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The Power of Pitchfork

August 29th, 2006 · 4 Comments

Any journalist or writer can tell you that there are few experiences more apt to provoke the desire to shoot yourself in the face than that of flipping open the latest issue of some national magazine only to realize that some notion you’d been absently tossing around with your friends for six months—or worse, one you’d considered turning into an article before thinking better of it—is the premise of a feature article.

I got a twinge of that feeling reading the New York Times Magazine excerpt from Stephen Johnsons’ buzz-festooned Everything Bad Is Good for You last year, as I’d been toying with doing something about how TiVo/OnDemand/DVD aftermarkets were changing (and improving) the content of TV programming. And having pondered doing something on the DLC but abandoned the thought on the grounds that it seemed increasingly irrelevant, I autodelivered a Homeric D’oh-smack to the forehead when I set eyes on Ari Berman’s Nation cover story about the increasing irrelevance of the DLC.

Well, at least I know Yglesias will be bruising his dome as well when he sees this article in the new Wired, since he too has been kvetching about the kingmaker power of Pitchfork since the indie music review site delivered a brutal pair of sub-5.0 reviews to the last two Rainer Maria albums, ensuring a still-solid band a series of absurdly undersold recent appearances, even as a series of exponentially less interesting and talented flavors of the month played to packed houses. (Anecdotal evidence suggests this is not just in D.C.)

Small consolation is that the Wired writer also got scooped, not just on the premise but on the verbatim headline, “The Pitchfork Effect,” by St. Paul/Minneapolist alt-weekly City Pages: The CP piece opens with the same kind of illustration of Pitchfork’s buzz-generating mojo, though using the slightly more timely example of Tapes ‘N Tapes, where Wired goes with the now far more famous Broken Social Scene. Both, understandably, focus on the site’s power to launch new bands to megastardom, which is sexy and relatively visible, rather than its impressive ability to mortally wound even a well established group.

It does make you wonder, though: One of the things my colleagues at Reason have been enthusiastic about these past few years is how new technologies and cultural plenitude are killing off gatekeepers and tastemakers. And while I still think that’s the fundamental trend, the case of Pitchfork at least suggests one other possibility: As culture fragments, new tastemakers and gatekeepers that specialize in a specific sort of artistic niche may actually, at least temporarily, have more power than before. Put it this way: Ten years ago, if you liked the sort of music that gets reviewed in Pitchfork, you might, maybe, occasionally, pick up an issue of Rolling Stone, where maybe the odd handful of reviews might cover new albums in that very loose genre, and you’d take it with a grain of salt. With the exception of the very self-consicously hip (who dropped it a few years back around the same time folk like me started reading), most people I know who share my musical taste read Pitchfork, and while I’m not sure how seriously they take it, obviously plenty of people are going sodium-free.

Tags: Art & Culture



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 abc // Aug 29, 2006 at 2:03 am

    which album of theirs should I pick up?

  • 2 Sandy // Aug 29, 2006 at 8:42 am

    I’m a little surprised that you’re surprised–after all, Hit & Run and other blogs are only partially a forum for new ideas. More often they’re a forum for reviews of other people’s ideas. Hell, Glenn Reynolds does precious little else but point out stuff on the Web.

    I continually filter the blogs I subscribe to in order to keep the information overload to a minimum: there’s a lot of stuff out there, and having someone who provides reliable commentary on it is invaluable.

    The Web isn’t doing away with gatekeepers, it’s just democratizing and devolving gatekeeping.

  • 3 Adrienne // Aug 29, 2006 at 9:17 pm

    I once drank a gallon of the Pitchfork Koolaid and bought an album that they gave an 8.6 to. It turned out to be a couple of guys moaning in a forest and occasionally banging a drum or dropping something. Lesson learned.

  • 4 PW // Sep 1, 2006 at 10:32 am

    It’s the moans you don’t hear that make the album so fascinating. Give it another listen and see what I mean. A deep-seated need to feel superior to others may be required for enjoyment as well.