Feb 8·edited Feb 8

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.

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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

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I’m a musician, and pretty old, so I find this essay refreshing. I don’t hate new music, all the time; there’s a lot that’s good in a lot of different styles. But the kind of music criticism you’re lambasting here has got to go. It doesn’t help art or social justice when people write about music this way. Mostly I find, today and in the past, that people who write about music don’t know shit about the subject, so they’re eager to find something else to talk about.

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Feb 8Liked by Freddie deBoer

I guess it's on me to go ahead and point out the obvious: the primary culprit is, as in so many cases, capitalism. A brief sketch would go something like as follows:

The consolidation of radio stations and record companies led to a homogenization of popular music, and a relegation of "art music" to various institutional ghettos. The trend continued with digital music (Napster was just a convenient excuse for record companies to consolidate their power and more aggressively pursue copyright enforcement), and continues today, with the boondoggle of streaming and the dramatic increase in precarity for most working musicians.

Added to which you have the ravages of neoliberalism, which has forced legions of young, talented, people into the workforce, or made unemployment so miserable that no creative energy can be spared. This extends past musicians, including critics and a good portion of the potential audience. People are working longer hours, doing less meaningful work. Less time to make music, actively listen to music (increasingly it becomes background noise), think about music, talk about music.

Pitchfork thus serves to bolster and in some ways defend the status quo: less about music, more about taste signifiers for young, aspiring professionals who want to feel like their lives have meaning and direction, but are too harried, inexperienced, and busy to develop actual tastes. This breeds bitterness, among other things, which in turn winds up in the "criticism" on that site. Wash, rinse, repeat.

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My favourite Pitchfork pearl-clutch was the review of St Vincent's Daddy's Home which reacted with horror to two mentions of 'call the cops' and 'call 911' – how could she?! In 2021!?

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This discussion reminds me of how views on Jk Rowling have changed. People haven't just decided that she is a bad person, and that you shouldn't support her work because of that, many have gone back and decided that her writing was bad.

I was never a huge Harry Potter fan and was not particularly impressed by Cookoo's Calling, but if you were fawning at Rawling's world building and sense of wonder in 2005, learning her views on trans rights shouldn't really have any impact on thet.

Leni Riefenstahl and Wagner can have been great at their crafts, even if their politics left a lot to be desired.

Note you are free to boycott even good art because of the creator's politics.

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When I was a lonely teenager, I used to read music review publications and track their end of year lists religiously. I grew comfortable with the fact that Rolling Stone embodied some sort of "establishment" canonical view, where their #1 song of all time was Like a Rolling Stone and their #1 album was Sgt. Pepper. Meanwhile, I got used to Pitchfork being the slightly more "alt" option, putting something like Daydream Nation atop their 80s list (the first time they did one). Basically, I had a very fixed view on these publications and what their preferences were, and even if I disagreed, I tended to respect them and take them at face value.

Now, years later, Rolling Stone's number 1 song of all time is What's Goin' On by Marvin Gaye, and Pitchfork demoted Sonic Youth from the perch of their 80s list in favor of Purple Rain. There is obviously a part of me that leaps to the conclusion that this is more motivated by culture war considerations than an actual assessment of the music (although Purple Rain is a better choice for #1 album of the 80s than What's Goin' On is a better choice for best song of all time). But, that said, I do begin to wonder. Did the old Pitchfork/Rolling Stone really reflect a more sincere aesthetic judgment based on the music itself, or has it always just been status-seeking and differentiation and culture war politics, since the beginning of time? Maybe it just took until the cultural winds shifted for me to appreciate that it's basically always been bullshit. I don't know. Just throwing it out there.

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I also don't get the obsession with Maneskin dressing vampy as meaningful. They're a rock band, rock has been theatric and deliberately ridiculous since at least hair metal 40 years ago.

That's really a lot of the fun of rock/metal as an aesthetic, it's over the top stupid camp for boring normal straight people. You know, like me.

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This turn in pop music criticism is paralleled by a similar turn in historical musicology. If the musicology of 50 years ago was obsessed with musical analysis, today's musicology is obsessed with social practice; I sometimes wonder whether some of our younger musicologists are capable of analyzing and explaining a Bach fugue.

Of course, the humanities in general have been détourned in this way: there is little sense anymore of the humanities as part of a collective effort to increase the sum of human knowledge. Rather, the humanities seem to be viewed as convenient vectors for a program of social reform. Not with a bang but a whimper...

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I'm not here to defend Carly Rae (though how dare you slander her, etc.), as she is a great example of a weirdly defensive fanbase treating her as an underdog. But I think people's defensiveness of her sometimes showcases a weird, stuck-in-the-past mentality, because the pop music Carly Rae makes hasn't been what *popular* music sounds like since her one giant hit in 2012.

Personally, I love it, because I really like the sounds of bubblegum pop and I think she's a killer songwriter. But synth-y, sparkly bubblegum pop is basically an indie genre at this point. Unless it's cut with hip hop or R&B, like Lizzo's music, or pointedly going for a retro vibe, it isn't getting on the radio or into car commercials or viral TikToks. It's just not the moment for it.

So to me, defensiveness by critics about Carly Rae not being appreciated enough sounds like out-of-touch griping by people who haven't figured out that pop culture didn't freeze when they were teenagers and thought they were too cool to listen to Britney and Christina, and nobody is going to give them points for liking that stuff now. There's this sense of, "I cringe at who I was when I made fun of this, so now I will perform high-handed anger about it not being popular enough." Meanwhile, Carly's doing just fine and, so far as I can tell, not really trying to break into the main-mainstream.

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It seems what's going on here is the usual 3 step.

1) Go woke

2) Make everything completely insufferable. Destroy any and all joy you can find

3) Go broke

Judging by Grammy's, current "pop" culture is between steps 2 and 3.

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I feel like you're looking at the past with some *extremely* rose-colored glasses here. Hasn't music nearly always been far more about culture than the music itself? Wearing a Korn shirt in the late '90s would have communicated far more about you than a love for chugging guitars and funky bass lines. Professing a love for Bob Dylan in the '60s would have implied far more than an appreciation for acoustic guitar and nasally vocals. When was this magical time that people listened to music only for its sonic uniqueness?

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As much as I'd like to blame all of this on our self-appointed and oh so enlightened ministers of culture, some of the blame has to go to the structure of the music business itself right now. Streaming, which is the main way people listen to music, doesn't pay enough to live on. Lady Gaga, for example, got paid $167 for 1 Million plays of the song Poker Face. There are plenty of buskers that take home more than that in a few hours.

This basically forces every single artist to turn themselves into a lifestyle brand to sell endorsements, merch, etc. This means that an artist's image is designed to get fans to think that liking them actually means something profound about the fan.

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To those saying "wasn't there always posturing?" I think the answer is yes, there used to be posturing plus appreciation for the music. Now perhaps it's *primarily* posturing, and allowing the posturing to override any honesty about the quality of the music.

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Pitchfork was always pricks, but at least they used to have something to say. Now there’s wayyy more competition in the music review space, so they’re not unique and they’re deeply insecure about that. Combine that with the Condé Nast acquisition, which made it a done deal that they were going to be swallowed up by the most bland version of corporate wokeness. When they started to openly feel guilty about supporting too many white male musicians in the past, it’s no surprise that the whole thing collapsed in on itself and became worthless. When pitchfork gave an album a great review in the past, you can guarantee the album was going to have certain qualities. Now that those qualities are racist, or whatever, it seems almost completely random what they assign best new music these days.

The way they review black artists is insufferable. The more ignorant, violent, and formulaic the rap album, the less likely they are to give it a bad review. The album will be like “Lil Shoota- Murda wit my Glock” and the reviewer will write about his “intricate triplet flows” and “bleak lyricism addressing the socioeconomic disparities in their community” and rate it a 7.4. Meanwhile they’ll nitpick the hell out of any artists (black or white) trying to say something positive and throw a 6 at it. I can’t stand how they try to intellectualize that garbage like it’s not complete garbage, especially for the communities it comes from. They’re too wrecked with white guilt to even consider that a black person could create something bad for the black community.

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"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."

As a person that loves music almost more than anything else in my life I find the truth of this statement hopelessly depressing. I hope there are other things in these writers' lives that they can just sit back and enjoy without all the triangulation.

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