In July of this year, Bill Baird, a musician for an Austin outfit called Sound Team, drove out to a park near his home, slapped a sign with his band's name onto the chest of a life-size dummy, and stabbed the thing with a giant pitchfork. Then, as a friend filmed the action, Baird threw the dummy off a giant cliff. Later, he set it on fire. The next day, he posted the 51-second clip on YouTube. The impetus for the whole stunt was a 3.7 out of 10 review from online music magazine Pitchfork Media, which had described Sound Team's major-label debut as having "a shortage of, like, actual songs."
Pitchfork is often compared to Rolling Stone in its prime: a music journal that is single-handedly revolutionizing music journalism. That's a stretch, but Pitchfork does resemble its glossy ancestor in one particular way: attracting haters in astonishing numbers. Some people despise Pitchfork because it's too verbose, or too brutal, or they just don't like how the site dismisses established artists because it can. The Web contains large-scale Pitchfork parodies, statistical studies of Pitchfork's review history, and an eloquent, oft-quoted post from writer Daniel Taylor titled "Pitchfork Media Can Suck My Cock." Even venerable indie record label Sub Pop took their shot.
The Pitchfork haters, of course, only help their enemy. Pitchfork's founder, Ryan Schreiber, and his fellow editors can post album and track reviews earlier than most publications and at a greater velocity. They accumulate an incredible amount of wordage each week. But non-Pitchfork bloggers are the real engines of the site's influence. Pitchfork's traffic is modest—around 1.5 million unique visitors a month—and it needs help to spread its gospel. Grand critical gestures, therefore, become essential. So does eliciting responses from people like the members of Sound Team. If a review is provocative enough, music geeks will pick up on it. By the time, say, a record-store owner gets around to weighing in on a band, a summary judgment has already been passed online. The phenomenon has a name: the Pitchfork Effect.
Pitchfork needs to provoke to survive—a strategy that arguably extends to publishing verbose and unreadable writing. Schreiber has admitted that he trusts writers to "their own style and presentation," but there's not much that can excuse the writing in this 2004 review: "The epic 'Visiting Friends' gathers in faceless, mutated ghosts (i.e., oddly manipulated vocalizations from the duo) to hover over their dying fire in visage of nothing better than the tops of trees." Or this 2003 take on a TV on the Radio disc: "Bands have played up singers in the past, but here, the single-minded focus of every musical element seems designed purely to elevate the vocal melodies out of the realm of the merely 'real' and into the hyper-real. … Without hyperbole, the effect is electrifyingly direct, nearly mesmerizing, and nothing quite like anything else I can recall."
Clearly, this is prose that hasn't been, like, edited. It's dense without being insightful, personal without being interesting. In the realm of Pitchfork, though, a writer being obtuse and personal has a similar effect to that of a writer being deliberately confrontational: It's good for business. As the popularity of political blogs has proven, informal, intimate writing can often trump serious, "public" writing. Schrieber's big wager is that music journalism should be an even more intimate affair than politics—that musical taste is deeply idiosyncratic and that writing about music requires writers who are closely in touch with what makes a band or a song matter to them.
Pitchfork's lucid reviews—the ones that go first-person without getting sentimental—back this wager up. The best are cagey, fierce, witty, and graceful. Sure, if you read Pitchfork often, sooner or later you're going to end up gagging on a review in the form of a screenplay involving a tortoise and Achilles. But even if a review is poorly executed, the house still wins: You're more likely to remember the tortoise than that bland three-star blurb from Spin.
Does this mean that everything Schreiber does with the site is couched in terms of reader reaction? Some suspect a larger agenda. Consider the case of the Cold War Kids. For a year, the California-based indie-rock quartet has been a blog favorite. This summer, even Rolling Stone had given the band a ringing endorsement. But Pitchfork, conspicuously, remained silent. When the site finally waded into the furor over the band in October, it was to deliver a withering 5.0 takedown of the Kids' debut full-length, which reviewer Marc Hogan * called derivative and superficial.
Hogan's review was seen by many in the blogosphere as evidence of Pitchfork's agenda not only to dominate the critical consensus over a record but to control the fate of the band itself. As an editor at the Music Slut wrote to me in an e-mail, "[Pitchfork] purposely wait[s] to review an album to see how the bloggers respond before they form their opinion." In the case of the Cold War Kids, the editor explained, Pitchfork avoided competing with the blog buzz and managed to chime in just as the inevitable backlash had begun.
Although the idea that a bunch of shaggy-haired dudes in Chicago would attempt to steer the fate of indie rock seems unlikely, these conspiracy theories have traction on the Web. This is partly because Pitchfork writers are predictable: Typically—but not always—the big temples are defiled, the blog favorites are knocked down a couple of notches, and bands that Pitchfork has "discovered" are praised unto high heaven. In interviews, Schreiber has said his objective has always been to support the kinds of music that need to be supported and to make music fans question their allegiances. These are noble if vague goals, and to a certain extent, Pitchfork fulfills them.
Altruism, though, doesn't necessarily exclude the possibility of a political agenda—a provocation aimed not at readers, but at the music scene at large. What else is a 3.3 review of an otherwise-lauded Dandy Warhols album than an attempt to poke holes in an established critical consensus? In this case, it's the numbers that speak volumes and not the writing. A recent post on the blog Crooked Timber opined thusly: "[Pitchfork's writers] want to preserve their own role as … arbiters of taste." Therefore, Schreiber must continually "inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad." In that case, there's only one way to cancel out the Pitchfork Effect: Read a different Web site.