The Willis Test Is The New Bechdel Test

Loving pop music means, for a certain type of person, a certain type of compromise, whether you love hip hop or Weezer or both. In the early days of talking about loving music while not giving it a pass for misogyny, the late critic Ellen Willis showed us how it was done.

Over the weekend, I went to (and took part in) a conference dedicated to Willis' work as a music critic, feminist, and thinker, writing in The New Yorker and the Village Voice and more. (For more, start with this new book). That's when one participant, Molly Templeton, took a line the writer Rob Sheffield and others kept praising, and called it the Willis Test.

This was the passage from the 1971 essay "But Now I'm Gonna Move" that inspired it:

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A crude but often revealing method of assessing male bias in lyrics is to take a song written by a man about a woman and reverse the sexes. By this test, a diatribe like [the Rolling Stones'] "Under My Thumb" is not nearly so sexist in its implications as, for example, Cat Stevens' gentle, sympathetic "Wild World"; Jagger's fantasy of sweet revenge could easily be female—in fact, it has a female counterpart, Nancy Sinatra's "Boots" — but it's hard to imagine a woman sadly warning her ex-lover that he's too innocent for the big bad world out there.*

You could point to many concrete changes for women since 1971, including the volume and nature of women making music, but not so many that this isn't a totally relevant metric for arguing about pop music. Let's test it out with one recent pop song — Justin Bieber's One Less Lonely Girl. Some highlights:

How many I told you's and start overs
And shoulders have you cried on before
How many promises be honest girl
How many tears you let hit the floor
How many bags you packed
Just to take ‘em back tell me that
How many either or's but no more
If you let me inside of your world
There'll be the one less lonely girl

Ohh Oh Oh
Saw so many pretty faces before I saw you you
Now all I see is you
I'm coming for you (I'm coming for you)
Noo No
Don't need these other pretty faces like I need you
And when you're mine in the world
There's gonna be one less lonely girl
(I'm coming for you) One less lonely girl
(I'm coming for you) One less lonely girl
(I'm coming for you)One less lonely girl
There's gonna be one less lonely girl (I'm coming for you)
I'm gonna put you first (I'm coming for you)
I'll show you what you're worth (That's what I'm gonna do)
If you let me inside your world
There's gonna be one less lonely girl

Sorry, Biebs — having trouble imagining even the most bravado-filled female crooner being so magnanimously condescending to the object of her affection.

What if we tried it with a song sung by a woman? How about say, Rihanna's "Only Girl"? An excerpt:

Want you to make me feel like I'm the only girl in the world
Like I'm the only one that you'll ever love
Like I'm the only one who knows your heart
Only girl in the world...
Like I'm the only one that's in command
Cuz I'm the only one who understands how to make you feel like a man
Want you to make me feel like I'm the only girl in the world
Like I'm the only one that you'll ever love
Like I'm the only one who knows your heart
Only one...

Want you to take me like a thief in the night
Hold me like a pillow, make me feel right
Baby I'll tell you all my secrets that I'm keepin', you can come inside
And when you enter, you ain't leavin', be my prisoner for the night

Actually, that one is kind of creepy under the circumstances.

* It would be a disservice to the essay if you stopped there, and you shouldn't — you should read on about when rock was taken over by "elite dropouts" it became more insidiously and smugly sexist — but let's leave it at that for these purposes. And after you read Willis on music, you should also check out her essays on feminism and sex in (sadly out-of-print) Beginning To See The Light and No More Nice Girls that had me staring at the 1970s datelines in shock, so relevant are they still.

Out Of The Vinyl Deeps