Rocks Off

Around the time someone started spray-painting “Clapton is God” in an Islington Underground station, rock fandom took a turn towards what Ellen Willis described as a “tedious worship of technical proficiency.” Willis condemned this art-snob model of fandom, and in Out of the Vinyl Deeps she largely eschews it; her writing focuses very little on sound.

For so many women, to express one’s enthusiasm, knowledge, or beliefs means starting out on the defensive.

Ellen Willis dancing, early '80s. From ellenwillis.tumblr.com.

This piece is part of a series on Ellen Willis by the n+1 Research Collective. See also the introduction to Willis’s No More Nice Girls (1992), copyright the Estate of Ellen Willis and courtesy of Emily Books.


Around the time someone started spray-painting “Clapton is God” in an Islington Underground station, rock fandom took a turn towards what Ellen Willis described as a “tedious worship of technical proficiency.” Willis condemned this art-snob model of fandom, and in Out of the Vinyl Deeps she largely eschews it; her writing focuses very little on the sound of music itself. This approach could be said to contain within it a feminist critique: “the pretension, competitiveness, and abstraction from feeling that go along with an emphasis on technique,” she argued, “are alienating to most women.” This pedantic, in-crowd form of music fandom is also characterized by shame and obligation: the shame of not knowing – the shame of being wrong – and a dreary obligation to a canon. These are feelings that have long kept women silent on many fronts, and they continue to shut us out of the discourse on rock music.

For years, talking about music has been my primary mode of bonding with male acquaintances, which means I’m often caught in the conversational equivalent of a mosh pit. I can have a lot of fun, but on some level I’m always conscious of the fact that a bunch of aggressively competitive men are dictating the way in which I express my enthusiasm. I’m not all that keen on digging my elbow into someone’s back, nor am I that interested in defending a top ten list. “Defend” is the key word here: for so many women, to express one’s enthusiasm, knowledge, or beliefs means starting out on the defensive. But 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. An essay on Janis Joplin expands into a story about what a painful letdown the sexual revolution was for women; a piece about learning to love punk rock ends up indicting cultural feminism and post-1960s conservative backlash. (But that former essay isn’t just about women, it’s about a woman—Janis Joplin—and the latter makes it clear that Willis’s appreciation for punk is genuine. Reading Willis, it never feels like she’s using music as a stepping stone on the way to “more important” points: rock music, inseparable from its context, was the point.) And by avoiding both the false authority used in most criticism and the hyperbolic Benzedrine prose that is rock writing’s special legacy, Willis stakes out her own place in the genre—a clearing for sound thinking and matter-of-factness.

I’m thrilled that since the publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps, there has been increased interest in Ellen Willis’s complete oeuvre; her thoughts on rock are only one expression of her lifelong commitment to the possibility of a freer, more satisfying world. But for me, her rock writing has been as revelatory, has provoked as many late-night rereads at the kitchen table, as any of her other works. Just like the best second-wave feminist texts, Out of the Vinyl Deeps puts words to the vague feelings of conflict or unease that have long lingered in the back of my mind. From her explorations of her personal experiences with music and the whole-hearted—whole-bodied—pleasure she took in it, to her analyses of female rock stars like Patti Smith and Janis Joplin, Willis has left us with an invaluable chronicle—not just of an era, but of the often slighted perspective of the female rock fan.

In one of my favorite essays from Out of the Vinyl Deeps, “But Now I’m Gonna Move,” Willis describes a “crude, but often revealing method for assessing male bias” in rock lyrics: switch the sexes. When subjected to this test, “Under My Thumb” turns out to be less misogynistic than a song like “Wild World,” because the Rolling Stones revenge tale could actually be sung by a woman about a man, whereas Cat Stevens’s sweet condescension to a girl getting by on her smile is not so easily reversible. You probably won’t find a woman singing “But if you wanna leave, take good care/ I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear” to a man.

Reading this passage, I was reminded of all the pronoun-swapping I did as a screaming teenaged female rock fan: Under my thumb/ a boy who has just changed his ways!  I remember it as almost unconscious, and certainly not an attempt to uncover misogyny; I was just trying to relate. Most rock songs, even today, are about women and sung by men, which makes the identification process that’s such an integral part of fandom a bit complicated. (I remember switching the pronouns in Ramones songs—except, notably, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” I couldn’t imagine making such a bold proclamation myself. Most teenage narratives were about boys doing things and girls having things done to them: I was hoping that whenever I finally got a boyfriend, he’d be the one to choose me.) I was constantly alternating filters, imagining myself as either narrator or subject of the song, depending on the fantasy at hand. Was he singing to me or about me? If I was playing narrator, was I imagining myself as a character in the song or as a rock star onstage? And what did it mean that the gatekeepers to my greatest fantasies were, for the most part, mean and virile men?

“Fantasy, after all,” Willis wrote in an essay on pornography, “is more flexible than reality, and women have learned, as matter of survival, to be adept at shaping men’s fantasies to their own purposes.” In my own case, this process often seemed more like an accidental cross-wiring of fantasies than a purposeful reshaping. I’d grown up in a time and place where girls were encouraged to envision themselves as whatever they wanted to be, but what I wanted to be was the “girl version” of my favorite male rock stars, whom I also tended to have crushes on. This blend of lust and admiration later spilled over into my reverence for bad boy writers and other countercultural chest-thumpers. I wanted to be as brazenly sexual as Jagger and as adventurous as Kerouac. My heroes and my sex symbols were often one and the same—a predicament that strikes me as unique to women.

Willis described the uncomfortably similar circumstance of female fans in the sixties, who expressed their rebellion vicariously by identifying with male rock stars – “a relationship that all too often found us digging them while they put us down.” Willis understood the importance of identification in the fan-star relationship, and some of her most interesting writing in Out of the Vinyl Deeps occurs when she explores the filters that women use to make that identification possible: what we forgive, infer, adjust—both consciously and unconsciously—in order to make rock music a means of self-expression.

For a long time the issue of “women in rock” seemed trivial to me, and frankly, I didn’t think about it much. But reading Ellen Willis has given me pause. There’s a lot more at stake than whether or not a girl decides to learn guitar. Most of the women in my consciousness-raising group have said that as adolescents they felt like they didn’t relate to girls. Smart, dynamic teenage girls shouldn’t feel that their demeanor, their qualities, and their goals make them “one of the boys.” And while there’s nothing so wrong with having men for heroes, it worries me that freedom—especially that anti-authoritarian, “fuck you,” rock and roll freedom—is still seen as male.

When she wrote that she wanted to find “a female rock and roller who would be [her] mirror,” in some sense Willis was looking for a new vision of that boisterous freedom. When she criticized Patti Smith for playing to a punk rock misogyny that gives status to women who act like “one of the guys” while still denigrating the general population of women, calling Smith a rock hero but “not quite a feminist heroine,” Willis was condemning her for achieving the status of rock god but not redefining the role. Willis never found her female rock and roll hero, and that vision of a new kind of freedom, not just a “female version” of what already exists, but something entirely different, remains unrealized.

One might ask why you’d even look to rock and roll for a vision of freedom—it’s actually embarrassing to talk seriously about rock as liberation these days. Willis herself wrote, “[W]hen we’re ready for the next cultural upheaval, the catalyst may not be teenagers—or even music,” and it’s possible she’s right. But she also identified, as a place where musical liberation and women’s liberation crossed paths, the concept of “rock and roll as a catalyst for the moment of utopian inspiration, that out-of-time moment when you not only imagine but live the self you would be in the world that could be.” Where most music critics let themselves get hyperbolic and sloppy when they explore the age-old concept of rock and roll as liberation, Willis stayed sharp, perhaps because she actually believed in that ecstatic moment. She had plans for it. It’s a particularly appealing theme in her work that pleasure is not frivolous, that in hedonism there is a power to be harnessed. The idea is that a better world would also be a more pleasurable one, so to explore our pleasure—how we get it, how we’re blocked from getting it, and what it means— is to explore how we might move towards a better world.

This is why I don’t take it lightly that everyone talks about Ellen Willis testing her records by dancing in front of her mirror. Dancing is often belittled because it’s seen as an anti-intellectual response to music, plus it’s something girls like to do. But it’s actually a great way to evaluate your records, especially if what you’re searching for is the experience of freedom that rock and roll promises. Rock music lied when it claimed to tell women, “Fuck the rules.” Instead, rock generated its own set of intricate rules, which—as historically has been the case with rules—came down hard on women. Though the mosh pit is praised as a safe place where you can take out your frustration and aggression in ways unacceptable in the outside world, the pit just recreates the oppression it pretends to disavow. It has a code of etiquette and a visible structure—necessities given the brutality at its core. You can’t get to the center of the action unless you’re willing to injure and be injured. You’re obliged to pick people up, but that’s just because you’re knocking them down in the first place. Dancing, on the other hand, is anarchic. The structure of a dance floor is fluid: you can dance from one person to the next, you can ignore people, and you can take up space, publicly insisting on your own pleasure without turning it into a fight. I like to imagine dancing as the physical representation of the filtering process we use to mold music to our fantasies; when I dance, I am living the self that could be.

Willis’s refusal to trivialize her pleasure, her insistence that within it we may find the key to a better world, has emboldened me. Women need to stop being bullied into downplaying their perspectives and sticking to the prescribed discourse. There’s got to be something more satisfying, for everyone, than shoving each other in the pit. So move over motherfuckers, I’m trying to dance.

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