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One day in early 2010, the internet message board I Love Music began
discussing the Pazz and Jop poll, which the Village Voice had recently
published on its website. The Voice has conducted Pazz and Jop annually
since 1971. Hundreds of music critics submit lists ranking their favorite
albums and singles, and the Voice compiles two master lists identifying the
years best music. It is the main event in American popular music criticism.
On I Love Music, the Pazz and Jop thread chugged slowly along for a few
hours. Then Scott Plagenhoef, editor-in- chief of the music website
Pitchfork, began posting under the name scottpl, and things picked up
speed. 11 of the top 13 LPs and five of the top six singles are shared
between this and the Pitchfork list, Plagenhoef wrote. For what its
worth.

The suggestion that the nations music critics had copied their end-of-the-
year charts from a website just over a decade old was a clear provocation,
and twenty-four hours and hundreds of posts later the conversation was no
longer about Pazz and Jop. Man, Pitchfork circa 2000 and 2001 vs now is
night and day, Plagenhoef wrote. The size of the site now utterly dwarfs
the site then, and certainly the way its run and decisions are made are
different. Plagenhoef did his best to maintain a modest pose (I dont beg
for credit or claim to be responsible for things), but in the end it was hard
to resist a triumphal note. Weve succeeded at a time when nobody else
has, he wrote. We reach more people right now than Spin or Vibe ever
did, even if you use the bs print mag idea that every copy is read by 2.5
people . . . hell, I should stop caring, get back to work, and let people keep
underestimating us. Then he posted two more times. Then he wrote,
Alright, I will get out of this thread. Then he posted eighteen more times.

He may have been bragging, but Plagenhoef was right. In the last decade,
no organ of music criticism has wielded as much influence as Pitchfork. It
is the only publication, online or print, that can have a decisive effect on a
musician or bands career. This has something to do with the sites
diligently cultivated readership: no genres fans are more vulnerable to
music criticism than the educated, culturally anxious young people who
pay close attention to indie rock. Other magazines and websites compete
for these readers attention, of course, but they come and go, one dissolving
into the next, while Pitchfork keeps on gathering strength. Everyone
acknowledges this. And yet everyone also acknowledges something else:
whatever attracts people to Pitchfork, it isnt the writing. Even writers who
admire the sites reviews almost always feel obliged to describe the prose as
uneven, and thats charitable. Pitchfork has a very specific scoring system
that grades albums on a scale from 0.0 to 10.0, and that accounts for some
of the sites appeal, but it cant just be the scores. I could start a website
with scores right now, and nobody would care. So what is it? How has
Pitchfork succeeded where so many other websites and magazines have
not? And why is that success depressing?

Ryan Schreiber launched Pitchfork in November 1995 from his


parents house in a suburb of Minneapolis. Because the domain name
www.pitchfork.com belonged to a company selling livestock out of Butte
Falls, Oregon, Schreiber had to settle for www.pitchforkmedia.com. The
name, he told BusinessWeek in 2008, was meant to suggest an angry mob
mentality toward the music industry. He was 19, a recent high school
graduate working part-time jobs and going to indie rock concerts in
downtown Minneapolis. Hindsight makes it easy to see Schreiber as a
1990s digital visionary, but the truth is more prosaic: he wanted to write
about music, and money was scarce. I thought it would be really cool to
meet the people in bands I liked and talk to them, he told an interviewer.
I loved reading print fanzines . . . but at the same time, their distribution
was limited and there was a lot of overhead to cover . . . so it was a case of
publish on the internet or dont publish at all. In its earliest days,
Pitchfork was written almost entirely by Schreiberreviews, a little news,
and interviews with groups passing through Minneapolis. His parents,
Schreiber says, got angry about the phone bills he racked up contacting
record labels in New York, but as the free CDs began to roll in, Schreiber
realized that he had found his calling: Once I heard about the promos, I
was like, Oh my God, unbelievable! Unbelievable!'

Schreibers youthful enthusiasm is everywhere in Pitchforks early reviews.


(Although most of them have been taken down from the site, some can still
be found on the Internet Archives Wayback Machine.) Today, as a matter
of practice if not explicit principle, Pitchfork grants the vast majority of its
perfect scores10.0to reissues, albums that have weathered the storms
of popular taste for a decade or two. Before 2000 the site allowed its
writers far more license, awarding 10.0s to Walt Minks El Producto, 12
Rods Gay?, and Amon Tobins Bricolage, albums that almost nobody
remembers today. The writing that accompanied these scores was sweet
and hyperbolic. Opening his 10.0 review of Bonnie Prince Billys I See A
Darkness (1999), Samir Khan, one of the sites early reviewers, wrote,
Music is a wounded, corrupted, vile, half-breed mutt that begs for
attention as it scratches at your door. I dont know what that sentence
means, but the sentiment is clear enough. Untroubled by knowledge, wide-
eyed, drunk on enthusiasm: this is what hearing pop music as a teenager
feels like.

Even Pitchforks obsession with numbers, which eventually came to seem


pedantic and sometimes cruel, was initially more like an adolescent game.
Since Pitchforks writers had just graduated from high school, a place
where the difference between an 89 and a 91 could not have been more
consequential, they were well positioned to distinguish between an 8.3
album and an 8.7. The pseudoscientific precision101 possible ratings
instead of the usual four or five starswas a large part of the appeal.

In order for Pitchfork to justify the proliferation of ratings, the reviews


were going to need to proliferate as well. Although Schreiber initially chose
a web format because it was cheaper than photocopying, one of the
internets advantages over print media soon began to reveal itself: its
archival potential. Old reviews didnt go anywhere (at least not until
Pitchfork began to airbrush its history); they accumulated. Schreiber
counted the number of albums Pitchfork had covered, and by early 1999 he
could announce, at the bottom of the sites front page, 1,512 REVIEWS
SINCE TH.FEB.01.96.

In addition to removing the overhead costs associated with print


publishing, the internet, in a happy coincidence, had also solved the
problems of information that plagued zine culture. The bands you liked
or, rather, the bands you might potentially like, if you ever managed to
hear about themwere not on the radio. They would come to your local
indie rock venue eventually (in Minneapolis the main one was First
Avenue), but usually you had to be 18 to get in, and anyway what were you
going to do, hang out at First Avenue every night of the week? It wasnt
going to be cheap. Zines helped to keep people informed by publishing
interviews, concert write-ups, and an enormous number of record reviews;
but they were also hard to find, hard to keep track of, and, even if you
hoarded the issues, hard to search through. As Schreiber began publishing
writers other than himself, and as the archive grew, Pitchfork began to look
like something other than a collection of off-the-cuff record reviews by
teenagers. It began to look like a project with a mission, however
accidental: an encyclopedia of contemporary tastes in rock and roll,
accessible to everyone, everywhere.

Early Pitchforks narrow focus on indie rock wasnt a conscious decision


indie rock just happened to be the kind of music that most of Ryan
Schreibers friends liked. Even as the site began poking around in other
genres, it was not hard to figure out where the writers had come from.
Reading through the archive, watching Pitchfork begin to discover
thoughtful, politically liberal rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest and
Jurassic 5, I felt a shock of white suburban recognition. In 1998, Lang
Whitaker gave a 7.1 to the Black Eyed Peas, speculating that with a line-up
that looks straight out of a Benetton ad, maybe the group could assume
their mantle as hip-hops street saviors. One year later, in a review of The
Roots Things Fall Apart, Samir Khan congratulated the group on
featuring an intelligent rapper. Other genres were treated with the same
endearing bewilderment. Schreiber, in particular, fell head over heels in
love with 1960s jazz. On Thelonious Monk: The man could play a piano
like it was a goddamn video game. And on John Coltrane, recorded live at
the Village Vanguard: Trane takes it to heaven and back with some style,
man. Some richness, daddy. Its a sad thing his life was cut short by them
jaws o death. Its easy to complain about this kind of thing, but it isnt
racist. It isnt even insensitive, really. Its just oblivious. What could be less
anxious, less self-conscious, than a white 21-year-old writing about John
Coltrane in the voice of an old black man? It must have been nice to write
on the internet and feel that the only people paying attention were your
friends. This initial three-year period was Pitchforks Edenic phase, and it
came to an end in June 1999, when Shawn Fanning, a student at
Northeastern University, launched Napster.

People think that Napster liberated recorded music by making it available


at no monetary cost, but that is not exactly right. Napster allowed you to
keep your money, but it also told you there was something shameful in
keeping your musical tastes to yourself. In its default setting, the service
made each users collection available for everyones perusal. Fanning spent
his teenage years immersed in the open-source culture of internet message
boards, where circulating your own hacks and helping to improve the work
of others was just good citizenship, and this collaborative ethos migrated
smoothly into the realm of digital music. You could change Napsters
default setting and keep your own files hidden, but then everyone would
resent youit was called file sharing for a reason. Although Napster was
shut down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2001, its ethic lives
on in the language of music downloading. On sites using the BitTorrent
file-sharing protocol, someone who makes a torrent available to others is
called a seeder. Someone who only downloads material made available by
others, on the other hand, is a leech.

Back when people still had to pay for music, money served to limit and
define consumption. You could only afford so many records, so you bought
what you could, listened to the radio or watched MTV, and ignored
everything else. Those select few who did manage to hear everything
record store clerks, DJs, nerds with personal warehousescould use this
rare knowledge to terrorize their social or sexual betters, as in the pre-
internet-era film High Fidelity. Napster made all of that obsolete. Today,
almost every person I know has more music on his computer than he could
ever know what to do with. You dont need to care about music to end up
like thisthe accumulation occurs naturally and unconsciously. My iTunes
library, for example, contains forty-seven days of music. According to the
column that counts the number of times Ive played each song, roughly a
sixth of that music has never been listened to at all. In the 21st century, we
are all record store clerks.

Music began to register the overabundance of supply almost immediately


by inventing a new subgenre of dance song that made it possible to listen to
your whole music library at once: the mashup. In 2001, a DJ called
Freelance Hellraiser laid the vocals from Christina Aguileras Genie in a
Bottle over the instrumental from Hard to Explain by The Strokes. What
distinguished the mashup was precisely how obvious it was, how
celebratory and stupid. You recognized both songs (usually a warm,
classic-rock instrumental and a raunchy rap lyric) and appreciated the
faux-unlikeliness of their juxtaposition. In the years following Napsters
heyday, dozens of other mashup albums and mixtapes arrived: Uneasy
Listening Vol. 1 by DJ Z-Trip and DJ P, Never Scared by Hollertronix, and
most famously, Danger Mouses The Grey Album, which coupled songs
from Jay-Zs The Black Album with The Beatles White Album. The biggest
misconception about the mashup was that it was meant for dancing. But
the mashups ideal listener is seated at his desk, bathed in the computer
screens aquarium glow, Googling any songs he didnt pick up the first time
around.

Most mashups are quite crudely put together. What made the mashup DJ
impressive was the breadth of his iTunes library, his mastery of it, and his
taste. This made him an ironically heroic figure, because while using
Napster for the first time was exciting, it also forced you to confront your
own inadequacy. Everyone on the internet had better music than you did,
or at least more of it. You could spend whole evenings downloading to close
the gap, but what were you actually supposed to do with all these new
songs? Listen to them? That could take years, and all the while youd be
downloading more music.
In the middle of 2000, having raised a few thousand dollars selling
records on eBay, Schreiber moved Pitchfork to an office in the Wicker Park
neighborhood of Chicago. His stable of writerspeople willing to produce
long reviews for very little money and a CDwas growing, and on the sites
Staff page, these writers posted irreverent profiles of themselves. Matt
LeMay, who still works for the site as a senior contributor, put up a picture
of a cactus instead of his face, and wrote, Matt LeMay wasnt like the other
cacti. On the Advertising page, the site bragged about a readership that
had tripled since January, 2000! Pitchfork is now receiving over 130,000
visits every month, more than any of our print competitors. This looks like
a dubious claimRolling Stones circulation was well over one millionbut
Pitchfork wasnt thinking that big yet. They meant other indie rock zines,
none of which survive today. [Our writers] genuinely care about music,
the pitch read, unlike some of the big time playaz thatre just in the
business for the bling bling. Charging $300 per month for a banner ad,
Pitchfork attracted indie bands with new releases, upstart record labels,
and online music stores like InSound, eMusic, and Spun.com. One good
reason to advertise with Pitchfork was that Schreiber was now publishing
four reviews a day, five days a week, and thus gradually turning his small
audience into a loyal one. Best of all, though, was the fact that Pitchfork
had a five-year head start on rating all the music that Napster had recently
made available for free: Our massive record review archive is one of the
most comprehensive indie-based review archives on the web with more
than 3,000 reviews spanning the past five years.

In the same month that Schreiber established Pitchfork in Chicago,


Radiohead released their fourth album, Kid A. In the past, record reviews
were for helping people decide whether to buy something. They were
shunted to the back of the magazine, they were frequently brief, and they
were secondary to the illustrated profiles and interviews that moved issues
off the newsstand. For years, Americas most intelligent rock critic, Robert
Christgau, wrote a weekly review column for the Voice with the not-quite-
tongue-in-cheek title Christgaus Consumer Guide. If a record clocked in
at less than half an hour, he mentioned it, the idea being that you needed
value for your money. But when Kid A was released that October, it had
been online for three weeks, for free, and readers clicking on Brent
DiCrescenzos Pitchfork review were not looking for a consumer guide. So
what were they looking for? Because Kid A was the best album Pitchfork
had ever reviewed, and because Radiohead was one of the first bands to
build up an internet fan apparatus, DiCrescenzos answer to that question
would have important consequences for Pitchforks future.

The strategy DiCrescenzo decided on had two parts. First, he pushed


Pitchforks fondness for rhetorical extravagance as far as possible. The
experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the
stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see
her play in the afterlife on Imax, he wrote. Comparing this to other
albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper. This, in
itself, was no major innovation: rhetorical excess had long been one of the
hallmarks of rock writing, a natural if usually doomed attempt to translate
the musics depraved energies into prose. The next movegiving the
record a 10.0didnt seem like an innovation either. The site had awarded
perfect scores before, including a 10.0 for Radioheads previous album, OK
Computer. But these prior scores were in the spirit of nerdy fun: if a record
was awesome, you gave it a 10.0, and you didnt think too hard about it. In
Kid A, by contrast, it was clear that Pitchfork saw an important event in
pop music history. The 10.0 meant they were trying to be equal to it.
Pitchfork, having built up credibility by making minute distinctions
between one album (7.4) and another (7.3), had begun to understand that
one of the things you can do with cultural capital is spend it on something
extravagant (10.0). And since a well-placed 10.0 would elicit sustained
bursts of praise and criticism from different corners of the internet, the
expenditure was an investment in the sites own future.

Faced with an album this new and this great, DiCrescenzo paid it the
highest compliment he could think of: he made a list of Radioheads
influences. In just over 1,200 words, he managed to mention the John
Coltrane album Ol, C. S. Lewis, the Warp Records label, Terry Gilliams
animations for Monty Python, David Bowie and Brian Eno, Aphex Twin,
Bjrk, and, finally, the White Album. Its clear that Radiohead must be the
greatest band alive, he wrote, if not the best since you know who. (He
means the Beatles.) It was a watershed moment for us, Schreiber later
said of the Kid A review. We got linked from all the Radiohead fan sites,
which were really big. We got this huge flood of traffic, like five thousand
people in a day checking out that one review. We had never seen anything
like that. Web boards were talking about our review. Of course, the review
told you little about Radioheads music that you couldnt have heard on
your own, but it told you everything about what kind of cultural company
Radiohead was meant to keep. This technique became Pitchforks signature
style.

Although the term indie rock didnt gain widespread use until the
early 90s, the music began to emerge from the wreckage of punk rock in
the mid-80s, and was variously referred to as college rock, post-punk,
and DIY (for Do It Yourself). Indie referred specifically to the
independent record labels that cropped up around the country in that
decade: Dischord in Washington DC; SubPop in Seattle; Matador in New
York; Merge in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Touch and Go in Chicago.
The music these labels released was diverse, to be sure, but at the core was
a dominant strain of direct, hard-edged, bitterly sarcastic music by bands
like Minor Threat, Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, The Butthole Surfers,
and The Pixies. What held these bands togetherhowever looselywas a
belief in the cynicism and greed of the major labels, which would not have
signed them anyway. It is worth noticing that indie rock is one of the few
musical genre names that doesnt refer to a musical aesthetic: the genre
was founded on an ethic of production.

This ethic got complicated in 1991, when Nirvana, a three-man band out of
Aberdeen, Washington, became one of the most popular musical acts in the
world. Nirvana started out on SubPop, but in 1990 the group signed with
the major label DGC Records. By 1992, Nirvanas second album,
Nevermind, had landed at number one on the Billboard chart, beating out
new albums by Garth Brooks and Michael Jackson. In 1994, Kurt Cobain
killed himself with a shotgun.

It is not an exaggeration to say this changed everything for indie music.


While opportunistic rock bands spent the 1990s doing their best to follow
in Nirvanas musical and commercial footsteps, more serious indie bands
took a different course. After Nirvana, they made music with the
knowledge that although mainstream success and adoration remained on
balance unlikely, they were not impossible. This knowledge took on an
ominous quality in light of Cobains suicide, and some indie musicians
went looking for ways to inoculate themselves against the potential
consequences of fame. For years, a certain strain of indie rock had taken a
nearly perverse satisfaction in making inscrutable jigsaw puzzles out of the
old verse-chorus song form. Now, with alternative music at the top of the
charts, obscure lyrics and scrambled song structures came to the fore. It
wasnt long before Stephen Malkmus, who fronted the now-famous
Pavement, was telling Spin that he wrote lyrics from the perspective of a
guy who, inebriated at a party, is saying a great many things he doesnt
mean. Groups like Sebadoh and The Mountain Goats began recording on
cheap, low-fidelity equipment (think: a boombox), as though to make sure
that even if some slick record executive took a shine to their music, it
wouldnt sound good enough for radio. It is not hard to see these as
defensive gestures. Even as the mainstream was beginning to pretend to
embrace something other than itself, bands like Pavement could wear their
inscrutability like armor. They would remain, at least temporarily,
unconsumed and uncorrupted by the industry that had begun to accept
them, and that they, warily, had begun to accept in turn.

Then that industry began to collapse. In 2000, the pop group N Sync sold
2.42 million copies of No Strings Attached in its first week of release. Six
years later, it took Lil Wayne six months to sell the same number of copies
of Tha Carter III. Each was the best-selling album of its respective year.
The period in between amounted to a Napster-induced, industry-wide
panic. One of the music industrys first efforts to address this crisis
emerged in the music itself. In the first years of the decade, a number of
rock bands trading in blatant formal nostalgia became both commercial
and critical favorites: The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives, and The
Vines all played direct, sexy versions of by-the-book rock and roll, and were
relatively untroubled by the ethical concerns that had dogged successful
indie bands. Some of this music was pretty good, but Rolling Stones
impulse to refer to The Strokes as saviors of rock had more to do with
denying the existence of a new world. Pitchfork, appropriately, was more
skeptical of this new music, but eventually they decided to like it, and its
hard to blame themit was so likable! Its Christ and Prometheus, Ryan
Schreiber and Dan Kilian wrote in a review of The White Stripes White
Blood Cells, eternally dying and rising again. . . . They dont innovate rock;
they embody it. The frightening implications of thiswhether the body of
rock was really a corpse, for onewere not addressed.

Most of these bands began to fade within a year or two, and as indie bands
watched the industrys collapse, the envy and contempt they had
traditionally felt toward major labels stopped making sense. What was
there to envy anymore? Wasnt it obvious that indie bands, with their
devoted networks of fans, critics, and performance venues, had it better?
Not only were the major labels soul-sucking money machines, they
couldnt even make you rich! This made early indies militancy and
paranoia look silly, and the hard lines began to soften. In 2001, The Shins,
a band from Albuquerque, New Mexico, released a gentle, nostalgic song
called New Slang, and within a year it could be heard not only on college
radio stations but also in a McDonalds commercial, and eventually in the
movie Garden State. The Shins were on SubPop, and when the Seattle
Times asked one of the labels creative directors about the bands reaction
to the McDonalds offer, he recalled, They were like, well we dont really
think this is compromising, someone wants to pay us to do what we do.
This turned the usual critique of selling out precisely on its head. Its a
way for a band that doesnt get signed for huge advances to be able to quit
their day jobs for a while, the creative director continued, and
concentrate on making music. By 2003, Fox was making indie rock a
staple on the soundtrack to The O.C., its biggest hit at the time. In an early
episode Seth, one of the shows main characters, even went so far as to
name-check the Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie.
Pitchfork, too, began to shift from angry mob to kingmaker. In 2003,
the site introduced a Best New Music designation to its review scheme,
and the following year Ryan Schreiber took his first trip to New York City.
Ryan spent a whole day in Times Square, one contributor recalled. He
was so happy. Schreibers trip had musical justifications as well. Amid a
wave of nostalgia for the 1980s, New Yorks last decade of musical
excitement, the citys indie musicians had taken an interest in post-punk
and dance music, and Schreiber was paying close attention. A group called
LCD Soundsystem had recently released the song Losing My Edge, in
which an aging James Murphy lamented how much cooler those younger
than him were becoming: Im losing my edge to the internet seekers who
can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978, Murphy
sang. Im losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and
borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Eighties. (I hear you have a
compilation of every good song ever made by anybody.) For Schreiber,
ascendant king of the internet seekers, this was like a dance-music
gateway drug. In fall 2003, another dance-punk band called The Rapture
released Echoes, and Schreiber was addicted for good. Finally, Schreiber
wrote, in a 9.0 Best New Music review, we are shaking off the coma of the
stillborn slacker 90s and now there is movement. Arms uncross, faces
snap to attention, and clarity hits like religion. Schreiber praised the new
indie rock for cultivating a new loathing and defiance for tired hipster
poses. It was time to dance:

You people at shows who dont dance, who dont know a good time, who
cant have fun, who sneer and scoff at the supposed inferiorits you
this music strikes a blow against. We hope you die bored.

Pitchfork, of course, did not become a site that promoted only dance music,
but it had begun to move away from the detached skepticism that
characterized so much of 90s indie rock. More and more, it found itself
promoting music that celebrated a certain kind of emotionalism. Earlier
that year, Schreiber had written about diving into boxes of promotional
records and coming to the surface with a Toronto band called Broken
Social Scene between his teeth. Broken Social Scene was in perfect keeping
with indies developing emphasis on nostalgia, collaboration, and empathy.
One popular track on You Forgot It In People, for example, was called
Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl. Played in a warm major key, the
song featured a small harmonic circle that endlessly repeated as the
instruments swelled, as though the group were playing not a pop song but
a round or lullaby. The bands members, ranging from six to nearly twenty
in number, referred to themselves as a collective, and they highlighted
their own cooperative largeness by playing, in addition to the standard
rock instruments, woodwinds, horns, and strings. But in his 1,100-word
rave, Schreiber spent more time listing influences, DiCrescenzo-style: he
compared the group to five other bands from Toronto, as well as Dinosaur
Jr., Jeff Buckley, Spoon, Electric Light Orchestra, electronic musician
Ekkehard Ehlers, The Notwist, and (here they come again) Sgt. Peppers
Lonely Hearts Club Band. You just have to hear it for yourself, Schreiber
concluded. Oh my god, you do. You just really, really do. Schreiber gave
the album a 9.2, and suddenly Broken Social Scene, whose record had
essentially disappeared from stores between its 2002 release and
Pitchforks review, began selling out concerts. The idea that Pitchfork could
wield the kind of influence that causes money to circulatein other words,
the kind of influence that still matters, even in our file-sharing times
started to take hold.

One year later, the debut album by a Montreal band called Arcade Fire
received a 9.7. David Moore began his review with a historical excursus:

How did we get here? Ours is a generation overwhelmed by frustration,


unrest, dread, and tragedy. Fear is wholly pervasive in American
society, but we manage nonetheless to build our defenses in subtle ways
we scoff at arbitrary, color-coded threat levels; we receive our
information from comedians and politicians. Upon the turn of the 21st
century, we have come to know our isolation well. . . . In our buying and
selling of personal pain, or the cynical approximation of it, we feel
nothing.
Like Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire was an enormous bandat some
concerts they would put as many as fifteen musicians on stage. Members
played antiquated instruments like the accordion and the hurdy-gurdy, and
singer Rgine Chassagne would perform wearing lace gloves. But if the
instrumentation and stage costumes suggested a Victorian, semi-
handmade aesthetic, the music itself embraced unembarrassed
emotionalism. Lead singer Win Butler yelled his lyrics as often as he sang
themthese were often laments for a damaged childhoodand he relished
the moments when his voice would crack from the strain. The band also
infused its music with a sense of spiritual grandeur by using a pedal point,
a sustained bass tone thats usually provided by an organ in church music.
(The band recorded its second album, Neon Bible, in an actual church.)
Expressiveness and sentimentality are what Moore liked best about Arcade
Fire. Near the end of his review, he credited Funeral with completely and
successfully restoring the tainted phrase emotional to its true origin, as
strong an endorsement of indie rocks sincerity as Pitchfork would ever
make. By the end of the following year, Arcade Fire had appeared on the
Late Show With David Letterman and performed in Central Park.

Arcade Fire ended debates about whether Pitchfork mattered. The


sites job now was to learn how to handle its influence. As late as 2004, a
journalist writing for the East Bay Express could accurately remark that
many of Pitchforks reviewers have no prior rock crit experience or
interest in making a career out of this. This wasnt sloppy hiring on
Pitchforks part; it had a lot to do with what the site thought (and continues
to think) about the value of an individual writer. Although Pitchfork
advertised its reviews as personal and idiosyncratic, it refused to let a
writer get so good or so famous that he could have any kind of a following.
Writers who didnt like it were eventually shown the door, or found it
themselves. Brent DiCrescenzo, easily the sites best-known critic in the
early days, quit Pitchfork in a 2004 Beastie Boys review. The little number
at the top of this pieceit was a 7.9reflects little of my personal relation
to the record, he wrote. Its an arbitrary guide. He went on: This
process has become unexciting and routine, which is why I bid the world of
music writing farewell. In the final paragraph, he came very close to giving
away the great secret of Pitchforks signature brand of spasmodic
reviewing. I could continue to crank out divisive pieces of writing here
until I go gray, he wrote, and of course he could. Anyone could. Today,
DiCrescenzo edits the music section at Time Out Chicago.

He left just in time. Pitchfork was taking major steps toward


professionalization, and DiCrescenzos writing would have had more and
more trouble fitting in. In 2004, Schreiber hired Chris Kaskie away from
the Onion to handle business operations, and Scott Plagenhoef, who had
worked as a music and sports writer in Chicago, signed on to oversee
editorial content. For years the site had gotten along just fine publishing
hopeless, funny teenagers; now it began to publish writers who had worked
paid jobs at other publications (Tom Breihan, Village Voice), or whose tone
made them well-suited for future professionalization (Nitsuh Abebe, New
York). Over the next year or two, the site would introduce a number of
columns, providing longer articles on particular genres as well as more
abstract meditations on topics like talking about music with your friends or
using Last.fm for the first time. With these changes, plus an attractive
professional redesign in 2005the first time anyone but Schreiber had
designed the sitePitchfork began to read less like an elaborate blog and
more like an online glossy magazine.

This makeover had a number of consequences for the sites reviewing


practices. It meant no more reviewing albums by inventing a dialogue
between a venue manager and a band, as Nick Sylvester did in a 2003
review of Jets Get Born: Fuck you, were Jet! says Jet. Wherever we play
people sleep with us. (The album got a 3.7.) Also out of the question was
reviewing a Tool album via a made-up essay by a teenage Tool fan: I feel
like this record was made just for me by super-smart aliens or something.
(A humiliating 1.9 for Lateralus.) But as the writing took on a more formal
tone, and the site began to submit itself to a more rigorous editorial
process, Schreiber maintained that Pitchforks animating principles had
not changed. You have to be completely honest in a review, he told a
reporter. If it gets sacrificed or tempered at all for the sake of not
offending somebody . . . thats so the opposite of what criticism is supposed
to be.

Pitchforks grandest experiment in unfiltered honesty took place in 2004.


In the 1990s, one of Pitchforks favorite bands had been the Washington
DC rock group The Dismemberment Plan. But when the lead singer, Travis
Morrison, released his first solo album, Travistan, Chris Dahlen gave it a
0.0. Ive never heard a record more angry, frustrated, and even defensive
about its own weaknesses, he wrote, or more determined to slug those
flaws right down your throat. The record sold terribly as a result, and
Morrisons concerts, when they werent empty, became awkward. I dont
think it occurred to [Pitchfork] that the review could have a catastrophic
effect, Morrison told a reporter. Up until the day of the review, Id play a
solo show, and people would be like Thats our boy. . . . Literally, the view
changed overnight. As Morrisons career went into a tailspin, the opening
line of Dahlens review, Travis Morrison got his ass kicked, began to
sound self-congratulatory, as though Dahlen enjoyed being the one who
did the kicking. Travis Morrison subsequently retired from music,
returning only for a scattered batch of Dismemberment Plan reunion
concerts in 2011. Today, the front page of Morrisons website is dominated
by the word RETIRED! in an enormous font, with a smaller note below:
Befriend me on Facebook. Im so nice!

Like all rock nerds, Pitchforks writers had always come off as snobs, but
the Travistan review in particular struck bloggers and critics as an abuse of
the sites ever expanding power. Further evidence of snobbery was seen in
Pitchforks refusal to allow commentswhich really was unusual, given
that Spin, Rolling Stone, and other magazines were rushing to let readers
append their own record reviews to the professional ones. Perhaps
Schreiber sensed that because Pitchforks reviewers were themselves
amateursin another context, commentersa commenting feature would
have threatened the fragile suspension of disbelief that powered the
Pitchfork machine.

Pitchfork was commonly accused at this time of hipster cynicism, but the
charge was hard to square with the music Pitchfork liked. One of the sites
favorite musicians around 2005 was Sufjan Stevens, a sensitive young
composer and songwriter from Detroit. After announcing his plan to make
an album about each of the fifty states, Stevens went on to release Seven
Swans, an album of mellow, explicitly Christian folk-pop. When he finally
got back to the Fifty States Project and released Illinois, Pitchfork made it
their Album of the Year. Amanda Petrusichs review declared that Stevenss
beautifully orchestrated music (he really did use a small orchestra) made it
hard to know whether its best to grab your party shoes or a box of
tissues, and she approvingly quoted this lyric, from the song Chicago: If
I was crying / In the van with my friend / It was for freedom / From myself
and from the land. At its best, Petrusich wrote, the album makes
America feel very small and very real. This new interest in pastoral
nationalism seemed like a strange fit for indie rock; or at least it made
plain that indie rock was in the hands of a new and different generation of
fans. At the height of the Iraq war, college graduates poured into cities and
took internships at magazines, nonprofits, and internet startup firms. They
found themselves drawn, for some reason, to adorable music that openly
celebrated our national heritage. They dressed like stylish lumberjacks and
watched Sufjan perform dressed as a Boy Scout, and they remembered a
disappeared world of the small and the tangible.

Around this time, Pitchfork also began championing a woman who wasnt
an indie rocker at all, and who would go on to become one of the decades
most important musicians. As Sufjan Stevens was doing his best to imagine
a time when the internet didnt exist, British rapper M.I.A. seemed to pull
her entire aesthetic off her wifi connection. Originally a designer and visual
artist, M.I.A. dressed like a Myspace page, overlaying brightly patterned
neon spandex with piles of fake bling. She designed her website to look like
websites from the 90s, and on an album cover she obscured her face with
the bars that show how much of a video has played on YouTube. In her
music, she translated the musical ideas behind mashups into a vague but
appealing third-world cultural militancy. Her first mixtape was called
Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1, as in online music piracy. Mashup DJs like
Girl Talk had begun redeeming mainstream pop songs by playing them all
at the same time, a perfect party soundtrack for the listener who, though he
didnt actually like Fall Out Boy or Gwen Stefani, needed at least to know
about them. M.I.A.s politics worked in the same way, making the
particular brutalities of oppression in Liberia or Sri Lanka danceable by
lumping them into a vague condition of sexy global distress. Shes not
exploring subcultures so much as visiting them, Scott Plagenhoef wrote in
a review of her first album, Arular, grabbing souvenirs and laying them
out on acetate. Plagenhoef didnt see anything wrong with this, although
in true Pitchfork style, he made sure to let you know that some people
might object: An in-depth examination of demonizing The Other, the
relationship between the West and developing nations, or the need to
empathize with ones enemies would likely make for a pretty crappy pop
song. Around the same time, a contributor reviewing M.I.A.s live concert
defended her politics in a similar vein. Maybe thats how brilliantly
innocuous Arular actually is, he wrote. It subtly imprints manifestoes in
the brain, inspiring the masses to pull up the poor, without ever really
teaching how or why. Reading these strained, convoluted efforts to justify
the cultural exploitation of global violence, I began to wonder why
Pitchforks writers had such trouble saying the things they knew to be true.
Maybe it was because they felt the truth would make for crappy pop songs,
and that therefore the best thing would be to ignore it.

In 2007, Ryan Schreiber moved to Brooklyn, which had become one of


indie musics vital hubs. Just as the internet had weakened the major labels
and the music magazines that Pitchfork would eventually see as its
competition, so did it decimate the weekly newspapers that had supported
indie rock throughout the 1990s. As the alt-weeklies went into decline,
regional music scenes began to weaken, and indie bands began gravitating
toward New York, the city with the greatest hype-generating media
apparatus in the world. Priced out of lower Manhattan by the 90s real
estate boom, these bands lived in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of
Williamsburg and Greenpoint, where promoters like Todd Patrickbetter
known as Todd Phad begun to organize DIY concerts in 2001 for acts like
Yeasayer, the Dirty Projectors, and Dan Deacon. Although the main body
of Pitchforks editorial operations stayed behind in Chicago, Schreiber
almost immediately became a fixture at concerts. In that same year, the
site also finally managed to buy its rightful URL from the livestock
company. Pitchfork has made a home at www.pitchfork.com ever since.

One Brooklyn band that Pitchfork began investing serious energy in


praising was Animal Collective. The four musicians comprising Animal
Collective had grown up and met around Baltimore, but they didnt start
making a career out of music until after college, in New York. Between
2003 and 2009, Animal Collective released five full-length albums, each
receiving a higher score on Pitchfork than the last (with a cumulative
average of 9.1). If Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire reminisced about
childhood and adolescence in their lyrics, Animal Collective went further.
They sounded like actual children. Pitchforks writers immediately latched
onto the bands blend of sonic eccentricity and emotional innocence. An
early review referred to the groups work as fairy-tale music. Another
imagined the bands members dancing like children around the crackling
fire among the pines. Another: Its a childs lack of self-conscience and
common sense that makes them holy. . . . Wisdom is wasted on the old.
Another: Theres a romantic sense of longing, an air of celebration, but
also tinges of doubt, loss, and acceptance. In 2009, Pitchfork
consummated its love affair with Animal Collective by giving
Merriweather Post Pavilion the highest score the site had awarded to new
music since Arcade Fires Funeral. Its of the moment and feels new,
Mark Richardson wrote, but its also striking in its immediacy and comes
across as friendly and welcoming. In that albums first single, My Girls,
Noah Lennox sang, I dont mean to seem like I care about material things
/ Like our social stats. You can call this inventive and complicated music
many derogatory things, if youre in the mood. The bands signature is the
combination of simple musical formsthe kinds you learn singing nursery
rhymes as a childand harsh, lacerating bouts of electronic noise. It is the
kind of music, in other words, that is not for everyone. But you cannot
call Animal Collectives music insincere. One reason Pitchfork liked that
line about social stats so much was that they saw their own projects
ambivalence reflected in it.
Did these bands suck? Was there something that Pitchfork had missed?
Although Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, M.I.A., and
Animal Collective all produced sophisticated, intelligent music, its also
true that they focused their sophistication and intelligence on those areas
where the stakes were lowest. Instead of striking out in pursuit of new
musical forms, they tweaked or remixed the sounds of earlier music, secure
in the knowledge that pedantic blog writers would magnify these changes
and make them seem daring. Instead of producing music that challenged
and responded to that of other bands, they complimented one another in
interviews, each group doing its own thing and appreciating the efforts of
others. So long as they practiced effective management of the hype cycle,
they were given a free pass by their listeners to lionize childhood, imitate
their predecessors, and respond to the Iraq war with dancing. The general
mood was a mostly benign form of cultural decadence. It would be nice to
say that Pitchfork missed something important, that some undiscovered
radical alternative was out there waiting to be found. But Pitchforks
writers are nothing if not diligent. They had it pretty much covered.

By 2010, by almost any metric, Pitchfork was a tremendous success. In


addition to its enormous daily outputfive record reviews, a dozen or so
news items, and frequent interviews with musicians and other celebrities
the site was publishing fourteen columns, from a regular report on the
techno scene to Why We Fight, in which Nitsuh Abebe discussed the
discussions that surround popular music. Pitchfork hosts music and video
clips, and on Pitchfork.tv you can watch recordings of live concerts from
any of six camera angles. The company remains wholly owned by Ryan
Schreiber (official title: Founder/CEO), and still occupies its Chicago office
in Wicker Park. Advertising is Pitchforks sole source of revenue, and if the
flashy animated ads for Toyota, Apple, and American Apparel are any
indication, the revenue is flowing. Weve succeeded at a time when
nobody else has, Scott Plagenhoef wrote in 2010. As Nick Denton
competed with Conde Nast by running Gawker like a high-end magazine
(albeit one with almost no publishing costs), Ryan Schreiber defeated print
magazines by moving the whole operation online. By keeping user-
generated comments off the site, Pitchfork has behaved more like a
magazine than the magazines have. The only major modification Schreiber
made to the print templateputting reviews, not interviews or features, at
the centerwas an ingenious adaptation to the dynamics of internet buzz:
interviews may sell the rock and roll lifestyle, but reviews are what blogs
will link to and argue about. Finally, of course, there is the archive. By
constantly updating and adjusting its archivewhether by deleting early
reviews or by writing up a reissued album for a second timePitchfork has
become the only music publication to attempt an account of what it felt like
to be a music fan in the last fifteen years. You cannot write the history of
contemporary rock without acknowledging Pitchforks contribution.

And yet not all contributions are positive. The strangest thing about
Pitchfork is that, for all its success, it hasnt produced a single significant
critic in fifteen years. Brent DiCrescenzo was a bit of a star for a while, but
even with him the entertainment value almost always exceeded the insight.
There are other magazines that subordinate the writers individual voice to
an institutional voicethe New Yorker, for startersbut its strange for a
rock magazine to do so, and even the New Yorker occasionally lets writers
sound like themselves. Pitchfork couldnt develop intelligence on the
individual level because the sites success depended largely on its function
as a kind of opinion barometer: a steady, reliable, unsurprising accretion of
taste judgments. Fully developed critics have a tendency to surprise
themselves, and also to argue with one another, and not just over matters
of tastethey fight about the real stuff. This would have undermined
Pitchforks project.

That projectan ever evolving, uncontroversial portrait of contemporary


tastes in popular musicaddressed one problem surrounding music in the
file-sharing era to the exclusion of all others. Faced with readers who
wanted to know how to be fans in the internet age, Pitchforks writers
became the greatest, most pedantic fans of all, reconfiguring criticism as an
exercise in perfect cultural consumption. Pitchforks endless Best Of lists
should not be read as acts of criticism, but as fantasy versions of the
Billboard sales charts. Over the years, these lists have (ominously)
expanded, from fifty songs to 100 or 200, and in 2008 the site published a
book called The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from
Punk to the Present. Similarly, Pitchforks obsession with identifying
bands influences seems historical, but isnt. When a pop critic talks about
influences, hes almost never talking about the historical development of
musical forms. Instead, hes talking about his record collection, his CD-
filled binders, his external hard drivehe is congratulating himself, like
James Murphy in Losing My Edge, on being a good fan. While Pitchfork
may be invaluable as an archive, it is worse than useless as a forum for
insight and argument.

What did we do to deserve Pitchfork? The answer lies in indie rock itself.

In the last thirty years, no artistic form has made cultural capital so central
to its identity, and no musical genre has better understood how cultural
capital works. Disdaining the reserves of actual capital that were available
to them through the major labels, indie musicians sought a competitive
advantage in acquiring cultural capital instead. As indies successes began
following one another in increasingly rapid succession, musicians working
in other genres began to take notice. Hip-hop is an illustrative foil. As indie
bands in the 90s did everything they could to avoid the appearance of
selling out, rappers tried to get as rich as possible. The really successful
ones stopped rappingor at least outsourced the work of writing lyrics
and opened clothing lines and record labels. But for all their corporate
success, rappers knew where the real cultural capital lay. When Jay-Z
decided, as an obscenely wealthy entertainment mogul, that he wanted
finally to leave his drug-dealer persona behind, he got himself seen at a
Grizzly Bear concert in Williamsburg. What the indie rock movement is
doing right now is very inspiring, he said to a reporter. One year later, his
memoirs were published by Spiegel & Grau.

Pitchfork has fully absorbed and adopted indie rocks ideas about the uses
of cultural capital, and the results have been disastrous. Indie rock is based
on the premise that its possible to disdain commercial popularity while
continuing to make rock and roll, the last half centurys most popular kind
of commercial music. Sustaining this premise has almost always involved
suppressing or avoiding certain kinds of knowledge. For indie bands, this
meant talking circles around the fact that eventual success was not actually
improbable or surprising. For indie rocks critics, it meant refusing to
acknowledge that writing criticism is an exercise in power. In 2006, two
years after Arcade Fire should have made this kind of claim implausible,
Schreiber tried to downplay Pitchforks importance in a newspaper
interview: So I think we maybe have this sort of snobbish reputation. But
were just really honest, opinionated music fans. Four years later, he said
the same thing to the New York Times: I dont think that we see ourselves
as anointers. Nine months after that, Arcade Fire won the Grammy for
Album of the Yearthe first indie band to be so honored.

Indies self-deception has had consequences for fans as well. One kind of
fan, at least originally, was the lower-middle-class white person, frequently
a college dropout, who got by on bartending or other menial work and tried
to save enough money to move out of his parents house. This kind of
person got involved in indie rock to acquire cultural capital that hed
otherwise lack. A pretty good example of this kind of indie rock fan is Ryan
Schreiber. In the last decade, however, indie rock has classed up, steadily
abandoning these lower-class fans (along with the midsized cities they live
in) for the young, college-educated white people who now populate
Americas major cities and media centers. For these people, indie rock has
offered a way to ignore the fact that part of what makes your dead-end
internship or bartending job tolerable is the fact that you can leave and go
to law school whenever you like. A pretty good example of this kind of indie
rock fan is me. In the two years since I graduated from college, Ive had a
pretty good time being broke in New York and drinking cheap beer
with my friends. But sometimes I remind myself that the beer Im drinking
is not actually cheap, and that furthermore I am not actually broke: if I
married someone who made the same salary I make, our household
income would be slightly above the national median, which is also true of
almost every person I spend my free time with. The truth is that I inherited
expensive tastes and moved to an expensive city, and sometimes I get
cranky about not being able to buy what I want. But when I dont feel like
reminding myself of these things, I can listen to indie music. In Sufjan
Stevens, indie adopted precious, pastoral nationalism at the Bush
Administrations exact midpoint. In M.I.A., indie rock celebrated a
musician whose greatest accomplishment has been to turn the worlds
various catastrophes into remixed pop songs. This is a kind of music, in
other words, thats very good at avoiding uncomfortable conversations.
Pitchfork has imitated, inspired, and encouraged indie rock in this respect.
It has incorporated a perfect awareness of cultural capital into its basic
architecture. A Pitchfork review may ignore history, aesthetics, or the basic
technical aspects of tonal music, but it will almost never fail to include a
detailed taxonomy of the current hype cycle and media environment. This
is a small, petty way of thinking about a large art, and as indie bands have
both absorbed and refined the cultures obsession with who is over- and
underhyped, their musical ambitions have been winnowed down to almost
nothing at all.

Its usually a waste of time to close-read rock lyrics; a lot of great rock
musicians just arent that good with words. What you can do with a rock
lyric, though, is note the kinds of phrasing that come to mind when a
musician is trying to fill a particular rhythmic space with words. You can
see what kind of language comes naturally, and some of the habits and
beliefs that the language reveals. This makes it worth pausing, just for a
moment, over Animal Collectives most famous lyric: I dont mean to seem
like I care about material things. The ethical lyric to sing would be, I
dont want to be someone who cares about material things, but in indie
rock today the worst thing would be just to seem like a materialistic person.
You can learn a lot about indie rock, its fans, and Pitchfork from the words
mean to seem like.

I sometimes have the utopian thought that in a better world, pop music
criticism simply wouldnt exist. What justification could there be for
separating the criticism of popular music from the criticism of all other
kinds? Nobody thinks its weird that the New York Review of Books
doesnt include an insert called the New York Review of Popular Books.
One of pop music criticisms most important functions today is to
perpetuate pop musics favorite myth about itselfthat it has no history,
that it was born from nothing but drugs and revolution sometime in the
middle of the 20th century. But the story of The Beatles doesnt begin with
John, Paul, George, and Ringo deplaning at JFK. It begins with Jean-
Philippe Rameaus 1722 Treatise on Harmony, which began to theorize the
tonal system that still furnishes the building blocks for almost all pop
music. Or, if you like, it goes back to the 16th century, when composers
began to explore the idea that a songs music could be more than just a
setting for the lyrical textthat it could actually help to express the words
as well. Our very recent predecessors have done many important and
wonderful things with their lives, but they did not invent the musical
universe all by themselves. The abolition of pop criticism as a separate
genre would help pop writers to see the wider world they inhabit.

Most of all, though, we need new musical forms. We need a form that
doesnt think of itself as a collection of influences. We need musicians who
know that music can take inspiration not only from other music but from
the whole experience of life. Pitchfork and indie rock are currently run by
people who behave as though the endless effort to perfect the habits of
cultural consumption is the whole experience of life. We should leave these
things behind, and instead pursue and invent a musical culture more worth
our time.

1. Pitchfork was not the only music archive emerging on the


internet at this time. In 1992, an exfolk musician named
Michael Erlewine began publishing a print volume called the
All Music Guide, and in 1995 he took the Guide online.
Where Pitchforks coverage was limited by the relatively
narrow tastes of its tiny staff, Allmusic.com aspired to true
comprehensiveness, with separate sections dedicated to
Pop/Rock, Country, Latin, Reggae, Classical, R&B,
Jazz, and other genres. The site rated albums on a five-star
scale, and accompanied reviews with bulleted lists
identifying a records Moods (Austere, Suffocating,
Intense, Nocturnal) and Themes (Feeling Blue,
Late Night, The Creative Side). With a three-year head
start and funding that Schreiber could only dream about,
Allmusic initially seemed on its way to internet dominance,
but the sites rather bland comprehensiveness would turn
out, somewhat counterintuitively, to be limiting. Erlewines
error can be found in the assumption that what people
wanted was an encyclopedic survey of music itself. Pitchfork
knew that what people actually wanted was an encyclopedia
of musical taste.

2. Lynn Hirschberg, writing for the New York Times Magazine


in May 2010, finally made some of these points in a profile
called M.I.As Agitprop Pop, but the best critique of M.I.A.
wasnt made by a critic. It appeared in the lyrics to a song by
Vam- pire Weekend, in which frontman Ezra Koenig sings
about a young woman attending what it seems obvious to me
is an M.I.A. concert: A vegetarian since the invasion / Shed
never seen the word Bombs / Shed never seen the word
Bombs / blown up to ninety-six-point Futura / Shed never
seen an A.K. / In a yellowy DayGlo display / A T-shirt so
lovely it turned all the history books gray.