Friday, June 3, 2011

Rockin' Feminism: Ellen Willis

Lately, I've had numerous discussions about the daunting task of analyzing pop culture, more specifically pop music, from a feminist standpoint.  While I understand how inherently influential pop culture is in our society, attempting to analyze every bit of what we see on television or hear on the radio or read in a magazine seems to be such an exhausting and overwhelming undertaking.  And with songs out like Katy Perry's "E.T." (with lyrics such as 'Wanna be a victim/ Ready for abduction'), I often feel discouraged by the messages pop culture seems to be sending and wonder if its even worth our time.  But, perhaps my mentality is flawed.  Maybe such analyzes are necessary, and I'm just being unjustifiably pessimistic.  Many influential feminist writers, in particular, Ellen Willis, have devoted their lives to dissecting pop culture under a feminist microscope.  

I wish to center this post around Willis, as she seems to slap my idea, of the unworthiness of pop music of critical analysis in terms of its societal relevance, in the face. 

Ellen Willis is known as the first true pop music critic.  Her column in The New Yorker was the first of its kind as she dove deeply into the works Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, etc.  Her writings are the offspring resulting from the marriage of her greatest passions: her infatuation of popular music and her social and political activism, grounded largely in her engagement with feminism.  Willis respected pop culture as a tool for political and social movements; her criticisms were deeply rooted in genuine appreciation for the artists and their work.  Her critiques illuminated the cultural relevance of rock music and were accessible to both general music enthusiasts as well as sophisticated artistic scholars.  Willis catapulted music into the prestigious halls of artistic criticism.

She is quoted as saying, "Popular culture carries the burden of our emotions about race, feminism, sexual morality, youth culture, wealth, competition, exclusion, a physical and social environment that feels out of control."

One of Willis' ideas that I find most interesting is that an artist's persona is their fundamental creation.  Much of her writing focused on who the artist was and how the 'self' is reflected in one's music.   This concept is especially apparent in her critiques of Bob Dylan as she writes, "Dylan is... shaped by personal and political nonconformity, by blues and modern poetry. He has imposed his commitment to individual freedom (and its obverse, isolation) on the hip passivity of pop culture... His songs and public role are guides to survival in the world of the image, the cool, and the high. And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced it to come to terms with him." She captures the introspective nature of Dylan's music; an element often over looked by fans and even other critics.  Of Janis Joplin, Willis says, "Look, this (rock) is a boy’s genre, and here’s this woman who comes in and flaunts her subjectivity and makes her own personality. She’s not simply playing with the band, Connie Francis style… This is a feminist act."  Willis explains Joplin's empowering construction of her 'self'.  On the other hand, while Willis was able to love Patti Smith as a rock-and-roll heroine, she criticized her identity. She claimed Smith’s “androgynous, one-of-the guys image” was problematic. “Its rebelliousness is seductive, but it plays into a kind of misogyny that consents to distinguish a woman who acts like one of the guys (and is also sexy and conspicuously ‘liberated’) from the general run of stupid girls.”  It is analyzes like these that encouraged critical thinking about what our music was saying about the artists who created it and what it meant for us as individuals and as a society.

Okay, enough Ellen Willis praise.  Lucky for all of you, NPR has a way of consistently publishing stories that are strangely relevant to my life, so for a more comprehensive look of Willis' work, see the full article here.  She also wrote extensively on pro-sex feminism and reproductive rights and a whole bunch of other awesome stuff that I don't have to time get into.  Google her.

Anyway, I'm curious if such a concept (the significance of the artist's self) is still alive today?  I mean that was the 60s, what about current pop culture?  Is it worth taking seriously?  Does music have the same cultural relevance as it did then?  If so, what do 'artists' like Rihanna or Lady GaGa say about our society?  What kind of 'self' is reflected in their music?  Can 'S&M' be seen as empowering or strictly objectifying?  Is it all about perception? 

Clearly, I have many questions, and I want to hear your thoughts.

Do we need a Ellen Willis-esque critic today? Someone to delve deeply into pop culture and find deeper meaning (if there is one) in our music.  If so, who's up for the challenge?

Stay funky,

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