flavorpill post, 33 Women Music Critics You Need to Read, that a sea change might be afoot. With the release Out of the Vinyl Deeps, Willis’ writing is finally receiving the most obvious of honors, a long overdue collection of her work, and with it new discussion about what it means to be and who gets to be a critic.
The writing itself is an astonishing mix of political and artistic criticism that stands up frighteningly well in contrast with many of her male peers. Dylan, the 1967 essay from Cheetah magazine that got Willis the New Yorker gig, is perhaps her most enduring and famous piece. Here she weaves a shrewd narrative around persona and identity, calling Dylan out for his artifice, without ever stooping to name-calling. Highlighted is Dylan’s childlike obsession with upsetting and confusing his fan base. In many ways Willis is a skilled lawyer, spinning backhanded compliments that echo some of Oscar Wilde’s finest work:

“Dylan has self-consciously explored the possibilities of mass communication just as the pop artists explored the possibilities of mass production. In the same sense that pop art is about commodities, Dylan’s art is about celebrity.”

The brilliance of Willis’ is that the above statement could just as easily be applied to the ongoing debate about Lady GaGa’s merit as an artist, and just as swiftly cut GaGa down at the knees, speaking in terms of artist as provocateur, artist as thief. Willis saw the connection between Warhol and Dylan, Jasper Johns and Jim Morrison. Artist was no longer artist, artist was an act and that act was the real truth. The ‘real’ Dylan, Robert Allen Zimmerman, whoever that might be was the artifice, the Dylan of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, hopped trains and grew up at the foot of an old radio listening Woody Guthrie, even if the ‘real’ Dylan never saw a train car in his entire life or heard Guthrie till he reached his mid teens. That was not the Dylan of the world and that Dylan was useless to his art. The piece ends with a tip of the hat and mutual appreciation and respect for his performance both as a musician and artist. Like two cowboy outlaws passing peacefully in the street, Willis doesn’t walk away without acknowledging to the reader and Dylan himself, that she knows what he’s up to and that she’s allowing him to pass.
This is not to say that Dylan or great artists like him were beholden to Willis’ academic approval but only that her essays were some of the earliest works in which pop music was held to a higher standard. These criticisms of course were Willis’ ultimate love offerings to rock n roll: Her nascent ability to respect the music enough to take it seriously. It was her way of honoring its power.
Some of the artists lucky enough to be the beneficiaries of Willis’ love were Lou Reed, The Beatles, Elvis, and Creedance Clearwater. Reading these pieces one can’t help but wonder if she secretly relished this opportunity as a woman to dissect sacred cows. Her work never dealt in animus however, if anything, like Kale before her Willis’ writing offers the upmost respect to her subjects. Only that she takes men to task in ways that other male critics either did not notice or deem necessary. In the Rolling Stones essay, Sympathy for the Stones in which she acknowledges Mick Jagger’s sexuality not as a boyish immature affect but rather as a deep intrinsic part of who he was as a creative, she subtly hints that Jagger’s sexuality shouldn’t be toned down, but that other artists, possibly of the female variety, should be encouraged to emulate without repercussion. It is essays like this that laid the groundwork for modern pop feminist interpretation and analytical introspection.
If Dylan was the essay that put her on the map, then it is Janis Joplin that defined her as a music critic. It is a piece of writing not just loving in its appraisal of Janis as a fellow trailblazer but also interweaves Willis’ own story of self acceptance. A beautiful chunk of writing it must be read to be appreciated. As a template for analytical memoir and new journalism it is flawless, and in 2006 when Willis died of lung cancer, Salon ultimately chose it as the piece to eulogize her death.
It is a shame that Willis couldn’t live to see this collection come to light, but in many ways she had moved beyond music criticism years earlier on her own. When she passed she was an internationally recognized feminist and radical politico. The staffs she carried all pointed in the same direction: human equality, personal autonomy and freedom. Whether through the celebration of an album or the destruction of an absurd and sexist law, it was all the same to Willis, and perhaps she saw more than anyone that the space between the two was much smaller than we’d like to believe.

Nikki Darling