Last week, reviews came in for Phoenix rap group Injury Reserve's self-titled debut album (including from this publication), and one, from Pitchfork, was particularly unkind.
Rating the record a middling 6.8, writer Sheldon Pearce begins the piece by declaring that Injury Reserve seem "more like a random selection of three customers at a Zumiez store than a rap group."
He details their background in a short paragraph, telling how producer Parker Corey's swim injury led to his making beats in his grandfather's dentist office and assembling the crew. Pierce goes on to praise Corey's production and lightly denigrate rappers Stepa J. Groggs and Ritchie With a T, who are not "particularly groundbreaking MCs" despite their "genuine feel for making the most out of Corey’s productions."
Naturally, this review didn't sit well with at least one of the group members, though not in the way you might expect. "If pitchfork wants to give that score then fine but please just review the album," Parker Corey wrote on Twitter last week. "Don’t spend 3/4 of the write up critiquing who we were in high school based off a handful of dated interviews."
Unfortunately, this type of treatment is not a fluke for Pitchfork.
Take a look at any given review the site publishes — five per weekday, and at least one more on Sundays — and you will probably find the same formula. A review of the new Sebadoh album spends two paragraphs talking about the band's past work before discussing the new one with a similar lofty tone and verbose style. In a piece on the Young Nudy and Pi'erre Bourne mixtape Sli'merre, the first graph is dedicated to a labored metaphor relating to a photo of the Miami Heat winning the NBA championship, while the second needs to mention that Nudy's cousin is 21 Savage, and that both were arrested in February.
At Pitchfork, every review needs to establish some sort of narrative before getting to the music, regardless of relevance to the music itself.
Often, if the artist goes in a different direction than expected, or even if they stay the course, the publication doesn't favor the artist involved. Take its reaction to the latest album from Mac DeMarco, who Pitchfork has given "Best New Music" to twice and who it once christened "the goofball prince of indie rock" in a huge cover feature on the guy. The publication praised his last album, This Old Dog, but felt that the singer-songwriter was "keeping his sights low." Its response to the new record, Here Comes The Cowboy, is even cooler: After spilling what seems like an interminable amount of ink establishing where DeMarco's been and what he's been doing since the last record, the reviewer writes "Frustratingly, what should be appealing about the album — the breeziness and low-stakes, anything-goes atmosphere — is also what makes it impossible to latch onto the bulk of the songs."
To me, this says that Pitchfork will never be satisfied with what an artist does unless there is an appropriate story around them. It's true that criticism doesn't happen in a vacuum, and that the events of an artist's life affect their work, but these reviews foreground those events to the detriment of all involved, from artist to writer to reader. It's the Pitchfork model of music criticism, and it's contributed more to the degradation of culture writing and journalism in the internet era than anything else.
In its early days, the site was infamous for high-concept, unapologetic reviews. The writing was occasionally questionable — the flashy prose in its 2000 review of Radiohead's Kid A has become legendary among music nerds — and so were the scores it gave (what's the difference between a 7.9 and a 7.8?). But its penchant for breaking unknown bands gave the site an extraordinary amount of influence in the 2000s. Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Grizzly Bear, LCD Soundsystem — all can trace their success, to an extent, back to a "Best New Music" review from Pitchfork.
And there's the rub — "Best New Music." This designation, where the album's score is in red instead of black, is how Pitchfork makes transparent what it approves. If an artist receives a BNM, the writers will go to great lengths trying to convince you that it really is the second coming of Christ, that this band will change your life, that you need to hear it or else you're missing out. No BNM, and the artist might as well not exist. Other publications aren't quite as transparent about who they're pushing, but because of its perceived influence, Pitchfork doesn't need to be tactful.
Thankfully, the advent of streaming and the changing nature of music have put a dent in Pitchfork's influence, and its writers are no longer quite the tastemakers they used to be. Rather, they now seem to be blatantly chasing trends to maintain credibility.
In 2015, the site was purchased by Condé Nast, essentially making it the music arm of a massive, corporate publishing machine that includes Vogue and The New Yorker.
A website redesign in 2016 brought along an arrogant new motto: "The most trusted voice in music." Around this time, it began pivoting away from indie rock and toward hip-hop and pop music, although it does still push certain guitar-focused acts like Big Thief and boygenius.
Pitchfork became especially concerned with emphasizing the social importance of certain artists, even when such an argument was laughable or tenuous, a blatant case of "corporate wokeness" that disregards questions of class and industry connections in favor of treating diversity and inclusion as the be-all, end-all markers of artistic progress.
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As it began doling out BNMs to pop albums of questionable quality such as Lorde's Melodrama and The 1975's A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, the seal became a marker less of "good music" and more of "music you should be paying attention to because we say so."
It's accepted as a given that Pitchfork has betrayed its independent roots, but really, was it worth much before?
Frankly, I never believed that its writers ever cared about anything other than being right, and their genuflecting over how such-and-such flavor-of-the-month singer, rapper, or band is merely the latest iteration of this. Pitchfork is, and always has been, a clout chaser, and now that it's a fully loaded arm of the corporate media, it is even more important for us all to disregard Pitchfork's shitty opinions, think for ourselves, and listen to whatever we want. The stories it markets don't matter — only the music does, and as its review of Injury Reserve proves, it's constantly wrong about that, too.