Beginning to See the Light Critical Essays

Ellen Willis


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Willis’ Beginning to See the Light can be read as an extended gloss on the statement that 1960’s rock and roll is not about “merely” having a good time. It is indeed about having a good time, but having a good time can suggest more than hedonistic connotations. It can lead into questions about the emergence of an affluent society, about the relations between men and women, and between art and commercialism, and about the possibility of living with freedom in an overcoerced society. These themes are pursued in the first section in relation to music and popular culture directly and, in the second, through meditations upon social issues. In the end, some conclusions wrested from these thoughts are shown to be helpful in facing up to personal crises.

The youth culture of which rock ’n’ roll is a prime component is the product of an unprecedentedly rich society, Willis argues. The United States after World War II stood at the pinnacle of global power and was able to offer its middle and lower classes historic levels of consumption. As she writes in the essay “Janis Joplin,” “Young Americans were in a sense the stars of the world, drawing on an overblown prosperity that could afford to indulge all manner of rebellious and experimental behavior.”

It can be questioned, however, whether the playfulness of these lifestyles was not more a sign of indulgence than of progressiveness. Many on the Left argued that both consumerism and rebellious rock were inherently reactionary supporters of the system. After all, rebellion, properly marketed, sells commodities. Against this stand, Willis urges a more dialectic view. In the essay “Tom Wolfe’s Failed Optimism,” she argues that the best products of pop culture both fit within the straitjacketing constraints of commercialism and go past these restraints by communicating authentic feelings and aspirations for a society...

(The entire section is 779 words.)