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DR

David R. Shumway

David R. Shumway is Professor of English, and Literary and Cultural Studies, and the founding Director of the Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen (2014).  He has published numerous articles on popular music. Some of his other books include Michel Foucault (1989), Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis (2003), and John Sayles (2012).

“Ellen Willis: (American) Cultural Studies Avant la Lettre”
 Ellen Willis has of late begun to receive her due as a rock critic. A collection of her music writing, edited by her daughter, has been published, and she is included in Dettmar and Letham's Library of America collection of rock writing. While the cognoscenti have long recognized her importance, she was not generally ranked with her male peers—Marcus, Christgau, Marsh, Bangs, etc. Rereading her today, one recognizes that she was doing something different than they were. Their self-appointed mission was the aesthetic justification and celebration of rock; hers was to understand its place and significance. They understood the politics of rock largely in generational terms, and they celebrated its status as popular culture. She approached rock as a Marxist and a feminist, which gave her a much stronger awareness of the contradictions rock embodied.  Her astonishing essay on Dylan first appeared in Commentary in 1967, 8 years before Marcus would publish Mystery Train. Where Marcus took an American Studies approach, Willis, I would argue, was already doing cultural studies. The Dylan essay turns on her observation that he was "obsessed with escaping identity." Where other commentators on Dylan had seen him either as a fraud or as having a clear identity as the voice of youthful protest (despite his explicit public rejection of it), Willis reads him as embodying a cultural contradiction. This style of reading comes out of an intellectual life not bounded by rock journalism. To understand her rock writing, one needs to read it along side the essays she published on such diverse subjects as Herbert Marcuse, pornography, the family, and feminism, wherein her theoretical commitments are more clearly on display.