Did Pitchfork Kill the Rock Critic?

Newcity’s Alex Baumgardner asks a good question: By spending more time cultivating its brand than its place as a critical institution, is P4K killing the potency of the provocative byline? 

But whether it will ever start to show any real atavistic traits and begin pulling the best bits from the publications that went before it remains to be seen. An ever-expanding brand like Pitchfork’s discourages the forceful writers—who still may bloom yet out of its ranks—from remaining with the publication for long, whether it intends to or not. Look no further than Bill Simmons, the rock-star sports columnist at ESPN who has publicly battled the restrictions of operating under its brand, and made an attempt to branch out on his own.

Baumgardner is probably right that the millions who visit Pitchfork.com each month aren’t doing so in search of the latest piece by Mark Richardson or Jess Harvell. (Other music writers probably do, myself included, but that’s beside the point.) But I think he severely underestimates, or flat out ignores, the way the role of the critic has diminished over the years generally. It’s not that P4K writers don’t have their own voices — get past the obligatory biases attached to the brand name and you’ll actually discover diverse opinions and writing styles on the site — but that we as a culture (aggregated) don’t care who’s writing the review.

How can you ignore the impact that not only the proliferation of blogs has had (which entails more opinions and less time to focus on any one of them), but also sites like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes (a site devoted to film, yes, but it’s a key part of the shifting critical landscape) or even Facebook and Twitter? Not to mention the elephant in the room — piracy — which also devalues the role of the critic by making informed purchasing decisions less important, or not important at all really.

Which is not to say the diminishing role of the critic is not something to mourn, especially for those of us who value that role for more than its recommending function. I’d love to live in a world where the latest Nitsuh Abebe column for New York Magazine was worth grabbing beers over (on the whole, they’re usually that good), but that’s just not the case anymore. When we refer to what the “reviews say” these days we are typically referring to some intangible, though powerful, force that is bearing down on us from all sides and at every moment — the groupthink of a constantly wired and pontificating culture. I’m speaking generally, of course, but to suggest that P4K itself devalued the role of the music critic is incredibly lazy.

I appreciate that Baumgardner interviewed Sound Opinions’ Jim DeRogatis — one of the greats by any measure. It’s clear that he did (most of) his homework and asked some important questions — the blurb on Bon Iver and the site’s role as a concert promoter was definitely thought-provoking. But, in what I fear was a play for Newcity site hits, I think he missed an opportunity to actually say something new about how we presently value cultural criticism and why that might be the case.

At least he knows how to craft a gripping headline.