Wednesday, May 30, 2018

In Defense of the Pitchforks

This article, that has been shared a bit in my circles, does a fine enough job of assembling a story around a bunch of people not returning phone calls, but I'm not sure it really goes anywhere into actually interrogating the circumstances of the 'naughts, which to me is still the most unexamined put impactful decade, culturally and politically.  

A minor example would be the mention of The Flaming Lips' Zaireeka as a Pitchfork 0.0, without going on to mention how the review was written when the site was in its infancy (1997) and more resembled a 'zine than a major cultural product.  Its reviews at this time still featured hilariously puerile and amateur text, sloppy editing ripe with spelling and grammatical mistakes, and had a pretty paltry following.  By the end of the next decade, Pitchfork's own Editor-in-Chief Mark Richardson would go on to write an entire book about
the album.  The review itself had next to no impact and over the course of their next two albums, the Flaming Lips became more popular than they'd ever been.  In fact, their very next album, The Soft Bulletin, recieved a rare 10.0 from Pitchfork, one of its many accolades.

By the turn of the millennium, things had changed significantly and not just in Pitchfork's cultural cache, which had escalated significantly in the post-Strokes indie rock about-face music had taken.  Though the site always covered other music, it gained credibility as the go-to reference guide for the ever-shifting white indie music zeitgeist. Groups like Louis XIV and Jet were toxic to Pitchfork's brand because they had risen to mainstream acceptance on the backs of underground leg work put in by Pitchfork's tastemaking stalwarts like those fluctuating around the DFA. Pitchfork, which barely even covers indie rock anymore, has taken a long time to overcome the stereotype of the "pitchfork album", but it was definitely a thing at the time, the product a seemingly neverending quest for the newest thing, made possible by the insurgence of peer-to-peer sharing networks.

But if any careers were actually killed in the naughts, it's those P2Ps that shoved the knife in.  People didn't really stop buying Travis Morrison's music as much as they just stopped buying music in general. iTunes opened its digital doors in 2003, but it would take years and a series of objectively draconian lawsuits against illegal downloading before it supplanted the P2P networks and their offshoots in music blogs, Pirate Bay, et al.  While one could argue that a 
negative review in Pitchfork could have some bearing, particularly on smaller artists, a horrendous review would at least generate interest.  I personally checked out at least a few albums because of their rancid reviews.  What's probably more true- and likely still is- is the opposite- a glowing review would be enough to generate enough sales to offset the losses from illegal downloads, and moreover produce ticket sales, the engine that really kept the 
industry afloat during this era. While this seems demonstrably true, negative reviews significantly impacting album sales seems harder to prove.*

It should also be noted that musical trends are fickle and were never moreso than in the period when Pitchfork supposedly made or broke careers. This was the period of peak hipster, when new cultural products could get lauded and dumped literally within weeks or months of release.  As social media streams began to emerge within the second half of the decade, backlashes would often start before an album even dropped.  So, while it's possible Black Kids would have had a major hit for their debut album, they were also a band ripe for 
the dustbin.  Their debut EP, which was self-released as a free download, contained a massive infectious single that got licensed out prolifically, but nothing else they put out could match it.  It seemed like a classic one hit wonder in the making, and with the deluge of incoming music coming down the RAR pipeline, who had time to follow up with one hit wonders?

This is not to say that Pitchfork's review of the Black Kids album wasn't obnoxious or reckless, because it absolutely was, but many of artists mentioned in the article were on the decline. Liz Phair's LP was intended as a stunt, and to the underground that had nurtured her, seemed to sell out all they treasured about her.   Jet were amediocre band whose 15 minutes had come and gone and were somehow still gobbling up column inches in other publications.  And Travis Morrison had dissolved his more established band (The Dismemberment Plan) to start a solo career, a move that is rarely successful, particularly for someone as niche as him. 

Of all the artforms, music is unequivocally the most personal, because it really is about a kind of mystical connection to certain sounds.  Most critics are sensitive to this, which is one of the reasons that music page on Metacritic is a sea of green (indicating a cumulative score of 61 or above), whereas the film page is a jumble of red (40 and under), yellow (41 to 60), and green ratings.  Whereas one can walk out of a film and judge its narrative a success or failure based on one screening, music requires its audience to really engage with it. Understanding an album requires many consecutive listens and an ear finely tuned to accepting its inputs and recognizing the terms of the artist who produced it.  

Yet, some music is indeed bad, aesthetically and culturally.  It can be bad to us and bad for us. This needs to be communicated clearly and effectively, a task the rating system is not equipped to handle on its own but can contribute to a broader conversation about the things we should value or strive for in our art.  The limits to the kind of relativism in which everyone's opinion, however underdeveloped, is equally valued leads to a world in which the toxic takes of the alt-right (and their Fantano kin) can weasel their way into the mainstream.Obviously the stakes are much lower in the musical realm than in the political sphere.  In fact, if there's anything antiquated in the wild pans Pitchfork and their lot used to dole out, it's the idea that music could be so important that it needed to elicit such extreme responses. As the cultural importance of music itself has shrunk and the floodgates of accessibility opened, music's most aggressive defenders seem like holdovers from a bygone era, indistinguishable from any other troll- be it MCU, Star Wars, or MAGA- festering within their own narrow framework of what music is allowed to be. 

If anything has killed this kind of thinking, it's actually smart, perceptive music writing, which expanded the parameters of the conversations we're allowed to have about music, the way it connected to the world outside of it, or built utopian worlds of possibility within it.  Pitchfork deserves some degree of credit in this too.  

Though their platform upended print media journalism by centralizing the review and thus prioritizing the competitive angle of fandom, their writers throughout the naughts and into this decade grew more thoughtful and in touch with the ideas percolating around music. It 
became less critical in terms of airing grievances and more in line with the type of critical thinking a platform as large as theirs demands.  This is not to say that they don't still goof or that every single article they churn out is gold, but at a time when the clickbait model has created a cottage industry out of instant dunks that make pop culture consumption into a kind of woke olympics more about self-aggrandizing and virtue signalling than recognizing aesthetic accomplishment, a review by Sasha Geffen of Phil Sherburne contains the breathing room and the considerate scrutiny that their chosen subject matter deserves. 

There were plenty of casualties of the music industry from the aughts, but it's important to identify the guilty parties appropriately.  While Pitchfork did play an outsized role in establishing the zeitgeist for the era, its singularity as an influence did not arise from a vacuum.  It took place in the middle of an imploding music market, and a severely disrupted method of consumption that favored novelty over fandom.  

*Now if we're talking the magazine era, here's a place where a critic really could kill a band- since most people couldn't hear the LP before it was written up.  Many an artists entered the dustbins because their one source of exposure was tarnished by a cranky scribe.

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