Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My Pitchfork Problem-and Yours

I like the new Eminem album. Well, not the new Eminem album per se, but a bunch of tracks on it. They're all clumsy as hell lyrically and saddled with lumpy, Linkin Park-y beats. But the guy has literally never been better technique-wise, and there's more fire in his voice than there's been since The Eminem Show all the way back in 2002. Take the otherwise laughably unselfconscious "No Love," which groaningly enough samples Haddaway's "What is Love": Eminem's not rapping so much as winding himself into a frothy, quadruple-time fury. The rapping becomes almost polyrhythmic as Marshall flips from a mesmerizing slow flow to a Twista-esque hyperspeed spit and back again in seconds. It really is exhilarating, and attests to the fact that Eminem remains a magnetic, compelling presence.

But Pitchfork, that unseen panel of hipster judges, hated the record. Which explains why I don't like the new Eminem album: because I was too ashamed to buy the whole thing.

Their review of Eminem's Recovery is nothing if not withering (that 2.8 score should speak for itself). What I read as a sincere reclamation of Eminem's passion for rap they see as a series of desperate attempts to convince his audience of his relevance. Where I see real fire, they see a record "devoid of any noticeable joy, personality, or wit." I appreciate what Eminem's gained (or gained back), but they seem interested only in focusing on what he's lost.

It's not as if I can't see where they're coming from. Eminem leans far too heavily on the aforementioned alternative rock-influenced beats (Alex da Kid, of "Airplanes" infamy, is a particular offender with his beat for "Love the Way You Lie"), and those lyrics do leave a lot to be desired: "Now you get to watch her leave/Out the window/Guess that's why they call it window pane." But I like the songs! So why won't I shell out $9.49 on Amazon and buy the damn thing?

Because Pitchfork told me not to. Because despite my confidence in my own taste, I can't help but think that they're just right, that they really are the arbiters of good taste and my calibration's just off. I won't buy the new Eminem album because I think I'm wrong.

Which is, I realize, an insanely idiotic reason not to buy something. But Pitchfork is right on the money so often that it's easy to think that they're infallible (at least for me). They spot trends from a mile away and raise bands from obscurity to near-household names with a simple "Best New Music" tag. Seriously, would anyone have paid a lick of attention to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! without Pitchfork?

Yeah, it's a chicken and egg thing at this point; are "Pitchfork bands" great because Pitchfork likes them, or does Pitchfork like them because they're great? It's sometimes hard to tell, but that the former is even an option speaks to the totality of the site's influence.

It is, without exaggeration, nearly impossible to find an artist liked by more than a dozen people who Pitchfork doesn't have an opinion on. Their well-designed and scrupulously-updated website casts its net over a strikingly wide array of music; while they limit themselves to reviewing five albums a day (no mean feat), their "Forkcast" (essentially a music blog, though they refuse to call it one) illuminates even more music, even if it isn't "reviewed" in the traditional sense. And they've made a concerted effort recently to cover time with genres they touch fleetingly on with the main site (metal, hip-hop, and other "outlier genres") through columns like "The Out Door" and their recently-launched Altered Zones collective, which caused a fair bit of controversy when it launched back in July.

Pavement at P4K 2010 (Photo courtesy of Frank M. Burton)
Their omnipresence can be galling. If you like an artist that Pitchfork likes, you can't help but feel like you're just following their lead. After all, the entire concept of music snobbery is driven by the concept of "critical autonomy": "I listen to this music because I like it, not because some corporation told me I do." And with their readership in the millions are their sold-out Heineken-sponsored music festivals, it's hard not to think of Pitchfork as a kind of giant corporate succubus.

Some music fans have taken to seeking out artists (and falling in love with them) simply because Pitchfork doesn't cover them or because Pitchfork dismissed them. And, ironically enough, I follow their lead much of the time. I delight in finding artists (Leif Vollebekk, Vic Mensa, Mikkey Halsted) who Pitchfork hasn't levied an opinion on.

The site's not perfect. The very idea that you must "criticize" a piece of music rather than just tell people about it is offensive on its own terms. And the form that that criticism takes can be frequently pretentious or just plain cruel.

But the real reason for the quantity (and vehemence) of Pitchfork's haters is that they're so good at what they do. As a close friend put it, "I love Pitchfork. I never would've discovered most of my favorite bands if it weren't for those guys." And who can really argue with the awesomeness of the Pitchfork Music Festival, despite its dubious Big Beer sponsorship? It has become something of a Chicago institution, with a great location, fair pricing, wonderful food, and consistently great lineups.

At the end of the day, one must give credit where credit is due, and people should stop worrying about whether they like something partially or even wholly because they heard about it from Pitchfork. Like Marshall Mathers, there's a lot of reasons to dislike Pitchfork. But I'll stick with 'em.