In 1975, Ellen Willis went to see a Rolling Stones concert. "I spent most of the evening dancing in my seat," she wrote in her review for The New Yorker magazine, "and in my seat merely because the people behind me insisted." As a critic, she was always shaking her hips.
Willis was The New Yorker's first pop critic from 1968 to 1975, and her essays made the connection between music, pleasure and politics. In pieces about Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground or Stevie Wonder, her thoughts were complex, but her words were as accessible as a great backbeat.
Out of the Vinyl Deeps, edited by her daughter, brings together many of her pieces from The New Yorker and other publications. As the gushy reviews start to pile up, I'm starting to think Willis might have invented the way my generation thinks about pop.
Of course she would never make such a fancy claim. She was one of those shaggy-haired, direct action-oriented baby-boomer bohos who had no use for pretense. She herself turned away from music writing by the 1980s, after her beloved Bob Dylan went evangelical and rock turned out to not be the revolutionary force she'd hoped it was.
Though she moved on, Willis' early days speaking truth to Mick Jagger established her as the spiritual mother of today's most intellectually ambitious, emotionally engaged writing about pop culture.
Her words connect the energy and experimentation of the counterculture of the late '60s with the intellectual rigor of today's pop scholars bearing master's degrees.
Most important, Willis wrote like someone who lived in a body. Her reviews are peppered with scenes of her standing on theater seats, dancing in her bedroom, or having a flash of insight while waiting for her clothes at the laundromat. She wrote about laughing, and having doubts. "I believe that body and spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way," she wrote. "I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal. But" — and here she's quoting Velvet's leader Lou Reed — "I guess that I just don't know."
That paragraph is pretty deep, but the punchline brings it down to street level, where Willis lived. She was always giving the reader a friendly shove back into life's specifics: "On November 7," she wrote in an essay on coming to terms with punk rock, "I admitted I was turned on by the Sex Pistols." And then she tells you exactly how that happened and why (she got back from a shrink appointment one day to find a friend had sent her a bunch of British vinyl singles and albums, and the moment was finally right).
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. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.