Pitchfork's Pop Punk Problem
Some thoughts on why I've never read The Most Trusted Voice in Music. Also, an interview with me.
As I have regularly made clear and is sort of my whole ~*thing*~, I very much dislike the music industry as a whole. The business model is increasingly parasitic and I have little patience for the voices of its loudest figureheads. I’d be happy to never again see one of those Music Industry 40 Under 40 roundups of Spotify marketing managers.
But this guy named Todd Burns has a very good newsletter called Music Journalism Insider that I subscribe to as my sadistic way of keeping tabs on it. It typically includes interviews with music industry people, rounds up some articles worth reading, and highlights open job listings if you’re lookin’ to crack into The Biz. Todd recently asked me (very famous) if I’d like to be interviewed for said newsletter and I said sure why not.
I’m unsure how I come off as a person through my writing and interviews and it’s not really my concern to be honest. I’ve been told that I seem ornery and misanthropic which I don’t understand because I’m very nice in person! Why can’t you dumb bastards see how fucking nice I am! But then I read back what I said in this interview and I’m like Ohhhhh yeah ok I get why people would think that. I didn’t mean for this to sound as grim and fatalistic as it does but oh well what can you do.
There were some questions about how I got started on my “career” path and my thoughts on the future of music journalism and I think my answers are semi-interesting or at least legible. Then I got asked about what a typical day is like for me and this was my answer, which in no way is an exaggeration:
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
I wake up psychotically early and begin each morning by listening to Drug Church’s Cheer at full volume while lifting weights among local retirees. Then I lug a three-gallon keg of coffee to the library where I stare out the window and transcribe interviews or prepare for upcoming interviews. After that I come home and eat a chicken parm hero while spending the rest of the day tracking down and emailing strangers, shamelessly begging to let me interview them as well. At night I take a bunch of sleep candy which is what I call melatonin because I have restless sleep and/or night terrors. Before those make me pass out, I crank out a newsletter. If I have time between all that, I try to maintain relationships with friends whom I’ve convinced myself all secretly hate me.
Read the rest of the interview for more oppressively stupid gems from your old pal Dan and also follow Todd’s newsletter. It’s a great resource.
He also asked why I write a newsletter, and I basically said because there aren’t a lot of websites that take the things I like seriously and did some shameless self-promotion:
There aren’t a lot of places online where you’d find a thoughtful 5,000-word interview with The Menzingers or Dillinger Four. Pitchfork would never cover that because it’s not cool. So I’m glad to provide an alternative for readers who don’t see their scene represented anywhere else, and I’m very grateful for those who recognize that it’s worth a few bucks. And I’m grateful to Pitchfork in a way, too. Their negligence provides me an audience.
I’d like to expand on this a bit, which brings me to today’s “point”...
Pitchfork’s Pop Punk Problem
There’s a Pitchfork review of Alkaline Trio’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire from 2000 that bounces around certain corners of the internet every so often. It is decidedly unkind to the band, the album, and its label.
Here’s the lede:
“Asian Man Records is one of the worst companies in the world. Sure, there are some huge chemical corporations that outdo them from an ethical standpoint, but Asian Man's got more than their fair share of despicable attributes. Here's our beef: these people have been clogging our nation's already-diseased musical arteries with high-cholesterol punk for many moons, and someone needs to stop them. When one of the few good things that can be said about one of your label's albums-- and we're talking about Maybe I'll Catch Fire, here-- is that its title reflects the general public's wishes for the band, you've got a problem.”
I was never a reader of Pitchfork, and reviews like this were why. It’s not the snarky tone I object to. I can actually appreciate that. After all, if the early internet could not be home to semi-anonymous kneejerk shit-talk, then of what use was it? I don’t even have a problem with a critic dismantling an album like this, even if it’s one I happen to like. (And even if Asian Man founder Mike Park is the genuinely nicest human in music and is an odd target to pick on.) If some Chicago writer nerd wants to make himself seem slightly cooler than some Chicago musician nerd by shitting on their art, I say go for it.
No, the reason I didn’t read the site in the early aughts because was because reviews like this made it clear that Pitchfork thought people like me and my friends, and the music we liked, were lame. That line in the sand was drawn very clearly. Spiritualized was a band for serious indie rock connoisseurs and Alkaline Trio was for lil pop punk babies. Matador put out respectable records and No Idea was a pile of trash and if you disagreed you could march your dumb ass over to Punknews and duke it out with the dregs of online society there.
Hey, I get it! There are goofy elements to a band like Alkaline Trio that as a fan you have to either embrace or be too ignorant to recognize. (And sometimes, let’s face it, Pitchfork called ‘em right. I’m sorry but Gas Huffer’s Just Beautiful Music deserved the 3.1 it got!) In a way, I’m grateful for Pitchfork’s near-blanket dismissal of the genre. It gave an entire scene of bands that leaned on pop punk, ska, emo, etc. a common enemy and strengthened its sense of purpose. Pitchfork doesn’t like us? Well fuck them because we don’t like Pitchfork.
And so, this was the established dynamic that endured for years and years and everyone seemed happy with the arrangement. Pitchfork snubbed or tore apart some of the genre’s most celebrated and/or influential albums from this era to pick up indie cred and fans of said albums only deepened their love of the music and their hatred of Pitchfork. There were plenty of examples and I don’t mean to shame the site for ancient history but ohhhhh here are a few scores they published for context (some have been scrubbed from the site or lost to HTML time):
(Credit where credit is due, though, Pitchfork generally rode for the Saddle Creek/Jade Tree/Deep Elm catalogs and also very occasionally rewarded the most random of Lookout/Epitaph/Fat albums, like for example when they inexplicably gave both the Bouncing Souls’ Hopeless Romantic and Lagwagon’s Let’s Talk About Feelings a 9.1. I don’t know how Pitchfork chooses their scores or how these albums slipped past the goalies, but I always chalked this up to psychological warfare against me personally.)
But there’s been a shift over the last few years. Pitchfork has been decidedly kinder to this corner of rock music. They’ve praised albums like Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY., a clear modern descendant of the Asian Man Records family. They’ve also propped up bands like PUP, the Hotelier, Algernon Cadwallader, and Oso Oso, who picked up the site’s coveted title, Best New Whateverthefuck.
A lot of this has been driven by the personal taste of critic Ian Cohen who, for the record, I think does an excellent job of contextualizing these albums and comes at them from a place of genuine appreciation, even if I occasionally disagree with his opinions on specific records. (He is also very worth a follow.) And ultimately I’d rather see albums like WORRY. get praised than shit upon. But no matter who is reviewing them, it’s still always odd, for anyone whose memory goes back more than a decade anyway, to see Pitchfork heaping praise unto albums they unquestionably would have shit on ten years earlier.
The site’s newfound appreciation for modern indie-punk records is not the most confusing part to me, though. The most confusing part is this reevaluation trend they’ve been leaning into, whereby they brush off older albums and review them from a modern perspective. Lately they’ve been examining some records that, again, the site would have torn to absolute shreds upon their releases, and blowing their praise completely out of proportion. The two examples I saw recently were Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends, which the site gave an 8.0, and My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, which got an 8.2. They also famously reevaluated Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors upon its reissue and upgraded it from a 5.4 to a 9.0, with Cohen writing a sort of mea culpa for the site.
(Side note to Pitchfork: These are the safe albums to play Monday morning quarterback with. Time has already proven their worth. Quit being cowards and ride for the trash of the era! Where do you stand on the D-listers that used to open for A Static Lullaby? How do you score the bottom half of the Fearless Records catalog? How does Pitchfork remember Spitalfield’s Remember Right Now right now??)
Some naysayers have chalked up the site’s recent inclusionary shift to its new corporate overlords. (Pitchfork was acquired by Condé Nast in 2015.) Hmmmm, maybe. The internet is a big place after all and from a business standpoint it makes sense for a website to cast as wide a readership net as possible and be a hub for all genres. Lord knows there’s only so far writing exclusively about pop punk bands will get you. (See for example my career.)
But as much as I love a good conspiracy theory and enjoy believing that there is an internet deep state that directs its underlings to prop up Joyce Manor albums in an effort to bolster traffic numbers and rake in that sweet, sweet advertising money, I’ve got to think it’s a lot more simple and less nefarious than that. I think it can be chalked up to a standard changing of the guard. Most, if not all, of the Pitchfork’s original writers have moved on and transitioned away from music journalism and into careers that might actually pay their bills. And its new, younger writers want to make their voices heard and don’t want to be bound to the transgressions of the site’s founders, to which I’m totally sympathetic. A 25-year-old writer would have been six years old when Pitchfork trashed Stay What You Are, for example. I understand this, and still can’t help but take new reviews with a grain of salt.
Now, you may be thinking: Wow Dan it’s just a website how about don’t read it and shut the fuck up already. And yes, very good, I see the merit in that argument. I guess my problem is, since Pitchfork somehow became the de facto arbiter of indie cool at the turn of the century, pretty much every music memory I have from the early aughts involves some jabroni hazily regurgitating a glowing Pitchfork review to lecture me or someone in my vicinity about how Beulah and Dizzee Rascal were the future of music, and now I’ve lived long enough to see those same jabronis get jobs at tech startups and explain that there’s currently an emo revival happening.
So I’m not particularly interested in reading a website’s reflective musings on a scene that survived in spite of its best efforts to take it down. Then again, I’m not interested in reading most of the opinions on the internet, even if Pitchfork is, as their website header describes it, “The Most Trusted Voice in Music.”
I guess ultimately my question is: Is Pitchfork ready to hire someone to finally reevaluate Maybe I’ll Catch Fire?
Hey if you have enjoyed the insane ramblings contained here, you can subscribe to REPLY ALT, a regular newsletter about music that does not have any Condé Nast funding……..yet.