I don’t like Pitchfork. Not just because its writers are smarmy and self-righteous, although those traits don’t help its case.
I don’t like Pitchfork because I don’t think there’s much to be gained by trashing artists.
Art is a fragile creature. Like a motherless bunny, it needs our love, our protection, our support, our warm, cuddling hands. Discussions of art should follow that rule your mother used to mention – the one about having nothing nice to say and not saying it.
In other words, the opposite of what Pitchfork does.
Despite my distaste for Pitchfork, I couldn’t help but be lured in by a link to the magazine’s reader-generated list of the top 200 albums of the past 15 years.
I mean, one, it’s a LIST.
And two, there was no mention of “worst” or “most annoying” or “tragic” or any of the other key words in which Pitchfork traffics. It was just a list, or purported to be, of the best albums from 1996-2011 – a span of time of particular importance to someone who graduated high school in 1996 in a small town in Kansas and for whom the period of time demarcated by the list was his most musically formative one.
So I clicked on the link.
The list’s prefacing explanation tossed up some early warning flags in my brain.
“A year later and…”
Wait, it took a YEAR to do this?
“Drawing from 27,981 ballots…”
You’re Pitchfork, you had a year, and you could only get 28,000 voters?
“Voters: 88% male, 12% female…”
88% male? Wow, the Internet (sans Facebook and Pinterest and Ryan Gosling’s IMDB page) really IS one big young Elks club!
But I kept on keeping on and before long, I made it to the bottom of the page and the list itself.
Like many Internet lists crafted these days, Pitchfork’s started at the end, or the beginning, or…well, what I mean is, they shot their collective load on the first line.
#1 Radiohead – OK Computer
Sure, I can buy that, I mean it probably wouldn’t be tops on my list but, you know, I can’t argue wit-
#2 Radiohead – Kid A
Alright, what the hell is going on here? Were votes taken only on radiohead.com or did my brother Dan get ahold of this thin-
#3 Arcade Fire – Funeral
Well, I guess that makes some sense, even if The Suburbs is about 19 times better, nostalgia and all that, righ-
#4 Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Sure, though I don’t really see it. (Full disclosure: after Rosicky Jones’s piece on the subject, I finally bought this album. I’ve listened to it exactly once. In other words, it made quite the impact.)
#5 The Strokes – Is This It
Arguably, what should have been number one, although you could put any album at #1 if you like to argue. In retrospect this album is a tough sell, as it’s one of those albums that our kids will hear and say, “Hmm, I don’t see the big deal,” because the impact of the album was more about a restart to rock ‘n roll than anything but whatever maybe Pitchfork is back on trac-
#6 Radiohead – In Rainbows
Fuck you, Pitchfork readers.
It devolved from there.
#7: Wilco (sure, if you like everything about yourself to be inoffensive and bland); #8: Animal Collective (groooaaaaaan); #9: Kanye West (Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha, white people are hilarious); #10: Sufjan Stevens (the perfect soundtrack to being smothered to death by a flannel pillow).
Next up: Bon Iver, LCD Soundsystem, The Flaming Lips, The xx, more Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, Fleet Foxes, MORE Flaming Lips, MORE FUCKING Radiohead.
And that’s when I closed my browser.
We know that rating music – listing it and calling one album better than another album – is a fool’s errand. Taste in art is purely subjective. Just because my ears happen to like something more than your ears doesn’t make that something better than the something you say you like. (Although it is fun to say so.)
But the real problem in this case is that a list such as Pitchfork’s is inevitably white-bread. It was never going to be an interesting list because hive mind meta-opinions like this one will never be interesting.
My anger at Pitchfork’s list, then, wasn’t at the list. The list was doomed to failure from the start.
My anger was at the sort of person the list reminded me of: the indie everyman, the Average Josiah, the taker of the middle road.
We all know the type. The guy who reads Pitchfork’s list and thinks, “Yeah, that’s about right.”
The guy who wants to be described by the word Pitchfork uses in its tagline:
“The essential guide to independent music and beyond.”
Being independent or “indie” doesn’t require a contrarian attitude. (Although it’s not a bad place to start.)
It does, though, require “independence.” And wearing the same “indie” clothes, and thinking the same “indie” thoughts and saying the same “indie” things: these do not an “independent” make.
And that, I think is the scariest thing about Pitchfork’s list.
The list isn’t just the average – the mean.
It’s also the median. And perhaps, the mode.
And all of that made me think about Nickelback.
Not long ago, Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger became engaged to Avril Lavigne frontwoman Avril Lavigne. The Internet nearly exploded with Nickelback jokes. Why did this happen?
Because Nickelback is a safe subject to joke about; the Internet (and its users) have decided that Nickelback is “bad.”
It doesn’t matter that Nickelback is only different from the Foo Fighters because the lead singer of the former band takes himself too seriously, while the lead singer of the latter band takes nothing seriously at all.
Now, making fun of Nickelback isn’t wrong and uninteresting because Nickelback is above reproach; it’s wrong and uninteresting because it’s reflexive. It makes the joker no different from the unthinking Nickelback fans he is trying to skewer. By now, a Nickelback Is Bad At Music joke is one step behind a Cops Eat Lots Of Donuts joke in the predictable joke canon: whether one has listened to Nickelback or not, it places him smack dab in the middle of the herd.
I’d like to think that I am above this sort of behavior – that I am willing to take stands on artists I like but that the Internet doesn’t.
But that isn’t really true.
I do a Random Start on Twitter each day. When I wake up (and when I remember), I click over to iTunes, hit that fun little mixed-up arrow on the lower left, and Tweet the song that comes up, along with some comment about that song’s merit or what it reminds me of.
Not long ago, the song that hit my laptop speakers was one by the late-nineties and early-2000s metal (or nu-metal) band Staind.
This is what I Tweeted:
Why did I do that?
Well, because, like the meta-Pitchfork user personified by the Pitchfork Top 200, I have stumbled headlong into the trap: I’m afraid to say what I like, for fear of being called an idiot or losing Twitter followers or credibility.
I have pre-empted any possible criticism of any affection I have for Staind by making my own version of a Nickelback joke.
I have become a coward.
When the truth is that I like Staind. Not as much as I like other bands but there are times when I need Staind in my life. What this says about me is debatable (that I’m childish, that I’m stuck in the roots of ‘90s grunge, that I have no taste, perhaps – see, this is me apologizing again), but whatever, this is my trip through life and I happen to adore the switch from industrial scratching to melodic lament that goes down at the 0:57 mark of this song.
What’s that you’re saying? The lyrics are juvenile – like they were written by a 13-year old girl?
HAVE YOU EVER LISTENED TO A BON IVER SONG?
It’s not just our lists, our bad jokes, our Internet behavior that regress to the mean. We live in a time of wholesale averageness.
The Internet, our phones, our Facebook friends: they tell us what everyone else is thinking as soon as they’re thinking it. We know what the repercussions to liking a song by Nickelback or Staind or Arcade Fire will be, even before we’ve had time to decide if we like that song.
And the worst part? Those of us who participate in this gigantic shout-down – the Internet’s most active users – are the same ones who once swore that we’d never treat someone like they were treating us.
The Internet has become a fiber-optic playground. And just like on the playground, no one wants to take a strong position because doing so is akin to wearing weird glasses by the swing set or having a strange haircut by the jungle gym or acting like the Cookie Monster by the slide.
All those writers from Pitchfork – the ones who bully musicians with their 0.6s and 1.3s? Probably the kid running around with the glasses by the swing set.
And you, me, anyone who’s ever made fun of someone’s silly opinion about the Foo Fighters or Skrillex or Nickelback or Staind or Five Finger Death Fist Punch Bludgeon:
Just as bad.
In our race to convince ourselves that we’re different, we’ve all become the same.
Radiohead is Good.
Nickelback is Bad.
New York is The Best.
LA is The Worst.
Apple is My Friend.
Microsoft is My Enemy.
Our average opinion has become our most popular opinion.
And nowhere is this tendency toward simultaneous means, medians and modes more evident than in the abomination that is Pitchfork’s Top 200 list – a list for us, by us, built with the intention of making us feel better but in the end, making us feel worse.
A list that should never have been built, but now that it has, a list that reminds us of everything that’s wrong with groupthink, everything that’s wrong with bullying by the hivemind, everything that’s wrong with mankind’s tendency to exclude the aberrant opinion from the conversation.
And a list that, if I may indulge in a little Pitchforkery of my own (because what Pitchfork does is hardly art) will always hold down an important spot on a list of its own:
…on The Top 200 Worst Lists Ever Made.
For fun, here’s a list of my top 50 albums from 1996-2009*
*Because it’s too early to judge the long-term significance of anything that came out in the past three years. Also, these are not the “best” albums of that 13-year period. They’re just my favorites, for whatever reasons go into making albums anyone’s favorites.
(And no, this isn’t a competition between my list and Pitchfork’s list, although of course mine is better, winky face; I needed a comedown after getting so worked up!)
50. Bruce Springsteen – The Rising (2002)
49. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Show Your Bones (2006)
48. Idiot Pilot – Strange We Should Meet Here (2004)
47. Silversun Pickups – Swoon (2009)
46. Sigur Ros – Takk (2005)
45. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
44. The Killers – Hot Fuss (2004)
43. The Music – Welcome To The North (2004)
42. The Prodigy – The Fat Of The Land (1997)
41. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing (2009)
40. Blink-182 – Blink 182 (2003)
39. Fever Ray – Fever Ray (2009)
38. Ratatat – Ratatat (2003)
37. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (2008)
36. At The Drive-In – Relationship Of Command (2000)
35. Kings Of Leon – Because Of The Times (2007)
34. Tool – Aenima (1996)
33. My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves (2003)
32. Calla – Televise (2002)
31. Our Lady Peace – Clumsy (1997)
30. Kurt Vile – Childish Prodigy (2009)
29. Girl Talk – Feed The Animals (2008)
28. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – BRMC (2000)
27. Coldplay – A Rush Of Blood To The Head (2002)
26. Frightened Rabbit – Midnight Organ Fight (2008)
25. Elliott Smith – Figure 8 (2000)
24. Deftones – White Pony (2000)
23. Eluvium – Copia (2007)
22. Everclear – So Much For The Afterglow (1997)
21. TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)
20. Jamie T – Panic Prevention (2007)
19. Stellastarr* – Stellastarr* (2003)
18. A Perfect Circle – Mer De Noms (2000)
17. Nada Surf – Let Go (2002)
16. Third Eye Blind – Third Eye Blind (1997)
15. Bright Eyes – Digital Ash In A Digital Urn (2004)
14. The Kills – No Wow (2004)
13. Passion Pit – Manners (2009)
12. Brand New – Deja Entendu (2003)
11. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours (2008)
10. Our Lady Peace – Gravity (2002)
9. The Dandy Warhols – Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia (2000)
8. The National – Boxer (2007)
7. Pete Yorn – Musicforthemorningafter (2001)
6. The Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day (2003)
5. Local H – As Good As Dead (1996)
4. Cat Power – The Greatest (2006)
3. The Strokes – Is This It (2000)
2. Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)
1. Tool – Lateralus (2001)
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