Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fantastic out of 10

Observe the above painting. It's from Claude Monet's Houses of Parliament series. How good of a painting is it? Now, we aren't seeing the painting in the flesh in front of our faces, so our judgment is a little disjointed as is. Additionally, since we are seeing one painting from a series, it lacks a context, so we don't know whether this is a darker lighter mooded piece in comparison to its peer pieces. It portrays a, well, House of Parliament, erected against the overhanging setting sun. The sun reflects off the body of water in the foreground, and this reflection is portrayed in brilliant colors. The remaining sky seems to be an apathetic blue being under the negative influence of some clouds at a juxtaposition, and the base of the edifice is obscured and not illuminated. The impressionist painting has some very efforted brushstrokes and is given a texture that does wonders for the water in the foreground and takes away from the looming structure on the coastal landscape.

So what did we decide about the painting?



Art, in all of its forms and fashions, is created, usually, for the consumer. Therapeutic effects and personal satisfaction aside, art is created to observe. This observation can be through seeing, hearing, touching, or even smelling and tasting. This is called perception. As consumers, we have this fucked up tendency to perceive beyond what is there to percept. Along with perceiving art, we interpret art. We take what we see or hear and we put a context to it. That's why some people like certain things more than others.

All of this is "duh" shit so far, so it's about time I get to a point.

What's a good movie? What's a good album? Better yet, what makes it good?

Despite what we may believe, this isn't really an arbitrary thing. Some people like loud music, some people like soft music, some people like stupid movies, some people like action movies, some people hate movies where shit doesn't blow up (can't blame 'em; shit blowin' up is tight). Yeah, there's general trends to what makes something a quality production, but there's also so much to interpret and apply to one's own personal taste. It's art. If you like it, I might think it sucks. And that's fine, so long as I'm not a dick about it.

That's what I hate about Pitchfork. Pitchfork, popular douchey pretentious music website, makes its best effort to review like every album ever. Which is great, but the fact that there is one site that rates every album they can means that there's a standard. There's a status quo that music, an interpretive art, has to live up to. When I read a Pitchfork review, the thing that jumps out at me is the big red number that arbitrarily gives value to something that may mean the world to someone. Is The People's Key (Bright Eyes' latest album) the best album you've ever heard? Hm, nope! 5.0. This means Radiohead's Kid A was twice as good. Wait, you don't like Radiohead's sound? Well, you're wrong. Conor Oberst's lyrics are bad. No they aren't poetic, if you think that you're stupid. Things like these are what reviews tell us.

In journalism you're supposed to show and not tell. In giving a movie review, you can say "this scene was poorly shot" or "the acting was sub-par and lacked the proper emotion." In a music review, you can't really tell without showing. In other words, you just say "that synth part sucked" or "Oberst's voice sounds like a violin played with a cob of corn." So sites/magazines like Pitchfork really are just spewing their opinions, treating them as fact and playing God of good taste. It's stupid. Isn't it stupid guys? It's pretty stupid.

Now, if an album is especially awful, or fantastically great, it deserves some notoriety, and it's up to media outlets to create that. And I guess I'm not even mad about the reviewing process. The thing that pisses me off most is the large red number. The deciding factor, what it all comes down to.  A surprisingly high 7.0 is the same as a disappointingly low 7.0, and a shitty Radiohead album will still beat out a good Bright Eyes album every time.

Pitchfork has been hated on plenty by pretty much everyone, but they can't be blamed for doing what they're doing. The people love it. I can't remember the last time I anticipated an album and didn't check what score Pitchfork gave it, just for kicks. Out of stupid blind habit. They make some good points about  all the albums they review (usually), but give them context that the average fan won't experience. For example, on the paragraph about how Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (which looks just decadent when italicized), Pitchfork went on and on about Kanye's horrible public persona, the emotional personal struggle he went through overcoming the despise of the American people, which is, by all means, critical to understanding why Kanye made the album what it was, but, other than some spare lyrics here or there, it isn't what the fuck the album is. They mention the album in one sentence – the last one. Now sure the album is a product of the context, but what about the millions who hear the music and not the motive? I don't blame someone for not giving a shit who Kanye West is. However, it's a detriment to Big Boi if his album was just, regularly just made? Like an album? Stupid.

To some it makes the album better, to others it doesn't matter. That's the point. It's different depending on which set of ears it goes into. All music is. All art is perceived differently by different people.

Video games: review 'em. They aren't quite art. Though they have artistic qualities. There are elements of gameplay, story continuity, validity and smooth production quality that separate them from pure interpretive art. Things like movies, books, music and obviously everything artier than that should be thought about and discussed, but not rated. A rating coming from a media outlet puts a template in one's head from which to interpret a work of art. If someone says something sucks, but it's actually really good, it will take a lot more to sway your opinion from what popular perception of it already is.

Do you see what I'm getting at here?

Thank you for your time.

--Eliot Sill


  1. I've actually stopped reviewing music, and I don't plan on doing it anymore. I don't like the way music reviews have become more a grappling for eyes than a review of the actual music. I don't find most reviews as informative anymore as I find them attempting to impress readers with the writing. I usually just get annoyed reading them.

  2. Some readers view Pitchfork as some sort of absolute authority, and that fault is with those reader, not the writer. Those people don't have their own opinions, and again, that is not Pitchfork's fault.

    A music review is part of a public conversation about an album, it's not meant to be the final word or the only word, as there are thousands of other reviews clamoring for attention. When someone reads a review on Pitchfork, if it's well-written, the reader might learn something new about the album's context, they might view a certain song through a new lens because of a reference the writer picked up on that the reader might not have.

    I don't live in New York City. Without music reviews, I wouldn't know about half the bands I listen to. If a writer says why he doesn't like an album, the very reasons he didn't like the record might be reasons I would want to check it out. I don't begrudge the writer for that, as long they explain their opinion (example: Dr. Dog, many reasons Pitchfork reviewers critique the album only make it sound more appealing.) We all know the context and history of Pitchfork's somewhat predictable taste, and when you know that, the site is an incredibly useful tool. I like reading people's opinions about music, and I don't have to agree with them to find it useful. Yeah, rating to a decimal point is arrogant, but due to the qualitative nature of music opinion, a quantitative evaluation is just another useful tool (especially for someone who just wants a few music suggestions but doesn't really want to read.) Take it or leave it, but at least someone is excited enough about new music to write 1,000 words about it.

    It's not like Pitchfork is an Orwellian Ministry of Culture, and a 4.0 rating dooms a band to the stockade. (Though yeah, Pitchfork can have too much influence on a band's fate, but again, that is the readers' fault, not the writers').

    My apologies for the length of this comment.

  3. Pitchfork is the Orwellian Ministry of Music, as you demonstrated in the next sentence. I would say by pointing a middle finger at Pitchfork, Eliot is convincing readers to stop being the problem.

  4. People who read Pitchfork will be influenced to some degree. Pitchfork writes to sound correct and unquestionable. You can't expect each reader to understand that they aren't, when they are paid to convince the people otherwise.

    I think of news networks, they know they're spinning the news. We don't blame the viewers for watching Fox News, we blame Fox News for being full of shit. Giving the news is necessary, and the opinionated voices at FN are sure to incite conversation, but we still recognize it as bullshit. Pitchfork knows they're making an impression on their readers (sometimes it can even be a sub-conscious expectation like "Pitchfork said it was bad, but I'll check it out anyway"), and they don't care to change that. Why should they?

    It is the fault of the reader, but the reader is impressionable, and Pitchfork knows that, and they take advantage of it. That's where the problem lies.


  5. First, I blame both Fox and the viewer.

    Second, I don't think Pitchfork has an agenda to take advantage of readers. We're talking about reading music reviews. This ain't no election. They dish their opinion and if its convincing then they did something. If it makes people angry, they again did something. They're making conversation, they're talking about music. Isn't that the goal?


  6. No, the goal isn't to incite a reaction or to make conversation or to embed a video of a monkey peeing. It's to inform the reader about the music. They might not have an active agenda, but it doesn't change the fact that a whole lot of their writers are pretentious little dickheads that spend more time showing off their thesauruses than listening to the albums they cover.

  7. Eliot, I like the opening paragraph, because it illustrates the inherent incongruity in assigning a number to a piece of art, which appears even more absurd with a classic painting. It's a great example of "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." So I agree in some sense that it's absurd.

    But with the sheer number of albums released every week, I stand by the number rating system as a helpful tool, one that helps us remember things we (or someone else) liked, didn't like, or thought was average, so we can go back for more listens.

    But, the analogy with Fox News doesn't work. When Pitchfork gives an album a number rating, it's understood to be, by definition, an opinion, not fact. Music criticism is, by definition, opinion. Any reader who doesn't recognize and treat a music review as such doesn't deserve coddling or anyone's time of day.

    Fox News purports to report news and fact. Reporting, is, by definition, supposed to be objective and fact-based. Any media literate person can tell that Fox actually provides slanted opinion and commentary, and does very little actual reporting. Pitchfork does not list its music reviews under it's "News" tab. If it listed, under its News tab, that "the new Pains of Being Pure at Heart album is a '8.2'," then we'd have a problem. But that is preposterous.

  8. The sheer abundance of music makes Pitchfork entirely too influential, and the fact is they serve as a guide to music, by providing thoughts on it. When those thoughts are punctuated by one single rating out of ten, it sets every album up to one common scale, when albums are made to be interpreted and taken in differently.

    Do you see the problem? Art isn't meant to be rated. Music is art. Music isn't meant to be rated. Pitchfork rates as much of it as they possibly can. If you're assuming every Pitchfork reader has the presence of mind to not take what Pitchfork says as more than a single solitary opinion, then that puts you on a similar plane of ignorance.

    Ok, that was a little harsh. I didn't mean that.

    But when a new video game comes out, I check IGN to see how they reviewed it. Video games are reviewable technology, with very slight room for story interpretation, though a coherent story with proper continuity is usually all it takes to garner a perfect score, provided that the rest of the game is flawless.
    Video game reviews are very akin to fact. Music reviews are very akin to opinion. Yet the reviews are written in the same way, thus blurring the discrepancies between their validity. This parallel makes it easy to see Pitchfork as a technical review similar to video game reviews.

    This convenience in filing, as you seem to view it, doubles as a succinct hierarchal method for discerning that which cannot be discerned – what makes music better than other music.

    By all means, it's good that you can view PF as subjective opinion. But you're in the minority. And that's why it's stupid.


  9. Wow, it's not even my day to post. Damn it. sorry.

  10. related: one of my all-time favorite Onion articles:,2278/