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ISSUE 75: Singles Girls: The Rise of Female Rock Writing

Reviewed:

Out of the Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Record Collecting for Girls by Courtney E. Smith, Mariner Books, 2011.

 

Ellen Willis and Courtney E. Smith are both women who have written about being women and loving music and being women who love music. In this, they are rarities together, two female voices calling out in a field still, though less and less, dominated by male writers. They are also both fond of The Beatles. And that is just about where the similarities end.

Their works are separated by decades, platforms, technology, motives. Smith's book, Record Collecting for Girls, her debut, was released in September of this year and is some sort of a memoir exploring contemporary music fandom, and also dating, through Smith's own experience as a music obsessive and largely unsuccessful serial monogamist. Willis, who passed away in 2006 (thanks but no thanks, lung cancer), was posthumously celebrated this May with Out of the Vinyl Deeps, which collects the best of her music writing, mostly published in the late 1960s and 1970s in The New Yorker. (Beginning to See the Light, a collection of her articles on broader subjects, was released in 1981 but is now out of print.)

Why consider them together, then? Willis is in some way responsible for Smith, of course, and Smith is indebted to her (as are most contemporary music writers, whether they know it or not), but that is not enough. It's their differences, really, that make a joint exploration of their work so irresistible. Read side by side, Willis and Smith's antagonistic notions of fandom and feminism present the opportunity to understand the ways in which the relationship between women, writing, and rock music has evolved since the 1960s—and how it has devolved, too.

 


 

When Ellen Willis was hired by The New Yorker as pop-music critic in 1968, she was not just the first woman to hold that post—she was the first person, period. But until earlier this year (and even still now) mentions of her name have called up few sparks of recognition, even among those who bandy around the names Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau.

Vinyl Deeps mostly compiles selected editions of Willis's "Rock, Etc." music column, which she wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1975, plus a number of pieces published around the same time in the Village Voice and other outlets. The collection offers context for Willis's career with a few supplementary pieces by current writers who bear deep marks of her influence, each offering a glowing remembrance of her life and work but all tempered by bashful admissions of ignorance. In his foreword, Sasha Frere-Jones, who now holds Willis's old job at The New Yorker, recalls digging up her clips shortly after taking his post at the magazine, his mind warping at the discovery of this inimitable writer whose legacy he hadn't been aware he was carrying. Willis's daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, who spearheaded and edited this collection, leads off her introduction with an anecdote about buying her mother a Janis Joplin CD as a birthday gift, only to learn that Willis not only already owned the album but had written its liner notes.

Joplin was a recurring character in Willis's columns; The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Dylan were, too—and, especially in the case of Dylan, Willis would certainly agree that "character" is the most appropriate term to use. Willis's first piece of pop-culture reporting was a 1967 deconstruction of Dylan's public persona(s) for the underground-ish rag Cheetah, which she pulled off with a crucial combination of unrelenting, steely-minded intellectual rigor ("When critics call Dylan a poet, they really mean a visionary.... But it evades an important truth—the new visionaries are not poets") and the very particular affection of a fan who would very much rather not watch her favorite artist sink into a sack of his own bullshit but who isn't above applying her own vast catalog of knowledge to expose every hairline fracture in his act.

The piece was unprecedented. It got her The New Yorker job. And despite everything that came after, it remains one of her most triumphant works. But she wasn't entirely satisfied with it. A footnote to the piece, amended upon its anthologizing in 1981's Beginning to See the Light, exemplifies one of Willis's other most essential traits as a writer: her ability to turn her unwithering critic's eye upon herself.

Here as in elsewhere in this prefeminist essay I refer with aplomb if not outright endorsement to Dylan's characteristic bohemian contempt for women.... At the time I did not question the idea that women were guardians of oppressive conventional values; I only thought of myself as the exception. I was not possessive; I understood men's need to go on the road because I was, spiritually speaking, on the road myself. That, at least, was my fantasy; the realities of my life were somewhat more ambiguous.

Willis's skill was crucial, but so was her timing. When she arrived at The New Yorker, rock was finding its footing, with scores of acts filtering in and out of the mainstream and settling in on the work that would make them legends. Culturally and politically, America was clearly at odds with itself; the antiwar effort, the Civil Rights Movement, and (of increasing relevance to Willis) feminism were all gaining traction against the status quo. And the tenets of Willis's vocation had not yet calcified. 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. She was shaping rock writing into what it could be before it became what it is.

Her "Rock, Etc." columns are usually just a few pages each, but they're deceptively accessible. Willis's language is familiar, occasionally a bit flip, but intellectual to its core; sometimes, the pieces bring to mind something like a serene city park, its playground well-appointed, its lawn well-trimmed but riddled with gopher holes. ("We may as well face it. Deep within John Lennon there's a fusty old Tory struggling to get out." "The Ramones were stuck with the American dilemma, which is that the system is bad enough to piss us off, and not bad enough that we can make up our minds what to do about it.")

Even when she's breezy, she's bracing. Reviewing The Pointer Sisters' New York City debut in 1973, she laments, "Seriously, even I have to admit that The Pointer Sisters are very good at what they do; in fact, they do it with enough style and energy to make me feel like something of a sorehead for not letting them make me happy." Which leads to the heart of her engagement with music, with culture, with life—the desire to seek out, and, whenever possible, to nail down the nature and source of pleasure. Sometimes, her delight or disgust merits several hundred words; her dissection of her dual repulsion and attraction to punk music is a tour de force, and eerily relevant to any contemporary fan attempting to reconcile her interest in music that violently contradicts her political views (rap? Scandinavian black metal? pick one). Other times, it was enough for her to say she was either "digging" a song, or the precise inverse of digging, "not turned on."

It's not that Willis saw music—or any other kind of art, or life itself—as intended to be, or easily lumped into, one category or another. Her work is suffused with, perhaps defined by, an almost unsettling comfort with ambiguity; she knew best, and first, that there is no ultimate truth to be reached here. "Bowie doesn't seem quite real," she wrote in 1972, after seeing him play in London and New York. "Real to me, that is—which in rock & roll is the only fantasy that counts."

 


 

It's unclear at what point between Ellen Willis and now that the term "music snob" entered the pop lexicon, but Courtney E. Smith is one, and proud of it. "In my world, if you choose to proclaim an admiration for the Black Eyed Peas, someone will scoff, 'How embarrassing for you,'" writes the former MTV music programmer in her book's chapter on guilty pleasures. "As a matter of fact, that sounds like something I would say."

If Ellen Willis is concerned with pleasure, then Smith's interest in music is motivated primarily by shame. Her rubric for music fandom is oriented around a number of rules, strict shoulds and should-nots. You should have a Top Five list of your favorite artists ready to be deployed and defended at any given moment, ideally constructed in accordance with the guidelines she sets forth; you should not date fans of The Smiths—or rather, she should not date fans of The Smiths, she explains, with a your-mileage-may-vary shrug, though the venom with which she lays into the band's fans (accusing them of pretentiously copping everything from Morrissey's pompadour to his complicated relationship with his mother) seems aimed at turning the whole world against the lot of them.

Shame, for this writer, is an essential and unavoidable component in the development of musical taste. If you try to refuse it, she will foist it upon you. "There is nothing more loathsome than someone who proclaims she has no guilty pleasures because she's proud of everything she listens to. That person is either a fool with little actual knowledge of music or a pompous ass," Smith writes one paragraph after designating The Black Eyed Peas as fodder for the "unwashed masses of NASCAR enthusiasts." (Lazy classism happens to be one of the many habits I can think of that are more loathsome than someone refusing to feel bad about music that makes her happy. Then again, dancing to Hanson's "MMMBop" at my own wedding reception—and, indeed, to The Black Eyed Peas' own "I Gotta Feeling" after the marriage of two of my close friends—count among the most blissful moments of my life. So I guess I'll take "pompous ass.")

But no wonder Smith believes it's so crucial to like the right kind of music. If there's one point she wants to impress upon her readers, it's that the main function of music is to telegraph certain facts about ourselves to the world.

At this juncture, it seems worth noting that Smith, like Ellen Willis, is a white, straight female but, unlike Willis, she is unwilling or unable to imagine any experience beyond this. Also, despite its title, this book is aimed not at girls but decidedly grown women, presumably in their twenties and thirties, particularly of a very narrow niche that would find tame gossip about Death Cab for Cutie and The Shins mildly titillating, while also feeling confounded and intimidated by these newfangled doodads called "music blogs." So perhaps someone who's just rejoined the world after falling into a Rip Van Winklesque slumber on her twenty-fifth birthday in 2004? And while we're at it: There is little advice dispensed in regards to the actual habits of record collecting; in fact, Smith refers to actual record collectors, the kind that scour crates and antique stores for rare vinyl, as "one step away from hoarders," as opposed to "well adjusted...people like you and me."

Smith isn't even so much a fan of records as a medium. She readily admits that she has only "listened to...a handful of full albums straight through since 2004." In these halcyon days of the MP3, she's a singles girl, which is common enough. But this just seems like irresponsible behavior, especially for a self-proclaimed "music snob" (a self-proclaimed "music Nazi," even; wouldn't Willis have a field day with that term?). Despite what Smith herself thinks, there are no set rules for being a music fan: You should just dig what you dig, as Willis might say. But how do you know what you dig and don't dig if you don't even listen? And anyway, is it too much to ask that the author of a book called Record Collecting for Girls actually be a believer in the format she's ostensibly encouraging the appreciation of?

Maybe so. After all, one of Smith's rules for Top Five candidacy is just owning all of a band's albums—having listened to them isn't required. In her world, music taste is performative, and the audience is men. (Women make appearances, too, but as competition for, or sounding boards in conversations about, men—never as tastemakers, rarely as fellow fans.) Here, you hoard knowledge and construct intricate mixtapes to woo men; you make playlists to eventually get over men; you give up artists' whole catalogs because the songs remind you of men you no longer wish to be reminded of. And those all-important Top Five lists? Well, without one, how would any man know that Smith loves Fiona Apple, and therefore that Smith is a "crazy girl"? "That is the impression Apple creates with her ranting, cathartic songs...[and] maybe that assessment isn't entirely inaccurate," Smith admits. (Later, though, she takes issue with the notion that her sexual proclivities might be determined by her answer to the question "Beatles vs. Stones?" But if her emotional stability and guys' dateability can be determined by taste, why not this, too? If this is her version of Willis's gutting ambiguity, we'll stick with awkwardly rigid truths.)

This whole mess seems to stem from Smith's formative years working at a college radio station in Texas, where she met "a group of music snob guys who regularly debated topics like Blur vs. Oasis and whether Cat Power was the cutest indie-rock girl or just the craziest." She found the musings of these nineteen-year-old boys to be totally irresistible, and she soon fell into their ranks, developing her listening habits to suit their questionably nuanced expectations of what and who a music fan could be. If you found any use for her instructions on the care and keeping of your own personal Top Five list, thank these dudes.

Smith's story may resonate with anyone who's ever balked at the male-centeredness of the rock-music world, but it will frustrate anyone who has come to realize the boys' club isn't the only organization accepting new members. ("For all its limitations, rock was the best thing going," Ellen Willis wrote of the early 1960s. "And if we had to filter out certain indignities—well, we had been doing that all our lives, and there was no feminist movement to suggest that things might be different.") Since Smith's late-1990s college days, she has moved beyond underage DJs and on to trying to impress friends of friends, random man-boys at bars, strangers on the Internet (her too-short chapter on the role of rock music in the online role-playing game Second Life is actually kind of fascinating), and at least one member of an apparently fairly well-known band whose name she won't mention but who is painted in fine detail as a total bastard for never mentioning to Smith his girlfriend back home in all the time they were making out at her work functions or in the two heady days they spent texting pop-culture references back and forth to each other while in the same city.

This incident is discussed in the context of her chapter "Rock 'n Roll Consorts," in which she also details the various heartbreaks of famous hangers-on—Pamela Des Barres, Marianne Faithfull, Pattie Boyd. Bob Dylan's early inamorata, Suze Rotolo, is the only one who really garners any of Smith's sympathy. "Not many women can resist the excitement the world of rock stardom offers, let alone have the presence of mind to satisfy her own needs," she writes of Rotolo's decision to ditch Dylan for school.

WARNING SIGN, declares a subhead in the same chapter. ROCK STARS WHO CARE ABOUT YOUR BRAIN.

A more acute threat, though, might be anyone who doesn't.

 


 

What may be most dismaying about Smith's book is the way it has been marketed and how well that marketing has been received. "For years, you've listened to men talk about all things music, but the female perspective has been missing. Until now," the back flap reads. "Finally, here is a voice that speaks to women!" Early press clippings sent along by the book's publisher—from rags as fluffy as Nylon and stately (and fluffy) as Vanity Fair—echo this cry of relief, which sounds not unlike something one of Ellen Willis's readers might have uttered in the late 1960s, when such a thing truly was a rarity.

It wouldn't seem prudent to begrudge the presentation and reception of Smith's book if the book itself didn't seem so satisfied by this same historyless view of itself. Embarrassingly few female music writers are mentioned in Record Collecting for Girls, and it's hard not to wonder if Smith simply didn't know any existed. One who makes the cut is the aforementioned Pamela Des Barres, the groupie and author of multiple tell-all memoirs; the other is New York Times journalist Lynn Hirschberg, who, in a particularly baffling chapter on which performer might or might not be the next Madonna, gets a nod for her offhand remark comparing Sri Lankan singer M.I.A. to a young Madge. And that's it for the ladies.

The gentlemen get their due, of course: Nick Hornby pops up time and again, though most references are to High Fidelity (more often the movie, not the book). And mentions of Rob Sheffield and Chuck Klosterman are made here and there; Smith is clearly striving toward a double-X chromosomed version of their gangly, hyper-referential confessionals, but even at her best, she lacks Klosterman's wit and Sheffield's heart (his Love Is a Mixtape, after all, chronicled the tragically young death of his wife, hardly on par with Smith's "ugh, he has a girlfriend?!" woes).

It's true that now, as in Ellen Willis's day, there are fewer women writing about rock music—indeed, about any kind of music—than men. But the ranks have grown, especially over the last few decades. Among the too-many-to-count: Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy (who cowrote the Vinyl Deeps afterword), Jaan Uhelski (a Creem editor and contemporary of Willis), Holly George-Warren, Ann Powers, Jessica Hopper, Maura Johnston, Maria Raha, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Marissa Meltzer, Sara Marcus. The list, as they say, goes on.

A good starting point, though, for anyone who may have perceived both a void and Smith's book as filling it, would be Rock She Wrote, a compilation of works by sixty-two female writers, musicians, and fans published in 1995 (around the time Smith was playing those college-DJ boys like they were the only game in town). Willis was among the sixty-two, and also among the forty-four women whose work is collected in Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock; she wrote the introduction. Both of those pieces are included in Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Here, then, is a void and a book that fills it.

 


Above art: Julien Ulvoas

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