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Saturday, April 29, 2006

A pitchfork in the road

This morning, Large Hearted Boy posted this Washington Post article on the popular indie music publication, Pitchfork Media. Though there have been plenty of articles on the 'fork in the last few months, this one really struck a nerve with me. I have a love/hate relationship with the site, but I can't deny its impact on music listeners.

I don't exactly remember when I started reading Pitchfork, but I think it was around the time I was a junior in college. I was getting more involved with my college radio station and Pitchfork was frequently brought up. At the time, I thought the site was the only major place to find record reviews and news on indie bands that I was interested in. Keep in mind, this was before there was a proliferation of MP3 blogs and similar resources.

With certain reviews, I felt like the reviewers were trying to be smarter and more indie than the average indie rock fan. There was the infamous 10.0 review of Radiohead's Kid A penned by Brent DiCrescenzo, complete with off-the-wall comments like, "The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax." Then there was the 0.0 review of Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts and Flowers, also penned by DiCrescenzo, that compared the band to communism. While those kinds of reviews are few and far between these days, something that hasn't changed is the way they report music news. Usually taking press releases that have already circulated around the Internet and adding smug and snide comments to them, I always approach their news section expecting some major cringing.

After all these years, I can slightly understand what is trying to be said, but I still can't get fully behind this style of reviewing and discussing music. Swarmy humor may be really funny and more "real" for some people, but I find it incredibly irritating. Realizing that these are merely opinions and not facts (even though the opinions are often presented as facts), I realize that I don't have to be so sour about what they have to say.

Pitchfork is still incredibly stingy about what's worthwhile and what's not, so I at least give some attention to what they recommend. David Moore's review of the Arcade Fire's Funeral and Matt LeMay's review of Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News piqued my interest in those records. They were understandable because they didn't muck around with their points. I think of these records as some of the best records in the last few years, so that reminds that Pitchfork's general BS detector is strong. Though I don't often agree with their record reviews (the few that I still read), I think it's worth to at least hear what they're raving about. However, I think I would listen more to what they would have to say if I didn't find so much of their content to be snobby and jaded.

One section in particular in the Washington Post article made me realize my major difference of opinion with these guys:

"Honesty is such an important journalistic attribute," says Schreiber, who had no journalism training when as a 20-year-old former record store clerk he launched the site as a solo operation. "And you have to be completely honest in a review. If it gets sacrificed or tempered at all for the sake of not offending somebody, then what we do sort of loses its value. . . . That's so the opposite of what criticism is supposed to be.

"So I think we maybe have this sort of snobbish reputation. But we're just really honest, opinionated music fans. We might be completely over the top in our praise, or we might be cruel. But to anybody who reads the site, it's clear that we're not pulling any punches."


I think I should address the usage of the term 'honesty' here: there's a wide range of what constitutes honesty. You can be tactfully honest and you can be honestly rude. I'm not talking about worrying about offending people's feelings by being honest; I'm talking about making a thought-out comment considering many sides of the coin instead of making a one-sided comment coming out of one's ass.

This isn't exclusive to Pitchfork when it comes to talking about music; it's everywhere. When one whittles life down to snarky criticisms, I think too much other stuff is left out. Yeah, certain records are better than others, but I don't aim to be indier than those considered indier than thou. Plus, I can only truly represent my views, not everyone's views. I can summarize what other people I know say about such-and-such, but the writer expresses his/her opinions. I know there is a tendency to write a "consumer guide" kind of review, but that's not convincing enough for me. Whenever I read Roger Ebert or Jim DeRogatis, I want their views on a movie or an album. I don't refer to them as be-all, end-all gatekeepers. They offer solely their views instead of views that are for everyone.

I used to get so pissed off at reading reviews by people who came across as impossible to please. I had to realize that I don't have to read those kinds of reviews and didn't have to take them as means to an end. Because of this and for various reasons, I feel I have to write every day, including doing a blog post. I'm thankful that I have the spare time to write as much as I do because it's become a no-option situation for me.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Well said. A stellar Pitchfork review may genterate some interest (on my part) in something, but I just don't trust them all that much anymore.