Or, “Review: The Pitchfork 500” (As promised.)
It has been well publicized by voices louder and more authoritative than mine that Pitchforkmedia.com is a veritable trendsetter, all but launching the careers of artists such as Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Annie (Stateside, anyway), among others. The site’s influence is so vast that long-forgotten acts like Gang of Four, ESG and the Congos have posthumously become prescient. And who knew that Talk Talk and Jesus Lizard were so damn good? Pitchfork, apparently.
Not that they are the only ones on the internets with a stacked record collection; there are practically as many “indie” music websites as there are “indie” artists, each trying in their own way to match Pitchfork’s success and influence. Considering the pull that Pitchforkmedia holds, the decision to pursue a print publication is a rather odd one. Other than the fact that a book sucks in a whole lot more money for the work than simply posting the same information – oh, right.
More importantly, as far as I’m interested, Pitchfork is among the few websites to have made the jump from audience to performer. The gaze has shifted so that P4K isn’t simply chronicling their musical tastes, they are in effect making declarative statements with each new album review, and in doing so, are the subject of other’s criticisms. Their relationship to music is similar to a Keith Olbermann’s to news or a Tony Kornheiser’s to sports. Sure, the former is reporting on the latter, but the former has also reached a certain celebrity status in their own right. So now what they do is occasionally as newsworthy as the actions of the subjects they traditionally cover.
Unfairly or not, Pitchfork Media’s new The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to Present will inevitably be viewed through a hypercritical lens. Criticism of the book immediately fell into two camps: older, established media outlets hoping to ride the coattails of hipster cred back into relevance, like the Los Angeles Times, which praises it as, “An essential part of the iPod Generation’s lexicon, a must-read”; to envious, pajama-wearing, mother’s basement-living wannabe blogs and posters calling the books proprietor’s, “misguided and insecure”, as one recent reviewer on Amazon.com has done.
My thoughts on the book can be found at the end of this post, but before getting to that, I had the opportunity to exchange emails with Pitchforkmedia.com founder and Pitchfork 500 co-editor Ryan Schreiber. Find out what he had to say after the jump, replete with as much context as possible:
RM: I understand your move to appeal to a historical context with your book, to focus on chronology and the development of art as opposed to merely cataloging taste. Still, whether intentional or not, ranking the songs (or albums, baseball players, whatever) does provide a sort of built in narrative in its own right. There is a storytelling aspect present when things are ranked, and in my opinion, it’s what makes your website’s decade lists so worthwhile. So, would you care to elaborate as to why the songs on the Pitchfork 500 are not ranked? Or was naming “Don’t Stop Believing” to the pinnacle spot viewed as a superfluous formality?
Ryan Schreiber: It’s a funny thing because I usually feel like it’s a little bit of a cop-out when other publications put together lists like this without ranking the songs. But it felt different here, since lists like that tend to work better online or in periodical form than in book form, and also because that’s been our approach to list-making for so long that we felt like it’d be fun to try to a different approach for a change. The idea here was to shift the focus of discussion from which songs are considered better than other songs– which is great to argue about online, but ultimately not a very compelling reason to drop $16. In the end, we thought it was more interesting to create a chronological narrative of the past three decades of music, to try to show how it got from point A to point B.
RM: As Pitchforkmedia.com has grown in influence, once-powerful print publications like Rolling Stone and Spin have (on multiple occasions) changed formats and approaches in attempts to keep up with the internets. With that in mind, why the Pitchfork book? (Or is the trend moving away from print media reason enough for making a book?) How did the project come to fruition?
RS: I’ve always loved these kinds of music guides. In fact, I think some of the ones I read growing up– the Trouser Press ones especially, but also the Spin Alternative Record Guide, which is a lot better than you’d probably think– were really my first inspiration for starting Pitchfork. So part of it is kind of a life-long dream type of thing, but also, most of what’s out there now is out of date. Not only has the past decade of music not been accounted for, but music itself, and how we listen to it, has changed dramatically in that time, thanks in part to iPods, playlists, shuffle features, and music blogs. Most guides also focus on albums, which means some of the most influential tracks in hip-hop, dance, punk and indie– which all began as single-based genres– tend to get overlooked.
RM: Pitchforkmedia.com at times draws criticism for being, shall we say, esoteric. Was this sort of potential critique a consideration when compiling (as opposed to ranking) the songs for the book? Was there any concern that the book would be ill-received or that the claims it made would be considered too authoritative? (Do these criticisms even show up on the radar screen at all?)
RS: I think we’re way past the point of worrying about whether anything we say is going to be well-received, hahaha. Part of what’s great about music criticism, and part of what I love about it, is that it courts controversy and incites debate. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a top 10 list– let alone a top 500 list– that I’ve wholly agreed with, but that’s part of the purpose that criticism serves– just being a good argument-starter for people who share the enthusiasm. The other part is potentially exposing new listeners to an amazing track or album or artist they wouldn’t have otherwise known about. And both of those things are equally inspiring to us because they’re both things that we relate to as music fans. We get pissed off at these things like everyone else, but at the end of the day, we read them because we’re fascinated by the subject and because they so often turn us onto new music, new ideas, and honestly, the kind of dumb trivia that people like us obsess over.
RM: Further along that point, do you see the Pitchfork 500 fitting into any sort of historical context of art criticism? Or was it viewed more as a fleeting, for-fun effort?
RS: That’s not really for us to decide. We certainly didn’t approach it as carrying that kind of big-picture significance. Like everything we do, we did it because we thought it’d be a fun and rewarding project that hopefully would be useful or enjoyable for other people, too.
RM: At MerrySwankster.com, we put together our own relatively-modest year-end lists for albums and songs, and with only six people contributing, we still manage to have quite a bit of dissension among the ranks. I can appreciate that an endeavor such as yours probably spawned a number of worthwhile disagreements. Any noteworthy disputes? Did the higher-ups ever pull rank to get certain songs included? Anything come to blows? I’ll bet someone walked out of the room after ELO made the cut.
RS: Yeah, we argued relentlessly and there were a ton of disputes, although almost everyone I know loves that ELO song. I really fought hard against Dexys Midnight Runners being included, but at the end of the day, there’s a give and take you have to respect. I try not to be a rank-pulling kind of guy. In fact, there might be one or two picks that I initially supported which made the cut that I now think were really poor judgment on my behalf. One of those is Green Day’s Longview– whoops.
No argument about these guys.
RM: I can’t imagine that anyone reasonably expects you (Pitchfolks?) to be the chroniclers of the entirety of music history, and I hate to nit-pick, but where’s the jazz/country/classical/anything from Asia/anything in Spanish? Was there a point where the editors just decided, “OK, let’s reel it in a bit here and set some parameters”?
RS: Hah, well, we definitely try to live up to that expectation whether it’s expected of us or not. Collectively, we do have a pretty broad knowledge of all those genres, and I think there’s probably one or two tracks represented in the book from each of those groups, or mentioned at the very least. Of course, there are always going to be a few gaps in these kinds of lists, and ultimately, sometimes you have to go with your vote rather than trying to ensure that all genres are equally recognized. The book is undoubtedly colored by Pitchfork’s rock/pop/indie/hip-hop/electronic slant, but if it weren’t I’d guess people would wonder why our name was on the cover.
RM: Will we be seeing the Pitchfork name expanding to release other books? Fictions, perhaps?
RS: We’re considering it, but there aren’t any firm plans at the moment. Obviously, how well this one does will probably shape our decision somewhat. I think for now we’re trying to play it by ear. Maybe we’ll do the 500 worst?
Mr. Schreiber addressed most of my concerns about his book, so rather than pontificate any further on those points, here are my impressions of the text:
If this book were the only remaining artifact of the Pitchforkmedia legacy, anthropologists and sociologists from future generations would surmise that not only was punk the greatest musical genre of the rock ‘n roll era, but that is was likewise a cultural touchstone that single-handedly affected the development of every style of music for over 30 years. I agree with about 98% of that stance, but it must be said: I, for one, miss the ranking component. Whereas lists keep the reader glued to each turned or jumped-to page, time lines instead draw the audience’s attention initially only to the familiar. Furthermore, ranking the songs forces the writers to justify each track’s inclusion. The time line approach only requires a brief description or anecdote, a sort of writing that I find to be much less interesting and meaningful.
Even so, the Pitchfork 500 remains a fun read, and it certainly does provide some insight into a number of tracks and artists that otherwise wouldn’t get much publicity. (Seriously, when’s the last time you saw Einsturzende Neubauten’s name mentioned in a book?) So in that regard, the book is exactly what you’d expect from Pitchfork.