Geeks do not have pedigrees / Or perfect punk-rock resumés—Hole, "She Walks On Me"
In the last decade or so, punk has appeared to join its contemporary hip-hop in the realm of scholarly publishing, and as a result there has been no small amount of fretting over the academicization of this once-dangerous subculture. As one of the species of graying punks thinking about this phenomenon, I was recently part of a cross-disciplinary conversation on the subject published by Zack Furness in the anthology Punkademics. While in various ways, all the contributors address how our experience of punk shaped our research, or vice versa, Furness also mentions in his introduction something that seemed to have blown past most of us:
In general, staking one's claim on the grounds that punk is inherently "anti-academic" isn't to state an uncontested fact; it is a rhetorical move that, in part, allows punks to avoid dealing with thorny questions or critiques raised by outsiders (some of whom, it is true, may be utterly clueless), just as it simultaneously reinforces academics' tendencies to chalk up hostile critiques of their work (some lodged by people who may also be utterly clueless) to anti-intellectualism as opposed to taking them seriously. . . . [But] the perpetual debate over whether it's acceptable to "intellectualize" (the offense of academics) punk is a moot point: professors, music journalists and punks themselves have been doing it for well over thirty years.1 [End Page 413]
A recently published but wildly diverse range of scholarly writing on the punk era seems to group itself quite naturally into proof of this fact. While Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, and David A. Ensminger have all had different, largely unorthodox paths to and relationships with the academy, they have all done time there. And, taken together, these books offer a sense of not just the long history but the varied paths toward the "intellectualization" of punk since the 1970s.
Out of the Vinyl Deeps, an anthology of Willis's "greatest hits" of writing on popular music edited by her daughter, the writer Nona Willis Aronowitz, is nothing short of a revelation. Those familiar with her work likely know of Willis by way of her four decades of "countercultural essays" (to borrow from the subtitle of her 1992 anthology No More Nice Girls) published everywhere from the Nation to Rolling Stone; her reputation as an educator (as a professor and founder of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University's Journalism Institute); or even her infamy as cofounder, with Shulamith Firestone, of the radical feminist group Redstockings. But, save the eight essays on music that Willis included in her best-known anthology Beginning to See the Light (named after a Velvet Underground song title), few know of her origins in music criticism—indeed, of her distinction as the New Yorker's first pop music critic. As Sasha Frere-Jones writes in his introduction, Willis herself seemed a little perplexed by his interest in this body of work when he sought her out after taking the gig at that tony magazine himself in 2004: "It was clear that her experience as a pop critic was a distant episode, and her interest in that body of work was minor at best" (xi). To this, Willis Aronowitz's introduction adds Willis's shoulder-shrugging response to her daughter's teenaged "outrage" over discovering her mother had written the liner notes to a 1990s Janis Joplin boxed set (with which Willis Aronowitz had thought she would be surprising her mom as a birthday present), and thus revealing a very cool, secret life mom had...