“This tension between intellectual work and economic survival is thoroughly mundane and generally taken for granted by those who negotiate it every day; but to look at the history of the past thirty years or so is to be struck by the degree to which the social, cultural, and political trajectory of American life is bound up with this most ordinary of conflicts. During that time, the conditions of intellectual work have radically changed, as a culture operating on the assumption of continuing—indeed increasing—abundance has given way to a culture of austerity.”—From the first paragraph of “Intellectual Life in the Culture of Austerity,” a little-read but highly relevant Ellen Willis essay from 1999. I immediately thought of this piece when I heard about the new book “MFA vs. NYC,” a new essay collection about the different ways writers make and will make money.
The organized left, which should have known better, acted as if the way to change American society was for each person individually to renounce the family, material comfort, and social respectability. That most people were doing no such thing was glibly attributed to sexual repression, greed, and/or “brainwashing” by the mass media—the implication being that radicals and bohemians were sexier, smarter, less corrupt, and generally more terrific than everyone else.
Actually, what they mostly were was younger and more privileged; it was easy to be a self-righteous antimaterialist if you had never known anxiety about money; easy to sneer at the security of marriage if you had solicitous middle-class parents; easy, if you were twenty years old and childless, to blame those parents for the ills of the world. Not that radicals were wrong in believing that a sexually free, communal society was incompatible with capitalism, or in perceiving connections between sexual repression, obsessive concern with material goods, and social conformity. But they did not understand that, psychology aside, most people submit to the power of institutions because they suffer unpleasant consequences if they don’t.
”—a bit of Willis realtalk on the sixties hippies, from “The Family: Love It or Leave It,” Village Voice, 1979.
“In reducing rock-and-roll to its harshest essentials, the new wave took Lou Reed’s aesthete-punk conceit to a place he never intended. For the Velvets the aesthete-punk stance was a way of surviving in a world that was out to kill you; the point was not to glorify the punk, or even to say fuck you to the world, but to be honest about the strategies people adopt in a desperate situation. The Velvets were not nihilists but moralists. In their universe nihilism regularly appears as a vivid but unholy temptation, love and its attendant vulnerability as scary and poignant imperatives. Though Lou Reed rejected optimism, he was enough of his time to crave transcendence. And finally—as “Rock & Roll” makes explicit—the Velvets’ use of a mass art form was a metaphor for transcendence, for connection, for resistance to solipsism and despair.”—These sentences, from Ellen Willis’ essay “The Velvet Underground,” are exactly how I want to remember Lou Reed. The piece originally appeared in Greil Marcus’ ‘Stranded’ collection, but is reprinted in ‘Out of the Vinyl Deeps,’ the anthology of Willis’ music criticism edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz. (via judyxberman)
It was Reed who defined the band’s sensibility, embodied its contradictions. He was a romantic alienated bohemian and an antiromantic pop ironist, a middle-class Jewish kid from Brooklyn who came on like a streetwise punk in tight jeans and shades, a classical piano student turned rock and roller, Bob Dylan-cum-Nelson Algren-cum-Jean Genet. He talked his songs in an expressive semi-mumble that made you think of James Dean without the naiveté.
Not that Lou did not display his own kind of innocence. His songs hinted, when you least expected it, that underneath the meanness and paranoia, the affectless brutality that smothered pain, there was after all the possibility of love.
My issue with the video isn’t that naked women are inappropriate. It’s that featuring naked models and clothed men in party mode is … boring. Uninventive. Slightly alienating. But when I also considered the lyrics, which are about a woman who doesn’t want to admit she really wants it, I started to feel icky about this song’s presence on my summer playlist. Culture writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd tweeted, “i predict ‘Blurred Lines’ will be huge among the drunk-dads-at-weddings set for years to come.” Channeling that apologetic-drunk-married-guy vibe, Thicke explained, “it was actually the director’s idea, Diane Martel,” as if it’s impossible for anything directed by a woman to be sexist. “I had mentioned to her that I wanted to do a very funny and silly video. … And she said, ‘well, what if we have the girls take their clothes off?’”
Funny! Silly! Except if you’re a woman who is not really offended, per se, but certainly kind of annoyed at the lazy trope of prancing, naked female bodies. This, as Anupa Mistry said in a roundtable of women critics discussing Kanye West’s Yeezus, “is the kind of tiresome racist, sexist shit that really dumbs down otherwise good songs.” I want to like popular music. I want to participate in it. But paradoxically, in order to consume and enjoy it, I often have to disengage from lyrics or accompanying videos. Or, at the very least, think about them separately. Compartmentalize.
“Feminism and gay liberation have already seriously weakened marriage as a transmission belt of patriarchal, religious values; conferring the legitimacy of marriage on homosexual relations will introduce an implicit revolt against the institution into its very heart, further promoting the democratization and secularization of personal and sexual life.”—
“Music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated — as good rock ’n’ roll did — challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.”—
Feels like fate that I read this part of Out of the Vinyl Deeps the morning before listening to Yeezus for the first time.
“It was only when I was working on a book investigating what it means to have, and to be, an only child that I realized how many of the writers I revere had only children themselves. Alongside Sontag: Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Ellen Willis, and more. Someone once asked Alice Walker if women (well, female artists) should have children. She replied, “They should have children—assuming this is of interest to them—but only one.” Why? “Because with one you can move,” she said. “With more than one you’re a sitting duck.””—#singletonpride. (via theothernwa)
One, rad feminists of the 1960s and 1970s did not all look alike. That cliched Norman Mailer-esque view overlooks the fact that it’s war-paint makeup and girdles that cause women to look like clones, not going au naturel. I get so sick of people saying rad fems were not beautiful — have they ever seen pictures of the young Ellen Willis, Shulamith Firestone, or Jill Johnston? How about Michele Wallace when she wrote “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman?” Hot!! I’d burn my bra for any of them.
Two, if Dowd thinks that only non-feminists like “Desperate Housewives” clothing — i.e. sexy retro duds — then she’s never met Carol Queen. Or Nellie McKay. Or these ladies.
For someone with fewer family demands than Sandberg, freedom is depicted not as a pleasure but a problem to be resolved by getting a family. The single woman goes out to a bar goes not to have fun or be with friends (the main reason most women I know attend a bar), but to find a husband with whom to procreate. “My coworkers should understand that I need to go to a party tonight…because going to a party is the only way I might meet someone and start a family!” Astonishingly for a book published in 2013, there are no self-identified lesbians, gay men, or even intentionally unmarried or child-free people in Lean In’s vision of the workplace. It’s not clear why Sandberg thinks that everyone should be in the business of getting a family, since the book argues that family gets in the way of work. But it seems that Sandberg can only imagine the dreaded “leaning back” as a product of family demands. Who would take a vacation voluntarily?
Has definite Ellen Willis-like pleasure politics vibes.
“Besides, most people made endless assumptions about married couples and treated them accordingly; it wasn’t so easy to get married and pretend you weren’t.”—My mother, summing up my feelings about matrimony 5 years before I was born. (From “The Family: Love It Or Leave It,” included in the forthcoming collection!)
“Under present conditions, people are preoccupied with consumer goods not because they are brainwashed but because buying is the one pleasurable activity not only permitted but actively encouraged by our rulers.”—Ellen Willis
“For a year I cut myself off from men altogether. Perhaps I had to plunge so deeply into the negative side of my ambivalence in order to say good-bye to it, or try to. When I began to be with someone again it was a bit like moving to a strange country. In the intervening years aloneness had become my norm, my taken-for-granted context. And yet those same years had changed my sense of myself, of men, of the ground rules for relationships, making it impossible to simply pick up where I left off.”—Ellen Willis, “Escape from New York” (via rightnow-forever)
It’s my mom Ellen Willis’ birthday today. She would have been 71. Every year, I figure the best way of honoring her is to read my favorite pieces she’s written—things that push me to consider every moment of my life, and to fit together cultural forces like puzzle pieces. Here’s what I’m reading this year:
“Dylan is now free to work on his own terms. It would be foolish to predict what he will do next. But I hope he will remain a mediator, using the language of pop to transcend it. If the gap between past and present continues to widen, such mediation may be crucial. In a communication crisis, the true prophets are the translators.”—Ellen Willis, “Before the Flood” (from Cheetah, 1967)
“The constant celebration of homemaking in the media cannot conceal the fact that most housework is dirty and boring. Most people would prefer just about any job to being a domestic servant; few single women would stand for a female roommate trying to stick them with all the cleaning. But to do the same dirty work for a husband is supposed to be a privilege. The rationalization is usually that women are inherently altruistic, which makes about as much as Senator George Murphy’s remark that Mexicans are better suited to stoop labor because they are ‘built low to the ground.’”—Ellen Willis in Mademoiselle, September 1969. (EW said in a 1989 Terry Gross interview that, besides sex, the single thing responsible for radicalizing her was housework.)
“I especially enjoyed the way he moved… projecting a sense of maleness that depended not on the exclusion or denigration or conquest of women but on his appreciation of his body and what it could do.”—
“I’ll let you be in my dream: Nora Ephron and Oliver Stone collaborate on the Bill and Hillary story with Tom Hanks as Bill, Meryl Streep as Hillary, Tammy Wynette as Gennifer Flowers, Geena Davis as Paula Jones, and Kurt Cobain as Vince Foster.”—Ellen Willis, 1994. (Can you tell I’m doing some archival research for the new Essential Ellen Willis anthology?)
“Here was a respected, professional thinker calling bullshit on herself, over and over. It felt like an articulate version of my inarticulate discomfort.”—Sasha Frere-Jones, in a Ellen Willis discussion with Sara Marcus and Emily Gould on Bookforum.
Ellen Willis, born December 14, 1941, was a radical leftist writer and thinker whose true loves were pop culture, feminism, pleasure, freedom, and countercultural politics. She was the first rock critic for the New Yorker, an editor and columnist at The Village Voice, and wrote for numerous publications like Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Nation, and Dissent. She was a cofounder of the radical feminist group The Redstockings and No More Nice Girls, and the founder of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at NYU. She died in November 2006.
Some of her work is archived here, to preserve her legacy in what she called the “cultural conversation.” This online archive is ever-growing; if you have a new link for the site, or if you discover a broken link, email me at nona200 (at) gmail (dot) com.
Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts you have on Ellen Willis’s work below!
NOTE: A number of people have asked me if more of EW’s earlier, classic writing will eventually be available on this archive. The answer is Yes! Slowly but surely—and it would be great if yall could help the process. PDFs of her earlier work are welcomed!!