Six point four. As a score, it could mean a lot of things. A six point four out of ten on a test is a solid “D.” In the Olympics, a six point four score for a gymnast would be dismal. For Daft Punk, it’s the score Pitchfork Media gave to their best album, “Discovery,” in 2001.
This perturbs me for a number of reasons. Yes, I am a Daft Punk fan, but more importantly, I am a music obsessive who believes every album deserves a critical listen and exits on a scale from dismal to excellent, regardless of one’s preference for genre. By that accord, “Discovery” deserves at least an eight. I would give it a 10, certainly, but leaving out my teenage experiences that are intermingled with the music and sway my opinion of it toward the positive, it absolutely deserves better.
Jesus Christ, you see what happened though? I, like anyone who has read a Pitchfork review, have fallen into its trap. I’m having an inner dialogue about a freaking number. A number that some guy who also listens to music would assign to an album as its “rating” trivial, to say the least. As a rational human being, I should be able to read that review, say “ahem, interesting” and move along with my day. Instead, I’m writing an article about it.
Many would say that’s what music journalism is all about — create a dialogue, share critical opinions of things, stir the pot, etc. In many ways it is. As a musician, reading music reviews reminds me of the untrue yet undying adage, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Perhaps, “Those who can’t make music, review it?”
I’m not here to declare war on Pitchfork. They’re not the first, and they’re not the last music review conglomerate. Look at some old Rolling Stone reviews of legendary albums if you think that the snarky music critic is a recent creation. I will however, give you a few reasons to read the website with a grain of salt.
Firstly, there is the topic of the “easy get.” Some albums, for whatever reason, are just Red Asphalt on wax. Give the album a low score, offer some constructive criticism and move on. Not at Pitchfork, friend! Oh no! Loosen those suspenders and get ready for a nice serving of indie snarkyness! A new shitty Jet album? Instead of writing a review, let’s just post a YouTube video of a monkey urinating! Haha! Epic fail! Publicity stunt reviews like these are detrimental to the credibility of a magazine. I want the reviews I read to represent a snapshot of what the record was to that person at the time of their listening to it, whether now or 20 years in the future. I don’t want to look back at a review and just see a broken URL. Even better, in Jet’s case, just don’t review the album at all. Someone needing a review to decide whether to buy the next Jet album … you see where I’m going here?
Then there are the more subversive “indie take” reviews like the “Discovery” one I mentioned earlier. These are maybe a couple of points off of what the score “should be.” I realize I’m in majorly subjective territory here, but there are some reviews that I interpret as Pitchfork trying to steer the ship, as it were. In this culture of instant gratification and high-speed Internet connections, there isn’t a delay between reading a review and listening to an album. And, to the RIAA’s chagrin, many people will download the album for free, so there’s a minimized need for Pitchfork to be the gatekeeper of your dollar. As a result, I think many Pitchfork reviews are just arrogant for the sake of indie cred, since they minimally impact the sale of music relative to music journalists of decades past.
This steering the ship goes beyond just the one to two point snubs, too. Both of the full-length Ok Go albums scored in the two range. Not my thing, but very popular music, nonetheless. This was Pitchfork’s way of saying, “This isn’t cool right now — wait, you actually listen to Ok Go?” See also their treatment of the Mars Volta, the newest Ghostland Observatory album “Codename Rondo,” Eminem’s “Recovery,” even using their Favorite Group Radiohead’s greatest hits as an excuse to slam them, “[they] have become another niche group in a world full of them.” Am I saying it’s not okay to pan records? Of course it is. But doing so for the sake of doing so is childish.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the retroactive scoring. Pitchfork frequently uses greatest hits compilations to give out high marks to either rosy up scores (“Hey guys, “Amnesiac” was a 9.5, not a 9, my bad.”) or let you know that they also think the greatest albums of all time are the greatest albums of all time (“Yeah so the entire Beatles catalog and “Exile on Main Street” are solid tens”). This retroactivity even applies to their greatest hits lists. On their “Top 100 albums of the 1990s” list, they moved niche group Radiohead’s “OK Computer” to the number one spot, bumping My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” to the number two spot. If you’re going to be edgy the first time by giving the top spot to an excellent album in an actual niche genre (shoegazing alternative rock), then you have to live with that. Downbeat has had to sit over 30 years on their awkward and controversial one-star review of Weather Report’s “Mr. Gone.” Or put another way — everyone has a family member in jail somewhere in the family tree.
Let us return to my initial concern that Pitchfork’s ratings are as arbitrary as anyone’s and that the point of ratings is to inspire discussion. Well look what just happened — you got a whole article out of it. So a controversial rating here, a questionable list alteration there and the occasional childish “0” aside, Pitchfork is just another voice in the music press that gives their take. And it keeps people like me coming back for more, whether I’m in agreement or not. Game, set and match, Pitchfork.
Mike Boileau is a fifth-year political science major. He can be reached at email@example.com.