Since You Last Saw Me: When writers carry pitchforks

Readers, I have to come clean about something: Over the past however many months we’ve been stuck in hellish isolation, I’ve become absolutely addicted to Pitchfork, an online publication whose tagline is “the most trusted voice in music.” Its writers cover anything and everything music related, from album release schedules to high profile disputes between artists and their managers to Travis Scott’s collaboration with McDonald’s

Most notorious (and most at fault for my addiction) are the publication’s music reviews, which comprise a rating on a 10-point scale and some of the sharpest, strangest and most informative music criticism I’ve read in my life. While some publications (e.g., The Guardian, New Musical Express, Rolling Stone) publish reviews on an album’s release day, I’ve anxiously awaited some albums’ Pitchfork reviews for up to 10 days. Yes, I really get anxious.

What I like most about the reviews are their effusivity and almost parodic grandiosity. The way some of these critics dial up the dramatics, you’d think they were writing this generation’s version of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” (1517). Take the review of Megan Thee Stallion’s debut album, “Good News” (2020): It begins with a long, clinical explanation of what happens to the bodies of gunshot victims. This, of course, alludes to the rapper’s altercation this summer, but why a music review should inform us that, after being shot, “you could have to poop into a bag through a hole in your stomach,” is beyond me.

The site’s commitment to absolute seriousness in its criticism is endearing. In my opinion, it’s also noble — legitimizing the work of artists in genres like rap and hip-hop, whose public perception frequently labels them as categorically vacuous and trashy, is important. 

Nonetheless, the harshness, specificity or peculiarity of critiques can be laughable. Take this quote from the brutal review of Charlie Puth’s “Nine Track Mind” (2016), for example: “The album’s emotional range covers the spectrum from light longing to light infatuation, contributing to the overall sense that ‘Nine Track Mind’ is aimed exclusively at hairlessness: children, prepubescents, the discomfitingly waxed.” When negative critiques aren’t bizarre, they’re straightforward and biting: “On the embattled rapper’s latest EP, Iggy Azalea knows what a good rap song sounds like in the abstract but is simply incapable of making one” (from the review of Iggy Azalea’s 2018 album “Survive the Summer“).

Positive critiques are often puzzlingly accurate. A review of Chicago rapper Noname’s 2012 mixtape “Telefone” comments, “If the Charlie Brown Christmas special—with its poignancy, melancholy and childlike, funereal score—were turned into a rap album, it might sound like ‘Telefone’.” When artists get it right, the last sentence of the review will invariably claim that they have “found the answers” to the album’s complex, philosophical questions. It’s one of their flourishes I’ve come to recognize with regular readership.

I love Pitchfork because its writers are “poptimists” and rap enthusiasts; they take the things I enjoy seriously, but always leave room for melodrama and camp. For these reasons, I couldn’t give it a more glowing review.