Fevered Pitch

Pitchfork is taking over music criticism by making people laugh -- or pissing them off

Jun 30, 2004 at 4:00 am
It turns out the funniest Onion-esque 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."

What Andy said, in case you're wondering, was "Hi."

As the wise old sage "Weird Al" Yankovic has taught us, mocking imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Thus the apparently socially stultified rock-crit geeks at Pitchforkmedia.com, the wildly popular indie-centric news-and-reviews Internet 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 www.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," raved 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 Web site. 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."

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 said 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 hundred-word blurbs offering no room for creativity, personality or, more to the point, relevant criticism, Pitchforkmedia.com has exploded outward, with 500-word reviews that read like essays, short stories, diary entries, harebrained literary experiments and out-and-out career assassination attempts.

"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 explained. "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?"

Evidently, not Steve Martin. Not Steve Martin as in The Jerk, but Steve Martin as in the "prick." As the PR head for the firm Nasty Little Man -- which represents the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, Beck, the Foo Fighters and countless other big-shots -- Steve's now at the center of Pitchfork's first major controversy/screw-up, wherein the site's innovative mixture of guile, bile and sheer bravado may have taken it a bit too far.

"Writing about music is not very interesting to me," admitted now-even-more-infamous staff writer Brent DiCrescenzo several weeks ago. "You find yourself having to write the same things over and over and over again. When a record's really good, it's easy to find things to say; when it's really bad, it's easy to find things to say; but when it's just right there in the middle, that's when you sort of have to amuse yourself." DiCrescenzo is infamous precisely for the lengths he'll go to in the pursuit of self-amusement. He specializes in absurdist reviews with bizarre characters -- Diapers the lab monkey (in a Spacehog review), Volodrag the Yugoslavian sycophant (Jimmy Eat World), interpretive dancer Miquel Santa Schulz (Charlatans UK) -- and the outlandish situations he concocts for them. He is particularly proud of his 0.8 review of Metallica's St. Anger, which takes place entirely in some sort of Israeli sweatshop/internment camp. But all those conceits now pale in comparison to his final review: the Beastie Boys' To the 5 Boroughs, which intended to convey three things:

1) Brent is retiring from music writing because he finds it boring and repetitive.

2) Steve Martin, PR chief for Nasty Little Man, is a "prick" who jerked Brent around on several stories involving NLM clients. Furthermore, "The publicist- and press-controlled structure of the entire music industry only allows for trite magazine fluff as ad revenue; access to major artists [is] dangled like carrots to the media in an attempt to blackmail press for features on nothing bands like Matt Pond, PA and Ultimate Fakebook."

3) Though a bit lame in places, To the 5 Boroughs isn't a bad little album.

DiCrescenzo's abrupt retirement is big news in and of itself -- he's Pitchfork's best writer and its most reliable lightning rod for argument and controversy. But he caught one hell of a bolt with his 2,162-word Boroughs review -- less than a week later, Pitchfork issued a devastating retraction. "Pitchfork has since determined that a number of DiCrescenzo's assertions were false," it read in (small) part, "based on corroborated statements from the two parties he claimed were participating in the chain of events referred to in the review."

That chain included tales of Martin screwing DiCrescenzo over a 1999 Radiohead concert in Italy and, more recently, a Beastie Boys cover story DiCrescenzo intended to write for Mean magazine. But the seven-point retraction not-so-subtly intoned that DiCrescenzo had fabricated a great deal of it: Whether it's pure fiction, or he intended it as an amalgamation of other writers' horror stories -- with only the times, places and bands involved switched around -- is anyone's guess. All parties here have somewhat understandably clammed (and/or lawyered) up.

So, DiCrescenzo's gone, Pitchfork's got a temporary black eye, and To the 5 Boroughs rates a 7.9. But that's the site's M.O.: Literary aspirations and human drama often eclipse the music itself. Just like real life.

Pitchfork can survive this and even thrive off the "bad boy" reputation this sort of debacle can produce. And maybe the music biz needs more of these sorts of shake-ups. After all, here's the wide-eyed idealist view of all this: The Internet, with its universal reach and anyone-can-start-a-blog accessibility, will eventually render dinosaur print mags obsolete.

"Rolling Stone is already obsolete in terms of music criticism," Schreiber said. "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. You don't have to go through four years of an English program at Columbia to get your opinion out and get your voice heard. And I think it's breeding a lot of people who are inherently talented, sort of naturals at it."

Of course, Schreiber said that weeks before the Beastie Boys slapfight, but it's unlikely he feels all that differently now: Punk rock, you'll recall, suffered the occasional black eye itself.