What did we do to deserve Pitchfork?
Fantastic article on the history of Pitchfork and the recent music industry in general. Here are a couple of excerpts but please read the whole piece..
..as indie bands watched the industry’s collapse, the envy and contempt they had traditionally felt toward major labels stopped making sense. What was there to envy anymore? Wasn’t it obvious that indie bands, with their devoted networks of fans, critics, and performance venues, had it better? Not only were the major labels soul-sucking money machines, they couldn’t even make you rich! This made early indie’s militancy and paranoia look silly, and the hard lines began to soften.
In the last thirty years, no artistic form has made cultural capital so central to its identity, and no musical genre has better understood how cultural capital works. Disdaining the reserves of actual capital that were available to them through the major labels, indie musicians sought a competitive advantage in acquiring cultural capital instead. As indie’s successes began following one another in increasingly rapid succession, musicians working in other genres began to take notice. Hip-hop is an illustrative foil. As indie bands in the ’90s did everything they could to avoid the appearance of selling out, rappers tried to get as rich as possible. The really successful ones stopped rapping—or at least outsourced the work of writing lyrics—and opened clothing lines and record labels. But for all their corporate success, rappers knew where the real cultural capital lay. When Jay-Z decided, as an obscenely wealthy entertainment mogul, that he wanted finally to leave his drug-dealer persona behind, he got himself seen at a Grizzly Bear concert in Williamsburg.
Pitchfork has fully absorbed and adopted indie rock’s ideas about the uses of cultural capital, and the results have been disastrous. Indie rock is based on the premise that it’s possible to disdain commercial popularity while continuing to make rock and roll, the last half century’s most popular kind of commercial music. Sustaining this premise has almost always involved suppressing or avoiding certain kinds of knowledge. For indie bands, this meant talking circles around the fact that eventual success was not actually improbable or surprising. For indie rock’s critics, it meant refusing to acknowledge that writing criticism is an exercise in power.
This is a kind of music, in other words, that’s very good at avoiding uncomfortable conversations. Pitchfork has imitated, inspired, and encouraged indie rock in this respect. It has incorporated a perfect awareness of cultural capital into its basic architecture. A Pitchfork review may ignore history, aesthetics, or the basic technical aspects of tonal music, but it will almost never fail to include a detailed taxonomy of the current hype cycle and media environment. This is a small, petty way of thinking about a large art, and as indie bands have both absorbed and refined the culture’s obsession with who is over- and underhyped, their musical ambitions have been winnowed down to almost nothing at all.
It’s usually a waste of time to close-read rock lyrics; a lot of great rock musicians just aren’t that good with words. What you can do with a rock lyric, though, is note the kinds of phrasing that come to mind when a musician is trying to fill a particular rhythmic space with words. You can see what kind of language comes naturally, and some of the habits and beliefs that the language reveals. This makes it worth pausing, just for a moment, over Animal Collective’s most famous lyric: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things.” The ethical lyric to sing would be, “I don’t want to be someone who cares about material things,” but in indie rock today the worst thing would be just to seem like a materialistic person. You can learn a lot about indie rock, its fans, and Pitchfork from the words “mean to seem like.”
I sometimes have the utopian thought that in a better world, pop music criticism simply wouldn’t exist. What justification could there be for separating the criticism of popular music from the criticism of all other kinds? Nobody thinks it’s weird that theNew York Review of Books doesn’t include an insert called the New York Review of Popular Books. One of pop music criticism’s most important functions today is to perpetuate pop music’s favorite myth about itself—that it has no history, that it was born from nothing but drugs and “revolution” sometime in the middle of the 20th century. But the story of The Beatles doesn’t begin with John, Paul, George, and Ringo deplaning at JFK. It begins with Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1722 Treatise on Harmony, which began to theorize the tonal system that still furnishes the building blocks for almost all pop music. Or, if you like, it goes back to the 16th century, when composers began to explore the idea that a song’s music could be more than just a setting for the lyrical text—that it could actually help to express the words as well. Our very recent predecessors have done many important and wonderful things with their lives, but they did not invent the musical universe all by themselves. The abolition of pop criticism as a separate genre would help pop writers to see the wider world they inhabit.