The Pitchfork Problem, by M. Mellody

pitchfork

When Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped in November 2010, the album felt immediately important. It was equal parts pop and high art, ridiculous spectacle and self-conscious confession. Critics collectively lost their shit. Rolling Stone, Pop Matters, Slant, Entertainment Weekly, and Mojo all bestowed perfect scores on the record. My friend Mark, whose appreciation for rap music begins and ends with Big Willie Style, spent a semester convincing me the auto-tune solo at the end of “Runaway” was the future of music.

But none of these endorsements mattered quite like Pitchfork’s. In his review, Pitchfork editor Ryan Dombal described Kanye as an artist “crazy enough to truly believe he’s the greatest out there” who makes “a startlingly strong case for just that.” But it wasn’t the words in Dombal’s review that prompted Twitter to explode, fueled conspiracy theories, and invited passionate responses from writers across the internet. It was the 10.0 rating at the top, the first perfect score Pitchfork had given to a new album in almost a decade.

***

Ryan Schreiber founded Pitchfork in 1995 with a Mac computer and a dial-up connection. Then a recent high school graduate living in Minneapolis, Schreiber wanted a piece of the fanzine culture surrounding alternative music at the time. Instead of Xeroxing copies of his zine, though, Schreiber built a website. Over the next decade and a half, Pitchfork became the authority in the world of independent music. It now comprises a website, two weekend-long music festivals, a YouTube channel, and Pitchfork Advance, its most recent innovation that allows users to stream albums before they’re released. With nearly 300,000 daily page views, it’s one of the most read music publications on the Internet.

It's about the music

Pitchfork’s popularity and influence has a lot to do with its rating system. In lieu of letters or stars, Pitchfork employs a 10.0 scale with a total of 101 possible gradients. It’s obvious why this rating system has been widely criticized. At some point, reducing music to a single number is arbitrary and absurd.  When Pitchfork began, though, this was part of the fun. In a 1996 review of the album gay? by 12 Rods, writer Jason Josephenes exclaims, “12 Rods is like everything and nothing, occupying a special nook in my head where music is wonderful and I believe in superheroes again.” The album’s 10.0 rating only reinforced this consciously sophomoric style; it was all in good fun.

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Over the last decade, Pitchfork has evolved. Their writing is polished; their design is professional; their enterprise is expanding. It’s a business, not a blog, and they treat their ratings accordingly. You won’t find any stray 10.0s or even 8.0s on the site—every review and rating is crafted to fit neatly within Pitchfork’s own hierarchy. The new Grizzly Bear album Shields (9.1) is slightly better than its predecessor Veckatimist (9.0). You don’t need to read the review to reach this conclusion—just glance at the rating.

Most music publications provide readers with a similar shortcut. Rolling Stone employs a 5-star system. Spin rates albums out of 10. These ratings preview the review, helping readers to sift and prioritize. But when a number is so privileged over the actual criticism, the shortcut goes too far. Too often the words in Pitchfork reviews seem to exist only to justify the ratings at the top of the page. Sometimes we’re left with a 0.0 rating and no words at all. Although a 0.0 review only left a minor dent in Jet’s career, it can devastate a different kind of artist.

Travis Morrison is a Pitchforkcomputer programmer. He works for The Huffington Post and lives in New York with his wife, Katherine Goldstein, an editor at Slate. He’s also a former rock star. In 1999, Morrison was the front man of The Dismemberment Plan, an indie rock outfit at the peak of their powers. Pitchfork had just blessed their latest album Emergency & I with a near-perfect 9.6. They opened for Pearl Jam and co-headlined a tour with Death Cab For Cutie. A few years later, The Plan disbanded, but Morrison seemed poised for a successful solo career. Then came the Pitchfork review of his first solo album. Pitchfork gave Travistan a 0.0, declaring “I’ve never heard a record more angry, frustrated, and even defensive about its own weaknesses, or more determined to slug those flaws right down your throat.” The review stifled album and concert sales. Morrison told The Washington Post, “Up until the day of the review, I’d play a solo show, and people would be like, ‘That’s our boy, our eccentric boy.’ Literally, the view changed overnight … I could tell people were trying to figure out if they were supposed to be there or not. It was pretty severe, how the mood changed.” He managed one more album before ending his solo career altogether.

Although Pitchfork’s 10.0 rating of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy validated their influence as a tastemaker, their 0.0 rating of Travistan sent a menacing message to bands everywhere—we can break you with a single number. That number changes how you experience a review, often rendering it a hollow afterthought. What else is there to say about a 0.0 album?  

***

More than ever, critics are important. Deciding what to listen to requires wading through a steady stream of tweets, posts, and songs. Forming your own opinions about an album seems herculean. That’s why critics are so vital now—they provide an educated, well-considered perspective for those of us who don’t have the time or expertise. They tell us what we should think about Channel Orange, and we’re free to disagree. But what happens when the critic gives you more than their opinion? What if they give you the answer?

An individual Pitchfork rating tells you what to think—Arcade Fire’s Funeral must be great because of its 9.7 rating. But taken as a whole, Pitchfork reviews can shape how you think about music. To the regular Pitchfork reader, Funeral is no longer just a strong album. It’s 0.1 worse than Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antartica. It’s 0.1 better than The Fiery Furnaces Blueberry Boat. It’s 0.3 away from perfection. This schema is convenient for filling year-end lists and instigating arguments over tenths of a point. It also suggests Pitchfork takes an exact, sophisticated approach to music. But the ratings are ultimately reductive, falsely claiming to quantify the unquantifiable.

Arcade Fire Funeral

The implications for the Pitchfork reader are unsettling. Upon hearing a song or album, he begins to fit it into this schema, rating and categorizing it in his mental archive. He begins to listen for nebulous qualities like “originality” and “authenticity.” Enjoyment becomes secondary. I know this because it happened to me.

***

Last year, I began listening to the Bowerbirds, a folk outfit from North Carolina that sounds like an earthier, less earnest Avett Brothers. I began with 2009’s Upper Air and worked my way backward through 2007’s Hymns for a Dark Horse and an early EP. I enjoyed it all, but Upper Air’s cleaner, more straightforward sound made it my clear favorite. Until I logged onto Pitchfork. Hymns for a Dark Horse: 8.4. Upper Air: 7.2.

Bowerbirds Upper Air

At first, just a kernel of doubt. One-point-two better?  Had I missed something? Over just a few days, this kernel grew into full-on reexamination. I went back to both albums, not to enjoy them, but to answer a question—“Which was better?” I listened coldly, weighing pros and cons, and began to understand Pitchfork’s perspective. Upper Air definitely is less consistent, I thought. A little too polished perhaps.  Hymns is so raw—it captures a sense of place in a way that Upper Air doesn’t.

For a while, my taste changed. When I pulled up Bowerbirds on my iPod, I browsed through Hymns first. Pitchfork was right. I kept on listening and checking their ratings.

But Upper Air is better. A voice in my head that wouldn’t leave. Although Pitchfork told me Hymns more accurately captured “place,” this wasn’t true. Not for me. It was Upper Air that summoned memories—of reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, of falling asleep early, of feeling lonely in a new city, of finding comfort in a familiar sound and language. These are things a Pitchfork critic could never know—how could he? But I had ignored my own tastes and judgments in favor of Pitchfork’s authority and precision.

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In an interview with the The Chicago Sun-Times, Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber addressed Pitchfork’s role as a source for music journalism: “I think that what we’re doing is we’re documenting the artists.”  But Pitchfork does so much more. It champions unknowns. It destroys careers. It ranks and re-ranks. It keeps you in the loop. It’s addictive and fun and powerful. Just don’t let it change how you listen to music.

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