Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Pitchfork batting averages

This guy has taken the time to compile averages of Pitchfork reviewers' ratings. He admits himself that it's statistically flawed, since he takes the first 40 results in our search engine for writers who have a ton of reviews (that would include me), but I was still fascinated to see it. It would be cool if we did a statistically accurate, in-house breakdown like this, to see which writers are harshest, find out who seems to prefer indie rock to hip-hop, &c. Could actually be very useful. I'm pleased to see I'm neither the harshest nor the nicest, falling right around the middle of the scale. There are other things to consider - Plagenhoef, for instance, has such a high average because as an editor, he writes fewer reviews, and when he does, it's generally something he likes and wants to bring attention to. Still, great project.

This comes on the heels of yet another slanted, sloppy NYT article about the site. I understand that plenty of people have axes to grind against Pitchfork, what's shocking is how often this grinding takes place in respected journalistic organs. I'm not looking for a puff piece, but I would like to see an article that engages with the site on a realistic, modern level, instead of making snide comments that haven't been valid vis-a-vis Pitchfork for at least a couple years. This article, at least, has some kind things to say about our writing. But check out this gem:

But in a downloaded, mashed-up, genre-crossing musical age, Pitchfork may fall outside the mainstream. Craig Marks is the editor in chief of Blender, which covers a lot of musical real estate, not just indie rock but also rap, industrial and pop.

"With us, it's about the songs," he said. "Pitchfork is like this utopian hippie outpost, where people are pure and bohemian and have great values. Their implicit message is that there is a huge corrupt recording industry and they have decided to band together and fight the good fight."

Right, Pitchfork only covers indie music and hates the mainstream - maybe three to five years ago. This is just plain lazy. Even a cursory read of our content over the last couple years will reveal a bevy of mainstream rap and pop reviews, as well as loads of dance music and electronica. In fact, if there is a Pitchfork bias, I'd venture to say that it's in favor of mainstream music these days, as the site reacts against the righteous indie stance with which it began, and which so many articles frustratingly refuse to acknowledge is a thing of the past, focusing on outdated sterotypes instead. (Not to mention the fact that our stable of writers has expanded broadly in terms of size and tastes, to the point where we have someone on staff who's qualified to review most any genre you can think of.) And really - industrial? Then there's this:

Much discussion on the site is about who has sold out and who has not, about how the Mainstream Media is clueless about music (guilty as charged, in my case, anyway) and who is actually down for the cause.

This is just a gross inaccuracy. The person who wrote this article either hasn't read the site in years, or they managed to only consult the archive in doing their research. The Mainstream Media is clueless about music? We just dropped a 9.5 on Kanye West (much deserved, BTW). This is not an isolated incident, mainstream rap and pop draw high ratings on Pitchfork regularly. Its' widely acknowledged that "indie" is a hollow set of signifiers, and while it's fine to like indie music, it shouldn't be brought to bear critically. Pitchfork is going or has gone popist. When will this be acknowledged?

While so much user-generated content on the Web is tendentious and full of flabby partisan attacks, Pitchfork steps up to the plate with a rigorous rating system, serious (if idiosyncratic) critical standards and a roster of 40 or so talented young writers.

We're talented, sweet! But user-generated? Sorry, most of us are professional writers, at least part time. As in we write for professional publications, for money. You can't just log in to Pitchfork and write a review. This misinformation is in the New York Times, and I doubt we'll be seeing a correction notice.

It's great that we're getting all this press, and a lot of it at least grudgingly acknowledges our influence. But I've yet to see the definitive Pitchfork article that takes on our flaws (I'm not saying they don't exist, I'm saying they're too often identified with outdated information or just wrongly) and our merits in a way that's balanced, current and realistic. Is that so much to ask?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


How funny. Blender has changed much since its inception with Jim Morrison on the cover, if I'm not mistaken. Talk about evil recording industry.

Mag, to me, seems jam-packed w/ advertorial.

Here's a little poem:


Gene Simmons' cow tongue
lies like an urban myth in


P.S. Gene Simmons as Publisher, that rag's even more ridiculous than Blender.

5:52 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

My problem with Pitchfork has much less to do with the snarkiness of the reviews, the more indie-than-you attitudes, or the anti-mainstream attitudes (apparently) of yore, but rather with how the site has grown up from those adolescent origins. Look, any organization that fancies itself the tastemakers of a given arena of creative production deserves every ounce of shit heaped on it from whatever corner, even from the venerable tastemakers at the Times. Because at the end of the day, you’ve spent a lot of energy trying to pretend that the enterprise is something more than a way to legitimate your tastes, and yourself. Even though Pitchfork gives a lot of attention to mainstream releases in pop and hip-hop (good attention), it doesn’t change the fact that the ultimate message of every review is “We are better than you.” That’s a history that I’m afraid Pitchfork will never be able to shrug off, because that’s what it’s set itself up to be: a tastemaker. And this is what tastemakers do, they remind the rest of the public that only they, the tastemakers, hold the keys to those truths the art accesses. To begin circulating the word “curate” with reference to festivals, anthologies, mixtapes or whatever, is the best example I can come up with, and is certainly a feature of the adult Pitchfork. Pitchfork is the New Critics of the music world. And while Pitchfork isn’t as classist as Eliot and the Leavisites, there’s that same intellectual and aesthetic elitism that makes me really uncomfortable. Indeed, Amanda P.’s recent interview with Ryan Adams makes fairly clear how much like Eliot Pitchfork is:
“Pitchfork: That's gotta feel good. Are you listening to anything good right now?
Adams: The Dead.
Pitchfork: You're totally on this one-man crusade, and I appreciate this on many levels, to rescue the Grateful Dead. To prove they were punks.
Adams: They were pirates!
Pitchfork: They get so much shit.
Adams: I have friends who say they hate them, but I always go "Why?" I don't understand. Do they get shit from indie rockers? Do indie rockers hate the Dead?
Pitchfork: People respond very badly to the culture of the Dead. And I'm sure it has something to do with that earnestness. You know, I mean, think about how earnest you have to be to follow a band around, how honest you have to be about that love. It's totally uncool.”
It sounds like why Hamlet was a failure to me. I mean, maybe it’s just me. And maybe it’s painfully un-hip, or really just stupid to bring that up here; lord knows I don’t really know squat about literature or much literary theory.
And then there’s the whole way that Pitchfork is now hopelessly entangled with the forces of capitalism in a new way. The advertising on the site really just upsets me.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Joel, thanks for your thoughtful comment. But I have to point out a few head-scratchers. The assertion underlying your talk of the dangers of tastemaking is a common one vis-a-vis Pitchfork - that we have too much power. This is patently absurd, if not meaningless. There was no hostile takeover, no leveraged buyout of other critical outlets. There was no insidious business model, Ryan started it in his basement, basically alone, and it's grown organically from there, availing itself of the opportunities available. We have exactly as much power as our readers afford us of their own accord, no more, no less. To say that we have too much influence is to say that the music fans who read Pitchfork are incapable of personal discernment, an unkind and, I think, untrue claim.

I fully expect that any outlet as popular and divisive as Pitchfork will receive criticism for all corners. My problem with the Times piece has nothing to do with any negative views of the site, it has to do with factual inaccuracy. I don't bat an eye about seeing such slanted journalism on blogs. I bat like crazy to see it in respected news outlets.

I'm not sure how you're privy to how we at pitchfork fancy ourselves, or what we're trying to pretend. It seems as if you're projecting the insecurities the site generates in you onto our mental lives, which are not yours to know. The argument about critics wanting to "legitmate [their] tastes" could be made against any critical outlet, there's nothing specific to Pitchfork to suggest it more than anywhere else. Couldn't the same be said of the lit mag your blog talks about creating? Aren't you aiming to be a "tastemaker" too? Or do you assume you intentions to be "purer" than ours, which are unknown to you? At ary rate, if you take the ultimate message of our reviews to be "We're better than you," that sounds more like a self-esteem issue on your end than anything tangible on ours.

If the circulation of the word "curate" is the best example of our alleged self-aggrandization you can come up with, I think you should go back to the drawing board. The word simply means "to organize and oversee", which is an exact literal definition of what we did regarding Intonation. I really don't understand where you were going with that. I'm also at a loss as to what you mean to show by excerpting that bit from the Ryan Adams interview.

As for "entangling with the forces of capitalism" ... sheesh. Joel, none of us are getting rich over here. I'm just trying to scratch out a living as a freelance writer. I'm sorry the ads on the site upset you, we don't love them either, but if you have a better idea of how to support a free web-based content outlet, I'm all ears. I wonder how you're going to finance your print mag, if not with ads. And yours, I assume, will have a cover price!

2:10 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

Yeah, as I read that now, it’s loaded with head-scratchers and underdeveloped points. So, I’ll try and clarify as much as I am able. Before I do that, though, I’ll go ahead and clarify my intentions vis-à-vis the blogger site that you clicked to. First of all, that’s something that’s basically dead as it appears there. Some conversations with a variety of people in the last two weeks have shown that idea to be unworkable and basically inconsistent with who I am and what the idea was really about (many of those conversations made similar points to the ones you did). (I’m thinking less lit mag than newsletter to and for my friends.)
So, to clarify the other things…I don’t know that I buy the argument about my own insecurities being what my response to Pitchfork is all about, but to be fair, I didn’t give you a lot of cogent arguments with which to work. And I will give credit where credit is due: Pitchfork has some of the most consistently good reviews. I don’t, however, think that all criticism is about legitimating taste. I think there are a variety of ways to talk about, say, music without saying what we ourselves like is the objective standard for what is good. Rob Mitchum’s (or is it Ryan Schreiber’s?) Fiery Furnaces reviews are definitely an example of where some reviews at Pitchfork try to say “you are objectively incapable of understanding good taste unless you like what I like.” It’s the whole gatekeepers of truth, love, and beauty thing that critics make me uncomfortable doing. Am I being any clearer? I don’t think critics have to do this. There’s definitely this notion throughout a variety of reviews about the timelessness of certain things, etc, which can be both a very apt description of certain records or the sound of a certain record, and a way of exalting the critic. Critic who is above her time and with the detached eye is able to say what is and isn’t able to transcend its history; by being able to identify such material, this means that the critic, too, is able to transcend her history. I don’t want to suggest that all reviews trade in this style, or that the writers who do write reviews in this style always do, or that they are bad people, bad writers, bad thinkers, or otherwise less than good. Indeed, this all might be because I’m insecure, and that a whole method of reading literature was designed to make me feel that way: to tell me I have no culture because I’m unable to see all the allusions because I didn’t read these or those books. Perhaps I take issue less with Pitchfork qua Pitchfork, and more the ways in which it echoes (in the sense that it is suggestive of) the ways of reading that were designed to make poor people feel stupid. Which I think was the way I read the interview with Ryan Adams—“the Dead are bad because people who love the Dead just say they do, rather than use a series of allusions or other methods of detachment to show how much they love the dead.” That’s how I read Eliot on Hamlet. Less a reflection on Pitchfork, more about Eliot’s critical writing. Have I just totally muddled things?
The business about Pitchfork running ads touches on some other things that I’d be more than happy to discuss over e-mail or coffee: I live in Chapel Hill, too. If you care to continue the conversation, you can shoot an e-mail to my gmail: joel.winkelman

4:19 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

While we've mostly phased them out, Pitchfork used to run many "concept" reviews - reviews that either use a voice that is distinctly non-critical, or which were out and out jokes. Mitchum's Firey Furnaces review falls in the latter category. While Mitchum does love FF, his review was a parody, and its exhortations are so cartoonishly overstated that I don't understand how it could be interpreted as anything else.

I don't see where we put forth what we like as the objective best. We make our personal judgements and support them with example and argument. Of course, we try to make the strongest possible case for our opinions. Reviews full of waffling are no good to anybody.

I was following you pretty well until "Am I being any clearer?" It gets pretty muddy and esoteric after that. I've no idea how you extrapolated what you did from the Ryan Adams interview, I feel like there's a long and circuitous chain of logic that's concealed from me between the text and your conclusion. You did prickle my interest with yr statement about literature designed to "make poor people feel stupid." And you're a Chapel Hillian! I wonder if we already know each other?

4:40 PM  
Blogger K. Silem Mohammad said...

Criticism is all about "legitimizing taste." What else could it possibly be? If the message perceived is "we're better than you," that's fine--as long as that's understood as "our musical opinions are built around a position (or set of positions) that we believe we have considered and developed more cogently and forcefully than you have yours," and not as some weird moral absolute. Without such confidence bordering on arrogance, it would be impossible to make a dent on perhaps the main reason criticism exists in the first place: what is perceived by the critics as ignorance and wrongheadedness. Pitchfork is tendentious. Good! If it weren't I would spit it out. I don't agree with every review (thank god), but I almost always feel that I'm in the presence of minds that aren't afraid to deploy critical snobbery when necessary, which I would rather have than a bland "openness" any day.

2:49 PM  
Blogger greg said...

"respected news outlets"

i believe that's an oxymoron brian.
thought i taught you better than that.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Well said, k. I'd never expect anyone to agree with all (or even most) of our reviews, and I'm glad that some people aren't intimidated by bold, critical criticism (what a strangely necessary redundancy!). I'd love to see more people engaging with our ideas (negatively or positively) and spending less time intuiting our motives.

obi-wan Barbera, I have squandered your lessons. won't happen again ;)

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