Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ellen Willis, 1941-2006

In rock journalism, Ellen Willis, who died of cancer on November 9th at sixty-four, is honored as the godmother: first female rock critic, New Yorker, 1968-1975. But not only does this ignore such pioneers as the New York Daily News' Lillian Roxon and The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Jane Scott, it minimizes Willis' achievement. With New Yorker pieces as idea-crammed as Richard Meltzer's in Crawdaddy! and ten times as lucid, Willis had a major impact on rock's critical worldview. She was equally seminal as a feminist, theorizing in favor of both abortion rights and pornography, and addressed many other issues from her uniquely libertarian and pop-friendly socialist perspective. At Rolling Stone in the 1970s, she wrote about culture and politics in her column, "Alternating Currents," and contributed exhaustively reported features on date rape and Orthodox Judaism, as well as the Janis Joplin entry in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. Willis was for many years an editor and columnist at The Village Voice. In 1995, she founded the nation's first graduate-level arts-journalism program, at NYU, where she was beloved, one student writes, "for her wit and ideas and social reticence (which made her all the more intriguing and formidable)."

Rolling Stone, Dec. 14, 2006