n+1 Publishes an Interesting Article About Pitchfork | Collapse Board Publishes a Response
By Scott Creney
If you’re at all interested in the current state of music criticism — or indie rock for that matter — and how the two have evolved, then you need to check out this article from n+1, one of the better literary/culture magazines around, while it’s still online.
It’s a pretty thorough analysis/history of Pitchfork, how it transformed from an irreverent music review site into the overly-serious, conservative, revisionist, revenue-driven place it is today. He gives the website a 5.4.
The article isn’t perfect. It makes no mention of Pitchfork’s annual festival, and how it (I’m assuming) brings shitloads of cash into Pitchfork’s bank account and entwines their financial fate with those of the bands they cover — in my high school journalism class what they would have called a “conflict of interest”. It also postulates that Sebadoh’s use of lo-fi recording techniques was a direct reaction to the success of Nirvana. There’s a case to be made about the lack of ambition — both creative and commercially — among indie rockers in the wake of alt-rock mania and Cobain’s subsequent suicide, but it’s hard to make that case when one remembers that Sebadoh released their third album the same week as Nevermind.
But anyone who can write a series of sentences as illuminating as this:
In Sufjan Stevens, indie adopted precious, pastoral nationalism at the Bush Administration’s exact midpoint. In M.I.A., indie rock celebrated a musician whose greatest accomplishment has been to turn the world’s various catastrophes into remixed pop songs. This is a kind of music, in other words, that’s very good at avoiding uncomfortable conversations. Pitchfork has imitated, inspired, and encouraged indie rock in this respect. It has incorporated a perfect awareness of cultural capital into its basic architecture. A Pitchfork review may ignore history, aesthetics, or the basic technical aspects of tonal music, but it will almost never fail to include a detailed taxonomy of the current hype cycle and media environment. This is a small, petty way of thinking about a large art, and as indie bands have both absorbed and refined the culture’s obsession with who is over- and underhyped, their musical ambitions have been winnowed down to almost nothing at all.
or a sentence as hilarious damning as this:
While Pitchfork may be invaluable as an archive, it is worse than useless as a forum for insight and argument.
is worth checking out.
Here at Collapse Board, criticizing Pitchfork brings up all kinds of issues concerning sour grapes, jealousy and that type of thing. But it’s hard not to feel disappointed when you see a place that once ran a Tool review written in the voice of one of the band’s teenage fans, “I feel this record was made just for me by super-smart aliens or something”, turn into something so dull and pedantic. A few of us at CB have considered spending a day just making fun of Pitchfork’s content for that day — rewriting the album reviews, interviews, etc. (Sleevie Nicks was even going to revive the old Melody Maker character Mr. Abusing and take a shot at their news page) [We can track down the original Mr. Abusing, if you want — Ed] — but most of it was just too boring to make fun of. It’d be like doing a sitcom set in an insurance agency populated solely by corpses, a great idea at first, but pretty tedious after the first 10 minutes or so.
I recognize that money makes people more conservative, afraid to take risks and end up losing everything. And it’s easy to take shots at Pitchfork from a site where there is nothing at stake. It’s interesting to note that, after one year, Collapse Board gets the same number of readers on an average day that Pitchfork was getting after six. That’s probably due in part to our celebrity editor, but we’d like to think it’s because people like to be entertained by the writing, and want to participate in an interesting conversation about music. Sadly, Pitchfork does a lot of things these days, but entertaining their readers isn’t one of them. And due to their stance against comments, there isn’t much of a conversation to be had either.
Apparently, none of that is an accident. The article asserts that the site deliberately keeps its writers as blank as possible, not allowing any name to become bigger than the overall brand, like they’re goddamned Microsoft code writers or something, and not actual creative beings. Anyway, if you’ve made it through this article, then you’re exactly the kind of person who will enjoy the other one. Go read it. It’s well worth your time.
As for me, I have my own personal history with Pitchfork.
Back in the summer of 2002 I got an e-mail from P4K-founder Ryan Schreiber asking me to write for them. Someone from musictoday.com had forwarded him a live review I wrote about Sonic Youth, after the editor refused to run it, saying maybe you guys can do something with this guy because we sure can’t. Schreiber told me he liked my style, and I should apply to be a writer. It didn’t pay anything (this has since changed), but I’d get to keep all the CDs they sent me — 10 a week, four of which I had to review, and two of which they’d print — and I could resell them if I wanted.
The application process went something like this: I was to write a review of an album that Pitchfork hadn’t reviewed yet, assigning a score and everything, and this would be my first published review on the site (it was emphasized that this wouldn’t necessarily be the score assigned to the article if the review ran). Additionally, I needed to provide a list my top 10 albums and singles for each decade, starting with the 60s.
I started a review about the Beat Happening boxset Crashing Through that had just come out. After more deliberation than is probably healthy (didn’t want to be too enthusiastic, didn’t want to be too jaded), I think I gave it a 9.2. I effortlessly knocked out a few paragraphs, but then stopped to think about what I was doing.
Four reviews a week. It was my senior year of college, I was four months away from leaving Boston and moving to Prescott, Arizona to start working on my first novel. Did I really want to put that much time into writing music reviews. And having just finished that Lester Bangs biography, and A Whore Just Like the Rest, did I really want to be a music critic? It seemed like a pretty shitty life to me. Plus, I was going to be living in a small northern Arizona town without a record store and no easy access to the internet. Pitchfork was already starting to become more about the ‘context’, the ‘buzz’, about records more than the actual record itself. How I was going to know what people were saying about the album I was reviewing. I was going to be out of the loop, writing four record reviews a week about albums that were most likely going to bore the shit out of me. Then I thought about the run-ins I’d had with the editor at Music Today.
I scrapped the Beat Happening review. I decided I would do the application thing, but I’d do it so that if I did get hired, I’d know that I had the freedom to write however I wanted. The first thing I did was fill out my top 10 lists with the stupidest albums, in a Pitchfork sense, I could think of — Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits, Santana’s Abraxas, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits Vol. 2. I also threw in a few of the cooler, more obscure records I (as a senior in college) could think of like The Dream Syndicate’s The Days Of Wine And Roses, and The Waitresses’ Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful.
Funny enough, that list would probably get me hired today.
I had just picked up the soundtrack from the movie Y Tu Mama Tambien. That seemed like something Pitchfork wouldn’t be interested in, so I decided to review that. I took it kind of seriously, touching on the Nortec collective, the time I spent living in Mexico, that kind of thing. But I wrote it as irreverently as possible, deliberately tossing in lines from some of my poems, shitting all over the importance of lyrics (“for every David Berman there’s 10,000 Bono’s”). I think I said the album was the greatest thing released all year, and then I gave it a 3.2. I’ll tell you — it was a hell of a lot more fun than the Beat Happening review was going to be.
I never heard from Pitchfork again. You know how people say, “It was a reward just to be nominated”. I actually felt that way. And I still do. It was enough just to say that Pitchfork asked me to write for them. And as the site has continued to grow, expanding financially even as it contracts artistically, I’ve only ever felt relief that I didn’t go charging after it. Thank God they didn’t pay their writers back then.
Pitchfork exists in the place where Rolling Stone existed back in the late 70s, completing its metamorphosis from iconoclast to institution. For all we know, in 20 years Ryan Schreiber will open the Indie Rock Hall of Fame (first inductees – Pavement, Superchunk, and Weezer) [Five years, more like – Ed]. Anyone out there who thinks Pitchfork sucks has an obligation to grab their keyboard and start writing. Be creative. Be funny. Make people think. If Pitchfork isn’t going to do it for you, then do it for yourself. Find the bands that people aren’t finding and shower them with praise. Find the bands that people put on a pedestal and give them a little kick.
That’s what Ryan Schreiber did. And now he’s a fucking millionaire. What the matter? Don’t you want to be rich?