Sunday, May 29, 2011

I Can Talk to Strangers If I Want To, 'Cause I'm a Stranger Too

(The title comes from Randy Newman's "Have You Seen My Baby?", a song I'd almost forgotten until Ellen Willis mentioned it in her review of Newman's Twelve Songs.)

Some more quotable bits from Out of the Vinyl Deeps.

From a review of Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks (102):
His most nearly perfect triumph is "Donovan's Colours," an exquisite three-and-a-half-minute instrumental track that sounds like a nice, simple piano piece played by someone with six hands.
I love that sentence, but I'm not sure it accurately describes the track; listen for yourself. Virgil Thompson reportedly said that music criticism should be done by simply describing the music, and the description will be the criticism. I'm beginning to think, as I reread Willis's criticism, that she was not a very good music critic in Thompson's sense, though she was very good on culture and politics.

For example, her realization about Bette Midler's concert at the Palace, 1973 (94):
The real test of Bette's genius was whether she could make me believe in palm trees and cricket noises, feather-duster fans, the Harlettes in their chorus-girl outfits, and -- oh, God, as Bette would say -- Hawaiian dancing girls. Although I thought I was prepared, the overblown production jolted me into exactly the reaction it was calculated to elicit: What is this? Then I remembered that Bette Midler grew up in Honolulu, and I wondered -- as I was sure I was meant to -- at how the schlockiest elements of our popular culture always relate in some way to some person's real life.
On Simon and Garfunkel and "rock poetry" (103):
Bob Dylan, so we kept hearing, had banished the infamous Tin Pan Alley cliche. Accordingly, Paul Simon ... became a "rock poet," dealing with such noncliche subjects as the soullessness of commercial society and man's inability to communicate.
On the generation gap (it comes so soon) between the Sixties and the Seventies (111f):
When Grand Funk [Railroad] was becoming the most popular son-of-white-blues band in the world, I listened some more, on the usually reliable theory that a band beloved of teenagers must be doing something right. The music still didn't do much for me; I caught myself thinking of it as abunchanoise, and I knew what that meant -- creeping senility. Hadn't my parents reacted the same way to Little Richard? (Little Richard was the supreme test: my mother liked Elvis, but she couldn't stand Little Richard.)
Finally, something written not by Willis but about her, by her former student Evie Nagy and her longtime fan Daphne Carr in the book's Afterword. In 1995 Willis co-founded the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.
CRC graduate Priya Jain remembers a shocking meeting of Ellen's Sex and American Politics class where she challenged liberals who argued that it was absurd to think gay marriage could lead to legal plural marriage or bestiality -- her suggestion, to everyone's extremely awkward horror, was that legally, perhaps it could. "What Ellen did was say those things with the full confidence that your liberal beliefs could withstand some of the more taboo arguments," says Jain. "It's not good enough to say there are areas where you're not supposed to make an argument -- all she really wanted you to do was articulate it, and once you articulate it, you realize how shaky it is, and from there you figure out how and where to draw the lines. And it doesn't mean you can't continue thinking that gay marriage, for example, is a good thing." For Ellen, as Lauren Sandler says, "there was no party line." Her consistency was in thought, not personal ideology, and it was one of the reasons she was so effective at putting herself in her work without indulgence, and teaching others to do the same [230-1].
It's hard to say whether I learned not to be afraid of following arguments to their conclusion from Willis -- there are other writers and thinkers who led in the same direction -- but she was surely an important influence on me. I tend to approach the kind of slippery-slope argument mentioned here from the other side, pointing out that plural marriage is a traditional Biblical value, so why don't conservatives support it? (Willis once wrote a satirical piece, "Toward a National Man Policy," reprinted in Beginning to See the Light, that played with the same idea.) But like her, I reject the common liberal response to many conservative arguments, Oh how can you say such awful things? because I believe that if those arguments are that absurd, they should be dissected, pitilessly. If rereading Willis these past two days has been somewhat less exciting than I expected, it's probably because so many of her radical ideas have become my common sense. Didn't I already know that? If I know it now, it's because I encountered it so compellingly in Ellen Willis's writing.