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Pitchfork's Progress 

Will a sassy, hip website spell doom for printed rock criticism?

JILL  PEARSONS
  • Jill Pearsons

It turns out that the funniest Onionesque fake-news story penned so far this year did not spring from The Onion. No, Sub Pop Records -- a concern not ordinarily known for its forays into satire and comedy writing -- deserves full credit for "Pitchfork Staff Member Says 'Hi' to Real-Life Woman."

"This marks the first time a member of the Pitchfork staff has made direct verbal contact with someone of the opposite sex," the blurb announces. "Normally content with sitting in his mother's basement eating Cheetos and watching bootlegged Jawbreaker videos, Andy somehow got the courage to speak openly to a girl at last Friday's show."

As wise old sage "Weird Al" Yankovic has taught us, mockery is the sincerest form of flattery. Thus the apparently socially stultified rock-crit geeks at Pitchforkmedia.com, the internet's wildly popular indie-centric news-and-reviews portal of evil, should be delighted indeed that Sub Pop found the site remarkable and prominent enough to launch so elaborate a parody. The send-up, at SubPop.com/ features/pdork, is stunning in its attention to detail, copying Pitchfork's layout exactly as it lampoons the news section's hipster elitism (headline: "Indie cred flawlessly maintained. Personal credit history, not so much") and the elaborate 0.0 to 10.0 CD-rating system ("1.0-1.9: I got kicked out of a band that sounded like this").

Climactically, the joke headline to a hypothetical review of the Rapture's Echoes is "Dance Music is the new ska."

"That was so flattering," raves Pitchfork mastermind Ryan Schreiber over the phone from Chicago, where the site is based. "It was unbelievable that Sub Pop, this label -- I mean, they were huge before we had even been conceived. They were a label that I followed for years and years before even considering starting this website. For them to be able to do a parody of our site and have people even know what they're talking about, it was really cool. It was the coolest thing in the world."

In fact, the comedy site SomethingAwful.com followed up with its own elaborate Pitchfork spoof a couple of months later, though it was far meaner (and lamer) than Sub Pop's. For discerning music geeks, Pitchfork has indeed morphed into the Holy Grail since Schreiber and a buddy started it in his bedroom at his parents' Minneapolis house in 1995 -- he says that the site now reaches an average of 90,000 readers a day. Why? As every major music magazine's CD-review section has devolved into a graveyard of 100-word blurbs offering no room for creativity, personality, or relevant criticism, Pitchfork has exploded outward, with 500-word reviews that read like essays, short stories, diary entries, and/or harebrained literary experiments.

Writing style? Flowery, ambitious, decidedly postgraduate. Knowledge base? Hugely intimidating; these people seem to know everything about everything before anyone else knows anything. Opinions? Brash, outspoken, occasionally very bitchy. Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts & Flowers and Liz Phair's reviled last record both share the distinction of a Pitchfork-awarded 0.0 review: "Breaks new ground for terrible."

"What do you want, a closing paragraph? Something to wrap it all up, tie everything together?" demands the tail end of the Pitchfork review for the Anniversary's actually quite excellent album Your Majesty. "Fuck you. Don't buy this."

"I feel like honesty is so important in a record review," Schreiber says. "You can't worry about what the artist is gonna think, what the label's gonna think -- 'Oh, are we gonna get cut from their promo list?' To me it's completely irrelevant. The first thing that any editor should be concerned about is integrity. If you're just reining it in to try and save one person, what's the point? It's criticism. It's criticism! Who responds well to criticism?"

All right. Let's stop drinking the Kool-Aid for a second.

Pitchfork's bile is remarkable, but its enormous literary aspirations do set it apart, and set the site's adorers and abhorrers apart as well. In attempting to avoid the colorless-blurb graveyard, a Pitchfork review can swing the pendulum too far in the other direction: a dense, hugely overwritten, utterly incomprehensible brick of critical fruitcake.

"I say that sometimes," admits Eric Carr, a Pitchfork writer who, as the advertising director, is Schreiber's only consistent full-time employee. "Occasionally, we've written something that even I'm like, 'I can't believe someone wanted to write this.' But I mean, I think that's the allure of Pitchfork for people -- chances are, you're going to see something that someone's put a lot of thought into, where they haven't just rattled off a paragraph: 'This album sounds like this, buy it if you like bands X, Y, and Z.'"

Though a few writers have dabbled in more traditional outlets like Magnet and Spin (pubs the site's brain trust doesn't unequivocally hate, though British mags such as Mojo are preferred), a good many of Pitchfork's stable of 20-odd staff writers and contributors have no prior rock-crit experience or interest in making a career out of this.

The wide-eyed idealist view of all this: The internet, with its universal reach and anyone-can-start-a-blog accessibility, will eventually render such dinosaurs as print mags obsolete. "Rolling Stone is already obsolete, in terms of music criticism," Schreiber says. "As far as the internet being revolutionary, sort of a next wave? You know what? I think it is. In a way, it's similar to the punk revolution in the '70s -- 'Oh, I don't need to know how to play an instrument; I don't need to sign with a major label to make the music or express myself.' The internet has basically allowed the same thing."

Chris Jacobs, Sub Pop's marketing director and unofficial ringleader of the Popdork parody (various label worker bees pitched in), is hesitant to grant Pitchfork any mythical cultural powers. "The 'new music-criticism establishment' just sounds terribly staid and dull to me," he writes in an e-mail. "Do people pay attention to Pitchfork? Yeah, I think so, absolutely. I'm not a big fan of any sweeping statements about online publications taking over or anything like that. I mean, even Pitchfork just put out a book, right?" (Thesaurus Musicarum, a print-form bells-and-whistles anthology of Pitchfork's best 2003 work). "Rumors of the death of print are greatly exaggerated."

And yet, when Jacobs and his Sub Pop compatriots started passing around a "Dean's List" of rock dos and don'ts -- "Happy Cry Funny Gift is not an album title. You will be mentally filed under Suck Lame Do Not Buy Beat Up" -- and wanted to share it with the public, spoofing Pitchfork seemed the most logical way to go about it. The site represents this mentality now: (sometimes too) smart, (sometimes not that) funny, (sometimes bombastically) opinionated, (always unfailingly) hip.

And Jacobs admits that one day another Pitchfork staffer may make an overture to the opposite sex. "No one is beyond help," he counsels. "With the proper nutritional supplements, careful (and consistent!) hygiene, strenuous exercise, and a cursory familiarity with spoken English, almost anyone can say, 'Hello' to just about anyone they choose. Failing that, generous intake of alcohol or illicit substances seems to do the trick."

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