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Pitchfork's Progress

Will a sassy, hip Web site spell doom for printed rock criticism?

It turns out the funniest Onion-esque fake news story penned so far this year did not spring from The Onion. No, Sub Pop Records -- a concern not ordinarily known for its forays into satire and comedy writing -- deserves full credit for "Pitchfork Staff Member Says 'Hi' to Real-Life Woman."

"This marks the first time a member of the Pitchfork staff has made direct verbal contact with someone of the opposite sex," the blurb announces. "Normally content with sitting in his mother's basement eating Cheetos and watching bootlegged Jawbreaker videos, Andy somehow got the courage to speak openly to a girl at last Friday's show."

What Andy said, in case you're wondering, is "Hi."

Jill Pearson

As wise old sage "Weird Al" Yankovic has taught us, mockery is the sincerest form of flattery. Thus the apparently socially stultified rock-crit geeks at Pitchforkmedia.com, the wildly popular indie-centric news-and-reviews Internet portal of evil, should be delighted indeed that Sub Pop found the site remarkable and prominent enough to launch so elaborate a parody. The send-up, at SubPop.com/features/pdork, is stunning in its attention to detail, copying Pitchfork's layout exactly as it lampoons the news section's hipster elitism (headline: "Indie cred flawlessly maintained. Personal credit history, not so much") and the elaborate 0.0 to 10.0 CD-rating system ("1.0-1.9: I got kicked out of a band that sounded like this").

Climactically, the joke headline to a hypothetical review of the Rapture's Echoes is "Dance Music is the new ska."

"That was so flattering," raves Pitchfork mastermind Ryan Schreiber over the phone from Chicago, where the site is based. "It was unbelievable that Sub Pop, this label -- I mean, they were huge before we had even been conceived. They were a label that I followed for years and years before even considering starting this Web site. For them to be able to do a parody of our site, and have people even know what they're talking about, it was really cool. It was the coolest thing in the world."

In fact, the comedy site SomethingAwful.com followed up with its own elaborate Pitchfork spoof a couple of months later, though it was far meaner (and lamer) than Sub Pop's. For discerning music geeks, Pitchfork has indeed morphed into the Holy Grail since Schreiber and a buddy started it in his bedroom at his parents' Minneapolis house in 1995 -- he says the site now reaches an average of 90,000 readers a day. Why? As every major music magazine's CD review section has devolved into a graveyard of 100-word blurbs offering no room for creativity, personality or, more to the point, relevant criticism, Pitchfork has exploded outward, with 500-word reviews that read like essays, short stories, diary entries and/or harebrained literary experiments.

Writing style? Flowery, ambitious, decidedly postgraduate. Knowledge base? Hugely intimidating; these people seem to know everything about everything before anyone else knows anything. Opinions? Brash, outspoken, occasionally very bitchy. Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts & Flowers and Liz Phair's reviled last record both share the distinction of a Pitchfork-awarded 0.0 review: "Breaks new ground for terrible."

"What do you want, a closing paragraph? Something to wrap it all up, tie everything together?" demands the tail end of the Pitchfork review for the Anniversary's actually quite excellent album Your Majesty. "Fuck you. Don't buy this."

"I feel like honesty is so important in a record review," Schreiber says. "You can't worry about what the artist is gonna think, what the label's gonna think -- 'Oh, are we gonna get cut from their promo list?' To me it's completely irrelevant. The first thing that any editor should be concerned about is integrity. If you're just reining it in to try and save one person, what's the point? It's criticism. It's criticism! Who responds well to criticism?"

"If you read almost any other music magazine, three out of five is terrible in a lot of magazines," adds Eric Carr, a Pitchfork writer who, as the advertising director, is Schreiber's only consistent full-time employee. "To see something less than three stars out of five is unusual, or it's a really safe bet for the magazine -- they're panning something that no one in their audience would be expected to like. It's safe for them. Pitchfork, we go out on a limb with stuff."

All right. Let's stop drinking the Kool-Aid for a second.

Pitchfork's bile is remarkable, but its enormous literary aspirations truly set it apart, and set the site's adorers and abhorrers apart as well. In attempting to avoid the colorless-blurb graveyard, a Pitchfork review can swing the pendulum too far in the other direction: a dense, hugely overwritten, utterly incomprehensible brick of critical fruitcake. "I've read this damn review three times," the befuddled reader says aloud, "and I still don't know what it says."

"I say that sometimes," Carr admits. "Occasionally we've written something that even I'm like, 'I can't believe someone wanted to write this.' But I mean, I think that's the allure of Pitchfork for people -- chances are you're going to see something that someone's put a lot of thought into, where they haven't just rattled off a paragraph: 'This album sounds like this, buy it if you like bands X, Y and Z.' "

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