Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ellen Willis’ choice of the title Beginning to See the Light to name a selected collection of her journalism from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s has a double significance. First, the title is lifted from a rock song by one of her favorite groups, the Velvet Underground, thus signaling that her origins as a writer were in music criticism and that she has an abiding concern with the lessons she learned in that field. Second, there is the literal meaning of the title, which refers to the process of enlightenment that the writer undergoes as she brings her sensibility to bear on new subjects outside the cultural field, particularly on feminist and Jewish issues. Willis both learns from these issues and, laterally, uses them to tease out undeveloped perceptions that she had about popular culture. The book’s thematic shift from music to social concerns—these make up the two major parts of the book—parallel a meditation on history that juxtaposes the 1960’s and the 1970’s, analyzing how the latter demolished many of the assumptions of the former in a way that was tragic and yet enabling, in that it allowed for a reconstruction of some of the projects of the 1960’s on firmer footing.

The book has three parts. The first and second, as noted, focus on cultural and social concerns. The first contains such pieces as a review of rock icon Elvis Presley’s comeback concert and of various music festivals, assessment of the careers of rock...

(The entire section is 601 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Most of the essays in Beginning to See the Light originally appeared in such magazines and newspapers as Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and The New Yorker. It was at this stage that the pieces had their greatest impact in inflecting and contributing to the progressive understanding of cultural and feminist issues.

Willis was one of the few females among a new breed of rock-and-roll critics who followed the lead indicated by Tom Wolfe in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965). Wolfe wrote of such things as car customizing and Las Vegas casino architecture as representing a distinct American lower-class and lower-middle-class aesthetic that was as worthy of study as high art for its revelation of social meanings. In the 1960’s, these music critics branched out from the chores of reviewing records and concerts to link the sounds that they discussed to the ongoing political ferment and other emergent features of American society. For example, in Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train (1975), a study of the African American pop group Sly and the Family Stone is contextualized in terms of the Black Power movement. In Willis’ cultural criticism, music was examined from the perspectives of feminism and socialism.

Willis’ social essays can be seen as attempts to mediate between and give a critique of different positions in American feminism. It should be recognized that, as the...

(The entire section is 465 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Aronowitz, Stanley. Roll Over Beethoven: The Return of Cultural Strife. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1993. Aronowitz’s novel and cogently argued thesis is that Willis and other rock critics of the 1960’s were inventing a cultural studies approach similar to the one that had developed in Great Britain since World War II. He uses Willis as a prime example of these writers’ abilities to find meaningful aesthetic and social values in pop culture.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975. Brownmiller argues that pornography stereotypes women either as virgins who have to be violently assaulted by males or as nymphomaniacs. The danger of these portrayals is not merely that they give men a distorted view but that, the author believes, these views often motivate men to commit abuses against women.

Lederer, Laura, ed. Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. New York: William Morrow, 1980. This book is a collection of articles by such writers as Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem, and Alice Walker on the price that women pay for the United States’ toleration of pornography. The book grows out of a movement of women in various cities who organized to demonstrate against the presence of “adult” theaters and bookstores.

Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music. 1975. Rev. ed. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982. Marcus went the farthest in examining the way in which rock and roll can be understood as embodying the primal, underlying traits of its time. He uses Elvis Presley as an exemplar of how a rock star can express a period.

Wolfe, Tom. The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965. Wolfe led the way in exploring the values of the lower level of American culture. He points to the importance of style in mass cultural production, a theme taken up by Willis and other music writers.