This amazing critic changed the way we listen to music

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.

Take, for instance, the amazingly prescient concluding sentences of “The Cultural Revolution Saved From Drowning”—a Woodstock scene report that Willis published before the mud on Yasgur’s farm had time to dry. “What cultural revolutionaries do not seem to grasp,” Willis wrote,

is that, far from being a grass-roots art form that has been taken over by businessmen, rock itself comes from a commercial exploitation of the blues. It is bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power. Its rebelliousness does not imply specific political content; it can be—and has been—criminal, fascistic, and coolly individualistic as well as revolutionary. Nor is the hip lifestyle inherently radical. It can simply be a more pleasurable way of surviving within the system, which is what the pop sensibility has always been about. Certainly that was what Woodstock was about: ignore the bad, groove on the good, hang loose, and let things happen. The truth is that there can’t be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution. In the meantime, we should at least insist that the capitalists who produce rock concerts charge reasonable prices for reasonable service.

The critic left rock and roll behind, started the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU, and died in 2006; much of her best work had disappeared from print. But a few years ago, her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, started assembling this collection, the first to limit itself to Willis’s music writing. It’s essential reading, and if you’re a fan of the artists Willis was especially fond of and/or hard on—the list includes the Velvet Underground, CCR, Janis Joplin, Dylan, and the Who—it will transform the way you hear, and think about, their music.


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