March 27, 2008

Noses Up: Putting a Pitchfork in Pitchfork Media

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How quickly things change. Before Spring Break I wrote a column about for this week, and the first two sentences read: “Vampire Weekend is a band of Columbia University graduates who have become the next big thing. Please do not be surprised if you have never heard of them, as I hadn’t either before consulting the internet.” The hastiness of that assumption became pretty clear to me when, less than a few weeks after releasing their first album, this preppy sweater-around-the-shoulders pop band was on Saturday Night Live and the cover of Spin magazine.
I went on, in this now obsolete column, to talk about how groups like Vampire Weekend, and their predecessors Arcade Fire and Beirut, were lucky recipients of the special kind of notoriety that comes with being featured on While none of these bands can claim the following of Kanye West or Britney, to a small group of music listeners they are the “greats,” and their success, now noticed by the mainstream, is almost exclusively due to websites like Pitchfork Media.
Pitchfork was the basement experiment of Minneapolis-native Ryan Schreiber, who created a website to chronicle “underground” music without any writing experience. After a relocation to Chicago, Pitchfork grew slowly into the mid-level behemoth it is today, claiming over 240,000 readers daily. It has become the cultural home of an entire movement of fans of this amorphous genre of music we call “indie.” The reviewers are by and large very well-read, somewhat pretentious, and are versed — almost too well — in popular culture at large. It is seldom surprising to see reviews that casually toss off references to heady classical music, contemporary art, obscure literature, and Michael Jackson b-sides in a tone that suggests that the writer assumes that you know that he knows that you know what he is talking about.
Perhaps the biggest sign of Pitchfork’s hegemony is the way in which it is criticized. Among many of the types of people you associate with the site, which are generally called “hipsters” from Bushwick and Williamsburg, Pitchfork itself is passé, an anachronism, and behind the times. These music fans have a sort of indifference to Pitchfork that one sees among those who criticize cultural giants like The New York Times and CNN. Even if these readers and watchers might dig deeper for their news and cultural criticism, their indifference signifies the recognition that these sources are the standards. In calling them questionable, in other words, we are recognizing that they are worth recognizing enough to be questioned.
More entertaining is the fact that The Onion published an article claiming that Pitchfork had reviewed music as a whole, giving it a mere “6.8” (a nod to the rating system Pitchfork uses, which is from 0-10, but seems to get stuck in a web of fractions in the mediocre 6-8 range). Founder Ryan Schrieber is “quoted” as saying that “the popular medium that predates the written word shows promise but nonetheless leaves the listener wanting more.” He is then “answered” by David Fricke of Rolling Stone, who calls Schreiber “elitist,” and music “some of the best stuff out there.”
For me, Pitchfork Media, moreso than Radiohead’s recent experiments, the blogging phenomenon or MySpace, defines what has been a process many years in the making, in which music and the internet have collided with each other. Before the Internet and the technologies it has influenced, like ITunes, the IPod and those mix CDs you can make at Starbucks, the way people purchased music was understandably very different. The “fans in the know,” the precursor to today’s Pitchfork readers and writers, listened to the radio or watched TV shows like American Bandstand, went to record stores, bought the album or the single, as a CD, 8-track, cassette, or vinyl LP.
Today the Internet has made an unmanageable amount of music available to everyone, almost everywhere, all the time. It is only understandable that some sort of organizing mechanism needed to spring up to guide people through the intimidating amounts of musical information available.
Thus, the tension felt by the Post-Pitchforkers, or those people consider the website passé, is the same tension that people used to feel towards the record executives, who themselves are now demonized to an almost ridiculous degree.
The ironic thing about those who read Pitchfork and those who are post-Pitchfork, is the way in which they fetishize the pre-digital methods of music appreciation. They buy vinyl and fetishize markers of intelligence, like Joanna Newsome’s nuanced and crafted epics, Vampire Weekend’s string quartets, and The Decemberists’ self-conscious literary pretentions.
So Pitchfork, once the vanguard, has come to hold a place in our culture looking somewhere towards the future, but too much of a standard to really be on the forefront anymore. Someday it will be called a dinosaur in the way record companies already are given mythological status, but for now we can rate Pitchfork’s cultural currency somewhere around a 6.8.