The problem with Pitchfork

Pitchfork. Even the name implies controversy, as many see the devil in the music site’s reviews. Derided by critics as a pretentious hipster institution more concerned with cultivating its own avant-garde aura then engaging with the popular musical trends, the site has become a lightning rod in the music world. Comfortably dominating the indie corner of the music market, the blog’s long, exhaustive and almost ostentatiously dramatic reviews draw millions of readers who want to be edgy. The trendy site, however, poses the danger of creating listeners who are dependent on reviews and who forget the importance of forming independent opinions – a danger that we as students face in the classroom, where preformed opinions from other students, professors and outside documents are readily available every day.

Many denounce Pitchfork as a site so painfully self-aware of its own hip image that it chooses to promote deliberately obtuse music lest it lose its cutting edge label. They claim that the readers don’t actually enjoy the whirring synths, disjointed, frenzied drum beats and incoherent melodies that dominate Pitchfork’s “Best New Music,” but have instead simply fallen into a web of self-deception in order to keep their sense of musical superiority in tact. Additionally, they argue that Pitchfork almost entirely neglects many of the most popular mainstream artists, considering “the music of the masses” so beneath them that they don’t even deign to review them. In the rare occasions that a radio-friendly pop-artist’s new album is reviewed, Pitchfork gleefully eviscerates it with criticism so scathing that fans leave feeling guilty that they ever once liked the artist.

On the other hand, proponents of Pitchfork praise the level of intellectual engagement the site offers and openly dismiss accusations of pretentiousness or elitism. The detailed reviews expose readers to levels and layers of the music that they might have been unable to discover on their own. Refusing to dumb the reviews down, the writers employ long metaphors, social commentary and music terminology when examining an album. They acclaim Pitchfork’s independent focus in an otherwise pop-dominated landscape, claiming that the focus on indie-rock and experimental electronic music engages and stimulates the intellect instead of just the body.

I stumbled upon Pitchfork in the fall of my high school junior year. Seeking both an escape to the mind-numbing inanity of the radio and an alternative to the oppressively backwards-thinking Rolling Stone magazine, Pitchfork at first seemed like a godsend. Thousand upon thousands of reviews were suddenly at my disposal, and the site’s unique combination of wit, enthusiasm and in-depth analysis fascinated and intrigued me. I left behind the Foo Fighters, Bruno Marses, and Ke$has of the radio and became immersed in the world of Radiohead, Animal Collective, Yo La Tengo and TV on the Radio. I greedily scoured the “Best of” lists to catch up on all the great music I had missed over the past decade. I prided myself in finding things to value in music others found inaccessible. I became a music snob of the highest order, mocking music on the premise that it was “unsophisticated.” I would respond to my mom’s consternation and immediate dislike of song choice with an infuriatingly dismissive “you just don’t get it.” As the years went by, Pitchfork became my sole source of music. Its reviews not only dictated what would be cycling on my iPod over the next few weeks, but also changed my approach to music in general. The countless reviews, although immediately engaging and educating, had a more subtle effect. I found myself becoming increasingly less secure in my own opinion. I became hesitant about liking a band until I had checked out what the site had to say. This process continued until I became as mindless as the mainstream radio I openly mocked. What I had gained in music knowledge I had lost in originality and self-security until I was no longer an informed and interesting music lover but a mere mouthpiece for what Pitchfork told me to think.

That, more than anywhere else, is where the danger of Pitchfork (or any other review site) lies. It alleviates listeners from the responsibility of having to form their own opinions, thus robbing them of the opportunity to engage with the music personally. Taken with a few grains of salt, reviews can be a powerful and enlightening tool, but when one becomes dependent upon them, the educational value is lost. At a site devoted to the merits of independent music and record labels, such dependency becomes sadly ironic.

The same can be said about academics. Here at the College we are exposed to various secondary sources that can govern how we think about the primary documents. These sources enlighten us, but at the same time it becomes difficult to form our own critical perspective. Part of the education process is learning how to think for yourself rather than merely parroting the professor or what you read elsewhere. This transition takes time, but ultimately is the heart of a liberal arts education.

Brady Hirsch ’16 is from Oakland, Calif. He lives in Gladden.