Pitchfork’s Progress

Does the influential e-zine represent the New Rock Critic Order?

It turns out the funniest Onion-esque fake news story penned so far this year did not spring from The Onion. No, Sub Pop Records — a concern not ordinarily known for its forays into satire and comedy writing — deserves full credit for “Pitchfork Staff Member Says ‘Hi’ to Real-Life Woman.”

“This marks the first time a member of the Pitchfork staff has made direct verbal contact with someone of the opposite sex,” the blurb announces. “Normally content with sitting in his mother’s basement eating Cheetos and watching bootlegged Jawbreaker videos, Andy somehow got the courage to speak openly to a girl at last Friday’s show.”

What Andy said, in case you’re wondering, is “Hi.”

As wise old sage “Weird Al” Yankovic has taught us, mocking imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Thus the apparently socially stultified rock-crit geeks at Pitchforkmedia.com, the wildly popular indie-centric news-and-reviews Internet portal of evil, should be delighted indeed that Sub Pop found the site remarkable and prominent enough to launch so elaborate a parody. The send-up, at SubPop.com/features/pdork, is stunning in its attention to detail, copying Pitchfork’s layout exactly as it lampoons the news section’s hipster elitism (headline: “Indie cred flawlessly maintained. Personal credit history, not so much”) and the elaborate 0.0 to 10.0 CD-rating system (“1.0-1.9: I got kicked out of a band that sounded like this”).

Climactically, the joke headline to a hypothetical review of the Rapture’s Echoes is “Dance Music is the new ska.”

“That was so flattering,” raves Pitchfork mastermind Ryan Schreiber over the phone from Chicago, where the site is based. “It was unbelievable that Sub Pop, this label — I mean, they were huge before we had even been conceived. They were a label that I followed for years and years before even considering starting this Web site. For them to be able to do a parody of our site, and have people even know what they’re talking about, it was really cool. It was the coolest thing in the world.”

In fact, the comedy site SomethingAwful.com followed up with its own elaborate Pitchfork spoof a coupla months later, though it was far meaner (and lamer) than Sub Pop’s. For discerning music geeks, Pitchfork has indeed morphed into the Holy Grail since Schreiber and a buddy started it in his bedroom at his parents’ Minneapolis house in 1995 — he says the site now reaches an average of ninety thousand readers a day. Why? As every major music magazine’s CD review section has devolved into a graveyard of hundred-word blurbs offering no room for creativity, personality or, more to the point, relevant criticism, Pitchforkmedia.com has exploded outward, with five-hundred-word reviews that read like essays, short stories, diary entries, and/or harebrained literary experiments.

Writing style? Flowery, ambitious, decidedly postgraduate. Knowledge base? Hugely intimidating; these people seem to know everything about everything before anyone else knows anything. Opinions? Brash, outspoken, occasionally very bitchy. Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers and Liz Phair’s reviled last record both share the distinction of a Pitchfork-awarded 0.0 review: “Breaks new ground for terrible.”

“What do you want, a closing paragraph? Something to wrap it all up, tie everything together?” demands the tail end of the Pitchfork review for the Anniversary’s actually quite excellent album Your Majesty. “Fuck you. Don’t buy this.”

“I feel like honesty is so important in a record review,” Schreiber says. “You can’t worry about what the artist is gonna think, what the label’s gonna think — ‘Oh, are we gonna get cut from their promo list?’ To me it’s completely irrelevant. The first thing that any editor should be concerned about is integrity. If you’re just reining it in to try and save one person, what’s the point? It’s criticism. It’s criticism! Who responds well to criticism?”

“If you read almost any other music magazine, three out of five is terrible in a lot of magazines,” adds Eric Carr, a Pitchfork writer who, as the advertising director, is Schreiber’s only consistent full-time employee. “To see something less than three stars out of five is unusual, or it’s a really safe bet for the magazine — they’re panning something that no one in their audience would be expected to like. It’s safe for them. Pitchfork, we go out on a limb with stuff.”

Alright. Let’s stop drinking the Kool-Aid for a second.

Pitchfork’s bile is remarkable, but its enormous literary aspirations truly set it apart, and set the site’s adorers and abhorrers apart as well. In attempting to avoid the colorless blurb graveyard, a Pitchfork review can swing the pendulum too far in the other direction: a dense, hugely overwritten, utterly incomprehensible brick of critical fruitcake.

“I’ve read this damn review three times,” the befuddled reader says aloud, “and I still don’t know what it says.”

I say that sometimes,” Carr admits. “Occasionally we’ve written something that even I’m like, ‘I can’t believe someone wanted to write this.’ But I mean, I think that’s the allure of Pitchfork for people — chances are you’re going to see something that someone’s put a lot of thought into, where they haven’t just rattled off a paragraph: ‘This album sounds like this, buy it if you like bands X, Y, and Z.'”

In Pitchfork’s case, avoiding such drudgery is as important for the author as for the audience. “Writing about music is not very interesting to me,” admits infamous staff writer Brent DiCrescenzo, another Chicagoan, though the site’s scribes are scattered across the nation. “You find yourself having to write the same things over and over and over again. When a record’s really good, it’s easy to find things to say; when it’s really bad, it’s easy to find things to say; but when it’s just right there in the middle, that’s when you sort of have to amuse yourself.”

DiCrescenzo is infamous precisely for the lengths he’ll go in the pursuit of self-amusement. He specializes in absurdist reviews with bizarre characters — Diapers the lab monkey (in a Spacehog review), Volodrag the Yugoslavian sycophant (Jimmy Eat World), interpretive dancer Miquel Santa Schulz (Charlatans UK) — and the outlandish situations he concocts for them. He is particularly proud of his 0.8 review of Metallica’s St. Anger, which takes place entirely in some sort of Israeli sweatshop/internment camp. Needless to say, some people hate this. Bloggers and fan message boards routinely rip him for being mean-spirited when he isn’t incomprehensibly weird — plus, he never even said if he liked it! Doesn’t anyone know how to write a straightforward review anymore?

“People always say to me, ‘Talk about the music,'” DiCrescenzo says. “But in my mind, that’s sort of exactly what I’m doing. Everything I write, as esoteric as it may seem, comes from a direct response of how the music sounds to me, or makes me think, or what mood it evokes.”

He certainly isn’t jockeying for a Rolling Stone job — he goes on to plug some sort of movie project he has coming out (you’ll read all about it on Pitchfork soon). In fact, that’s perhaps the site’s oddest element: Though a few writers have dabbled in more traditional outlets like Magnet and Spin (pubs the site’s brain trust doesn’t unequivocally hate, though they largely prefer British mags such as Mojo), a good many of Pitchfork’s stable of twenty-odd staff writers and contributors have no prior rock crit experience or interest in making a career out of this. Carr, for example, delivered the definitive review of the recent punk rock box set No Thanks!, but the review did not require the services of his electrical engineering degree.

The wide-eyed idealist view of all this: The Internet, with its universal reach and anyone-can-start-a-blog accessibility, will eventually render dinosaur print mags obsolete. “Rolling Stone is already obsolete in terms of music criticism,” Schreiber says. “As far as the Internet being revolutionary, sort of a next wave? You know what? I think it is. In a way it’s similar to the punk revolution in the ’70s — ‘Oh, I don’t need to know how to play an instrument; I don’t need to sign with a major label to make the music or express myself.’ The Internet has basically allowed the same thing. You don’t have to go through four years of an English program at Columbia to get your opinion out and get your voice heard. And I think it’s breeding a lot of people who are inherently talented, sort of naturals at it.”

For now, Schreiber is just trying to keep Pitchfork from breaking up in the atmosphere as it ascends. He talks a lot about editing for “clarity” to curtail the whole what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about phenomenon, and he revels in the power the site occasionally wields in terms of breaking largely unknown artists: His glowing review last year of Canadian art-rock collective Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People was a turning point in that band’s Big Moment.

“The night before we ran the record review, they had played a show to, like, two hundred people,” he recalls. “And the next night, and the night after that, and the night after that, and the night after that, their shows sold out continuously. That was amazing to me.”

Again, this is a lotta Kool-Aid. Chris Jacobs, Sub Pop’s marketing director and unofficial ringleader of the Popdork parody (various label worker bees pitched in), is hesitant to grant Pitchfork any mythical cultural powers. “The ‘new music criticism establishment’ just sounds terribly staid and dull to me,” he writes in an e-mail. “Do people pay attention to Pitchfork? Yeah, I think so, absolutely. I’m not a big fan of any sweeping statements about online publications taking over or anything like that. I mean, even Pitchfork just put out a book, right?” (Thesaurus Musicarum, a print-form bells-and-whistles anthology of Pitchfork’s best 2003 work.) “Rumors of the death of print are greatly exaggerated.”

And yet, when Jacobs and his Sub Pop compatriots start passing around a “Dean’s List” of rock dos and don’ts — “Happy Cry Funny Gift is not an album title. You will be mentally filed under Suck Lame Do Not Buy Beat Up” — and wanted to share it with the public, spoofing Pitchfork seemed the most logical way to go about it. The site represents this mentality now: (sometimes too) smart, (sometimes not that) funny, (sometimes bombastically) opinionated, (always unfailingly) hip.

Plus, Jacobs admits that one day another Pitchfork staffer may make an overture to the opposite sex. “No one is beyond help,” he counsels. “With the proper nutritional supplements, careful (and consistent!) hygiene, strenuous exercise, and a cursory familiarity with spoken English, almost anyone can say ‘Hello’ to just about anyone they choose. Failing that, generous intake of alcohol or illicit substances seems to do the trick.”

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