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Is this the slow-motion death of music criticism?

News of Pitchfork being folded into GQ is another sign of the shrinking space afforded to informed criticism

Björk’s ‘Post’ is a rare album with a ‘10’ rating by Pitchfork

By Akhil Sood

LAST PUBLISHED 02.02.2024  |  08:52 AM IST

In 2020, after the online music publication wrote a middling review of her album, American singer-songwriter Halsey wished for the “basement" that they run Pitchfork out of “to collapse already". It turned out to be an accidental 9/11 joke, a faux pas she apologised for soon after. The same year, a large number of Taylor Swift fans—the notorious “Swifties"—went after a Pitchfork journalist, harassing and doxxing her, following a largely positive review. One of Pitchfork’s most infamous moments is a review, from 2006, of Shine On by Australian garage rockers Jet. The review, assigning a grand score of 0.0 out of 10 for the album, has no text, just an embedded video of a monkey taking a piss. In its own mouth.

For close to three decades, the American website has held an outsize, influential—and controversial—position within the music industry. They have pivoted from the olden times into the digital streaming era, they have pivoted from their allegedly snarky, elitist snobbery about pop music to a wider, more inclusive, often more “poptimistic" approach, they have pivoted from being an independent publication to being a Condé Nast stepchild. Two weeks ago, news surfaced that Pitchfork would soon be folded into GQ, the popular men’s magazine, along with widespread layoffs. It’s the same miserable story on repeat every few months: from MTV with its doomed “pivot-to-video", or Vice’s music vertical Noisey packing up, the recent downsizing and layoffs at Bandcamp Daily, the publication run by online distribution organisation Bandcamp, and on and on, music media is shrinking by the minute. Journalists are being thrown under the bus, crucial archival material decimated. Nevertheless, Pitchfork had acquired a certain prestige, a reassuring cultural capital built over years of critical engagement, that made it too big to fall. Yet here we are again.

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Are we, then, witnessing the slow-motion death of music criticism? The people with the money see no need for it, not when there are fan reviews and aggregator sites broadcasting accumulative scorecards. Earlier, the critic had a well-defined role to play: that of the tastemaker. To guide the reader to music that’s good, and steer them from the bad stuff. To make stars out of artists, to bring to the reader a context, a moving picture, an experience; not a sound alone.

With social media, that role evolved, as more people could participate in the conversation. If anything, the critic’s role expanded—from the annoying, larger-than-life, rock-star-hanger-on to someone with a voice enhancing the listening experience. It became inclusive and diverse; more accepting of differing views. Now though, the algorithm does all the work. Open your Spotify and let the autoplay function do its magic.

On top of that, we have the ever-evolving whims of social media dictating modern trends, Instagram and YouTube videos using catchy, 30-second music bits. Music discovery, once a role played in part by dedicated listeners and critics—the nerds, basically—has become a broader, more chaotic space.

Those elements have their place, to be sure, enabling personal discoveries untainted by external opinion. But they are self-limiting and circular. Surely this can’t be the only way to engage with music or art or, indeed, the world? The critic, today, acts not as elite tastemaker. Rather, they are an accompaniment; a friend. Whenever I hear a record that moves me in that curiously bittersweet way (or indeed a record that annoys me), I immediately read every single review of it online. To hear the songs from someone else’s ears. To read theories, abstraction, interpretations. To learn more about the artist, where the work rests, contextually. The review fills in all those blanks. The rating is immaterial; I am not seeking validation. What matters is that someone else too engaged meaningfully with this work; it makes the listener feel seen and, in some way, less alone.

That’s what music criticism does. While there will always remain a strong core that looks at reviews only as a scorecard, a supposed authority bequeathing grades per subjective whims, a whole other world exists behind it. It colours the experience, and builds on the shared communal aspect of music so vital to the experience. The critic engages with music on a level that penetrates the surface. The writing offers an opinion on why I liked something, and what exists beneath. The journey is amplified, it feels richer. And whole.

We are in an exciting age where there’s more music than anyone can realistically keep track of. The paradox of choice can be paralysing; as a result, so many of my friends, all in our creaking 30s, end up returning to comfort albums. The music they heard in their late teens and early 20s. Because who has the time, energy, or patience to sift through endless global discographies just to find a worthwhile record? We miss out on so much without voices we can trust.

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And then there’s the peculiar frenemy relationship between critic and musician. Everyone hates the critic—often rightly so, Pitchfork doubly so, as evident in the sporadic gloating the past few days over past slights—but it’s not quite straightforward. The big-ticket bands of the world—a Kanye West, a Swift, Drake—will always have access to audiences and little need for a genuine engagement with the many moving parts comprising this brittle industry.

Lower down the ladder though, for the cool three-piece from west Delhi or Mizoram, for the innovative electronica producer in Kochi and the rapper in Telangana, music criticism is the bridge between their work and a receptive audience. It’s always the little guy who gets shafted in all these power plays. How does a new band, creating music that veers from algorithm-dictated categorisations, find an audience? Through the nerds who champion their cause (at least in part). Bands need the critic, and the critic needs the music; this fragile, symbiotic exchange cultivates the music community. Art criticism, really, examines the art intellectually and deepens our emotional response to it, shaping culture in a manner that’s enriching and progressive.

All the more so in current times: the era of “stan culture". Today, attached innately to music is a spirit of tribalism, a persecution complex and a perpetual feeling of injustice—similar to how people watch sports: your team can do no wrong and everyone else is Hitler. In fairness, fans have always had an unhealthy, one-sided-obsessive-lover relationship with their favourites—this is hardly unique to contemporary times—but now those fans are able to mobilise against the merest suspicion of criticism, find each other collectively online in a culture built on immediate validation and gratification.

Anything not overwhelmingly gushing is a personal insult. And there must be consequences! Sure, these wars—when they don’t spill over—are great fun. But they don’t build anything, they don’t meaningfully expand our reaction to art. In these developing times, there remains a vital place for music criticism. And yet, we are moving headfirst toward a crash; an industry flailing and gasping for breath—the horror.

Akhil Sood is a Delhi-based writer.

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