Ellen Willis: 12/14/1941 to 09/09/2006
The writer and teacher Ellen Willis often described herself as a democratic, libertarian radical. Only 64 when she died of lung cancer November 9, she leaves behind a slim but essential body of cultural criticism. Willis was a fierce feminist and culture warrior who challenged both anti-porn crusaders and identity politics with special fervor, a founding mother of rock criticism, a child of the ’60s who sounded the alarm against the psychosocial consequences of repressed desire and fear of freedom — a utopian, in the most necessary sense of the term. “The point of life,” she wrote, “is to live and enjoy it fully.”
Willis began as a rock critic. From 1968 to 1975, she was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker. Most of her work from this period is available only in the periodical stacks at your library — it should have been anthologized long ago — but she began her first essay collection, Beginning To See The Light: Sex, Hope And Rock-And-Roll, with a slim sampler of her music criticism, including chapters on Elvis, Dylan, and, in the title piece, the Velvet Underground. Anyone looking to understand Janis Joplin or Creedence Clearwater Revival could do no better than to begin with Willis’ essays in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll.
By the close of the ’70s, she had long since given up rock criticism in favor of writing that over the next quarter-century — in Village Voice, Salmagundi, The Nation, Dissent, Elle, even Glamour — was more broadly cultural, more explicitly political and deeply humanist.
In 1992’s No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays and 1999’s Don’t Think, Smile: Notes On A Decade Of Denial, Willis challenged the conventional wisdom on a variety of presumably settled matters. (Sample essay titles: “Why I’m Not ‘Pro-Family'” and “Abortion: Is A Woman A Person?”) Her thinking was sharp, idiosyncratic, and at times so revelatory it could leave the solid ground of what you were sure you knew trembling beneath your feet even as your heart raced with a renewed sense of purpose and possibility.
As Willis put it, “the power of the ecstatic moment — this is what freedom feels like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone — is precisely the power to reimagine the world.”