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Synopsis

The 1960s, Ellen Willis said, were a time when magazines saw that “there was this thing called youth culture, and they were interested in getting authentic young people to write about it.” Willis was one of these. Right out of the box, her rock criticism was as unsentimental as it was passionate, with the publication of a 1967 essay in Commentary about Bob Dylan that was personal journalism at its best, in addition to being analytically astute. Her readership and influence was felt immediately, and the New Yorker hired her as its first rock critic, where, between the years of 1968 and 1975, she published the bulk of her writing about music. Looking carefully at these articles and a few published in the Village Voice that contemplated David Bowie and punk, this paper considers: What was the reach of Willis’ criticism? What risks did it take? When did she fall short of expectations — including her own? How does Willis’ contribution to journalism about rock ‘n roll hold up today?

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