Pitchfork and the Death of Things as Themselves
music's got nothing to do with it
I had not heard of Måneskin before reading this viral Pitchfork review of their album Rush!, and listening to a couple tracks of theirs afterwards, I found little to be impressed by. But the review, I think, is at risk of busting at the seams as the internal contradictions of Pitchfork rage inside of it.
Jeremy D. Larson writes
Måneskin are not just three men and a woman who play traditional rock music and—if you can believe it—all wear eyeliner. To this listener, Måneskin are something far more important: an alternative.
An alternative to what, exactly, is the question. The unlikely global ascent of Måneskin—the word is Danish for moonlight, pronounced MOAN-eh-skin— comes off as a collective unconscious need for something else, a retro, lascivious attitude that feels neither cool nor popular, and therefore stands in opposition to what is cool or popular.
I find this rather breathtaking, given that it appears in Pitchfork. It suggests that people like this band for some reason other than simple appreciation of the sonic quality of the music - to serve an unconscious need to appear neither cool nor popular. And this is wild, to me, because Pitchfork is not a site about music at all, but rather about the constant delicate servicing of these unconscious needs. Pitchfork stopped being a music site long ago and became instead a series of instructions for how to carefully position yourself in contrast or complement to the people around you in a way that maximizes your personal brand and demonstrates that you’re the most specialist boy or girl of all. It just so happens that, for reasons of inertia and convenience, talking about music is the ostensible subject matter through which this careful arrangement takes place. The average Pitchfork writer doesn’t appear to care about music at all; they seem only to care about what the music they like and dislike might say about them.
The Rosetta Stone of Pitchfork is the publication’s 2021 piece in which its writers went back and re-scored old albums. This is an act of almost impossible self-obsession on its face, but it’s the method that’s really telling: in many of the listed cases, they didn’t even pretend to adjust the score based on the musical quality of a given album itself. They simply altered the score in light of changing social and cultural expectations regarding what The Right Kind of Person listens to. Go ahead, read the justifications for the changed reviews; music barely enters into any of them. No, what dominates is instead the sense that music has no intrinsic value or character and instead exists merely to define the mores of any given time, and given that cultural journalism is a service industry, those mores are those that the writers and the readers, savvy creatures that they are, share. Inevitably, what gets lost is the notion that music has any inherent quality at all. As I said at the time, the problem with Liz Phair’s self-titled album - that the music is utter dogshit that causes the listener to question their existing affection for her earlier work - can’t be fixed through reference to the place of women in serious music discussion in 2003. Because it’s a dreadful album. And writing a freshman Women’s Studies paper about it rather than a review of it as a collection of music is in fact the biggest disrespect of all.
It’s for this reason that I find Larson’s criticism of the reasons that some might like Måneskin to be hypocritical and lacking in self-knowledge; he’s writing in the temple of treating music as a badge for identifying the kind of person you are while complaining that other people are doing the same thing. OK, so people who like a fairly obscure Italian rock band want to stand against a certain definition of the popular or cool. And you think, what, Pitchfork doesn’t serve the exact same impulse, every day of the year, from the other direction? You think yet another essay about how Beyonce’s music has done more for Black people than the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t fundamentally serve a social function rather than an aesthetic one? What site do you think you write for? Are you sure you aren’t just mad that some people don’t signal to the same crowd that you do?
Pitchfork, of course, went from being a notoriously self-regarding hipster review site that gave glowing reviews to indie rock bands to perhaps the most aggressive enforcer of the consensus “poptimist” worldview in music criticism, seemingly overnight; the jangly NYC indie bands that they once championed became in very short order the preference of The Wrong Kind of Person, at Pitchfork. I find it’s nearly impossible to write about poptimism because the communal discussion of it is so divorced from reality. Poptimism has been the utterly dominant ideology in music criticism for, what, 15 years? At least 10. Yet just as with Star Wars and Marvel fans, core to poptimist discourse is the idea that the commercially dominant point of view is an oppressed discourse. It happens that I think that the poptimist version of history has always been fake - go back and check out reviews of pure pop artists in magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin, supposedly the height of “rockism,” go look - but certainly there’s no way to look at the landscape now and see anything else than utter critical fawning over the most bubblegum of pop. And so I don’t understand the urge to critique people for looking for a counterculture to that slavish devotion. It’s really boring when every reviewer celebrates the same shit, especially when they do so while awkwardly using social justice concepts to enforce a particular taste.
(“LET PEOPLE ENJOY THINGS!” Fuck you. No.)
Carly Rae Jepsen is a good example of how poptimism distorts how we discuss artists. There’s a level of critical defensiveness about her career that I find bizarre. Because she burst on the scene with a song that’s as quintessentially poppy as any you can imagine, I think there’s a desire to protect her under the usual poptimist terms. Her new music isn’t just feted with good reviews, but met with navel-gazing thinkpieces about what she means for the discourse. But while taste is of course subjective, I don’t think that it’s out of line to say that in the decade since “Call Me Maybe” she hasn’t really put out a lot of great music. And the inability of people to just reflect on that reality, that a decade later she’s still chasing her next sound, says a lot more about how they want to feel about her career than about how they actually feel about her new music. This is a fundamental dynamic within the poptimist space; since it’s first a criticism not of music but of discourse, it forever privileges discursive arguments above musical arguments. But you respect music by putting the music itself first.
Of course, the bigger problem is that poptimism is fundamentally about mandating a particular taste. I can’t find where now, but Rich Juzwiak once derided people who prefer music made by actual musicians playing actual instruments to music made entirely by computers. He called this a rockist attitude. And so we’ve arrived at a space where if you have an aesthetic preference for music that actually was created by flesh-and-blood human beings, you are guilty of all kinds of thought crimes about race and gender, which the poptimism crowd has inartfully grafted onto music appreciation. Again, it’s just like Marvel and Star Wars fans: failure to properly appreciate massic pop culture commodities that have been created by deep-pocketed corporations makes you not just guilty of having bad taste but of failing some deeper philosophical test as a human being. Which itself stems from the widespread feeling people have that they are nothing but their pop culture consumption habits.
I would like to go back to things themselves. I would like for people to wake up from the poptimism fever dream and recognize that popular music was never some reviled underdog. I would like for people to stop mistaking their devotion to Kendrick Lamar’s music for some sort of statement on racial justice in America. And I’d like to see celebration of more music that sounds truly different. After all, that’s the most sacred function of artistic criticism: the defense of the new.
Not Måneskin, though. They sound shitty.
When I read Pitchfork reviews (and music reviews from other progressive-leaning outlets), I often interpret them as critics struggling mightily to resolve the cognitive dissonance borne of the weird presumption that good art must be morally good. In the case of Pitchfork critics, this means that good music must be woke music. So if a critic enjoys an album, they will find themselves straining with every fibre to find some angle by which the album REALLY advances a progressive worldview (even if it's a determinedly apolitical album, or even conservative) - hence the mental gymnastics on display here (https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/my-chemical-romance-three-cheers-for-sweet-revenge/), in which My Chemical Romance are retroactively claimed to promote gender nonconformance. Whereas if they DIDN'T enjoy an album, they instead have to contrive some angle by which the album is crypto-conservative (hence the absurd claims from multiple music critics that the bland, anodyne, inoffensive silly love songs made by the Chainsmokers are somehow the sonic equivalent of the divisive, incendiary, hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump).
See here: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/apr/09/chainsmokers-memories-do-not-open-cd-pop-review-columbia; https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/23148-memoriesdo-not-open/
If they can't find such an angle, they will just scoff that it's another album made by a bunch of White Dudes (the horror!). They will conspicuously avoid commenting upon the ethnicities and sexes of the musicians who made the album they DID enjoy.
Right on. Like a lot of things, poptimism overshot its original (defensible) target. Which, I think, is the correct view to have - pop music (and pop culture more generally) is worthy of being taken seriously and shouldn't be dismissed out of pocket. I was one of those kids that thought I was cooler than everyone else simply because I didn't like or listen to pop music. I wish I could go back and smack some sense into 14 year old me. That's what the original form of poptimism meant to me, to broaden my horizons and listen to stuff I ordinarily wouldn't touch.
Problem is, we've gotten there, and then several miles beyond the target. Now, it's pop culture is high art which deserves to be placed on a pedestal. Pop music needs to be important and about more than just the music, Pitchfork being a chief offender here. It's how a song which should have just been a club anthem is actually the song of the year, and an important statement in the raging culture war:
Not all music is high art. Not all music needs to be important. Not all pop music is good just because a lot of people listen to it. Find music you love, listen to that, keep an open mind, and you'll be good to go