In (hesitant) defense of Pitchfork

21 Jun

Greetings, those of you who still drop in on this blog casually–I know some of you exist. Changes are on their way very soon, but in the meantime accept this blog entry as a representation of where Nothing Delivered may be headed in the coming weeks.

I want to talk about Pitchfork.

(A quick primer on Pitchfork for those so inclined: it’s a popular music website that focuses mainly on criticism. Some hate it, some love it, others [such as myself] have a more complicated relationship with it–to learn why, read on.)

On my Facebook wall today, I observed that a fellow user had posted a link to Pitchfork’s review of the new (excellent) Bon Iver album accompanied by the following text:

‎9.5 on Pitchfork. That’s good, right? That means it’s 1.4 better than For Emma, according to their arbitrary numbering system!

Admittedly, I grimaced a little at this, as I often do when I sense a budding “Pitchfork sucks!” gripe session. But on the other hand, it’s not an illegitimate gripe. Pitchfork made its own bed with its obnoxious (and yes, often arbitrary) decimal-incorporating numerical rating system, and that number always seems to come with a healthy dose of smug self-satisfaction. It’s almost taunting you with the air of finality it somehow brings: “Oh, you love the new Midlake album, do you? Well, it’s only a 3.6.” (Still hurting from that one.)

Still, I knew what was coming, and the link comments proved me correct:

I don’t blame Pitchfork as much as the mindless hipsters who’ve established Pitchfork as the arbiterof [sic] taste in the indie rock world.

…9.5- that’s gotta be the best-reviewed album ever on Pitchfork!

[A link to a Wikipedia article listing every album that has received a 10.0 rating from Pitchfork]

And so on. These are the exact same things people have been saying about Pitchfork for years. And they’re annoying.

The first comment is a common complaint that’s lodged at Pitchfork’s popularity–it’s all the hipsters’ fault. Is it really, though? That doesn’t sound right to me. The hipsters may have embraced Pitchfork at some point in the past (and, sure, they still flock to its annual summer festival), but I can’t imagine they’re the site’s most devoted audience. If anything, it seems they’re responsible for much of the growing backlash against the site. Hipster Runoff, an exasperating website that’s popular with hipsters, often ridicules Pitchfork and those who read it by treating its reviews with mock reverence (I guess–everything on the site is steeped deeply in irony).

From what I can tell, the “mindless hipsters” who originally “established Pitchfork as the arbiter of taste” did so because there wasn’t much else like it at the time. It was a website that dealt extensively with reviewing indie music. Everyone knows attempting to sort through indie music and determining what’s worth your time is not easy. Pitchfork provided (still provides) its readers with a nudge in the right direction. Even if the reviews didn’t necessarily constitute “great music writing”, they were helping start a large-scale conversation about indie music and where it belongs in the pantheon of the “rock canon”–not to mention they were often hilarious.

No, those hipsters can’t be faulted for reading Pitchfork. And as far as I can tell, the hipsters who visit the site today do the exact same thing so many others  who despise Pitchfork do–they completely ignore the reviews and focus on the numbers.

Yes, the rating system is annoying, but when it’s all people focus on (as exemplified by the other comments posted above), they’re missing the fact that the number is meant to reflect the opinions given in the reviews themselves. While people bickered today over whether Bon Iver was really deserving of its 9.5, they missed some excellent music writing from Mark Richardson, Pitchfork’s current editor-in-chief. Take this excerpt concerning Justin Vernon’s distinctive voice for an example:

… [Justin Vernon’s voice is] an instrument that feels warm and personal and close regardless of setting… He simultaneously evokes the grain and expression of soul music along with the mythological echoes of folk. But more importantly, no one else sounds like him. The Beach Boys have been the primary touchstone for layered vocals in indie music for years, but Vernon’s timbre comes from somewhere else entirely… His voice is earthy and wounded and, despite his astonishing upper register, not something you would describe as “angelic.”

I came across someone recently who disparagingly compared Vernon’s voice to Tiny Tim‘s grating falsetto, and though I knew it was a silly thing to say, I couldn’t quite think of how to counter it. The above excerpt actually does so beautifully. Pitchfork detractors would call it overwrought, but I call it strikingly accurate. Vernon’s voice is a treasure.

Look, I’m not saying at all that the site and its writers are perfect. I’m aware that “overwrought” is actually a perfect adjective to describe many of their reviews. I’m aware that their writers often are entirely unfair to the artists. I’ve taken issue with a lot of their writing (a great deal of it written by Richardson himself)–I recently was annoyed by the fact that Stephen M. Deusner apparently listened to the new Rosebuds album just once before posting his review.

But each review should be judged by its own merits and not in the context of the site as a whole. It’s easy to see Pitchfork as a united front on all matters, but it’s made up of individual writers with individual tastes and individual writing styles. It’s the reason why an album can get a middling review and still end up at #82 on the Best of the Decade list. Some of their writers are consistently brilliant (I’m looking at you, Joe Tangari), and some are infuriating (Deusner).

In other words, they review music. It’s supposed to be polarizing.

Not to mention their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s lists are downright essential.

TL;DR – Pitchfork can definitely be frustrating, but many of the complaints lodged against it are unfair. It’s hard to see how any indie music-lover could ignore it.

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