On Reviews

A couple fellow music blogs have posted up this, and after giving it a read over, as well as the review in question, I felt compelled to do the same. This isn't so much an attempt to defend these guys, but more to complain about how the entire environment of reviewing here is flawed.

The guys who make up the group The Airborne Toxic Event was given a 1.6 rating from the indie-music website on a recent review to which they had the following reply:

Dear Ian,

Thanks for your review of our record. It's clear that you are a good writer and it's clear that you took a lot of time giving us a thorough slagging on the site. We are fans of Pitchfork. And it's fun to slag off bands. It's like a sport -- kind of part of the deal when you decide to be in a rock band. (That review of Jet where the monkey pees in his own mouth was about the funniest piece of band-slagging we've ever seen.)

We decided a long time ago not to take reviews too seriously. For one, they tend to involve a whole lot of projection, generally saying more about the writer than the band. Sort of a musical Rorschach test. And for another, reading them makes you too damned self-conscious, like the world is looking over your shoulder when the truth is you're not a genius or a moron. You're just a person in a band.

Plus, the variation of opinions on our record has bordered on absurd. Most of what's been said has been positive, a few reviews have been on the fence and a few (such as yours) have been aggressively harsh. We tend not to put a lot of stock in this stuff, but the sheer disagreement of opinion makes for fascinating (if not a bit narcissistic) reading.

And anyway we have to admit that we found ourselves oddly flattered by your review. I mean, 1.6? That is not faint praise. That is not a humdrum slagging. That is serious fist-pounding, shoe-stomping anger. Many publications said this was among the best records of the year. You seem to think it's among the worst. That is so much better than faint praise.

You compare us to a lot of really great bands (Arcade Fire, the National, Bright Eyes, Bruce Springsteen) and even if your intention was to cut us down, you end up describing us as: "lyrically moody, musically sumptuous and dramatic." One is left only to conclude that you m ust think those things are bad.

We love indie rock and we know full well that Pitchfork doesn't so much critique bands as critique a band's ability to match a certain indie rock aesthetic. We don't match it. It's true that the events described in these songs really happened. It's true we wrote about them in ways that make us look bad. (Sometimes in life you are the hero, and sometimes, you are the limp-dicked cuckold. Sometimes your screaming about your worst fears, your most trite jealousies. Such is life.) It's also true that the record isn't ironic or quirky or fey or disinterested or buried beneath mountains of guitar noodling.

As writers, we admire your tenacity and commitment to your tone (even though you do go too far with your assumptions about us). You're wrong about our intentions, you're wrong about how this band came together, you don't seem to get the storytelling or the catharsis or the humor in the songs, and you clearly have some misconceptions about who we are as a band and who we are as people.

But it also seems to have very little to do with us. Much of your piece reads less like a record review and more like a diatribe against a set of ill-considered and borderline offensive preconceptions about Los Angeles. Los Angeles has an extremely vibrant blogging community, Silver Lake is a very close-knit scene of bands. We're one of them. We cut our teeth at Spaceland and the Echo and have nothing to do with whatever wayward ideas you have about the Sunset Strip. That's just bad journalism.

But that is the nature of this sort of thing. It's always based on incomplete information. Pitchfork has slagged many, many bands we admire (Dr. Dog, the Flaming Lips, Silversun Pickups, Cold War Kids, Black Kids, Bright Eyes [ironic, no?] just to name a few), so now we're among them. Great.

This band was borne of some very very dark days and the truth is that there is something exciting about just being part of this kind of thing. There's this long history of dialog between bands and writers, NME ripping apart the Cure or Rolling Stone refusing to write about Led Zeppelin -- so it's a bit of a thrill that you have such a20strong opinion about us.

We hear you live in Los Angeles. We'd love for you to come to a show sometime and see what we're doing with these lyrically moody and dramatic songs. We're serious about this stuff. You seem like a true believer when it comes to music and writing so we honestly think we can't be too far apart. In any case, it would make for a good story.

all our best--

Mikel, Steven, Anna, Daren, Noah the Airborne Toxic Event

You can read the review in question here.

This brings up some of the personal gripes that I have with the big website, and with the entire indie-music scene in general. I've found it to be dominated entirely by people trying to be cool, hipsters, on top of the latest trends simply to set themselves apart from 'The Mainstream'. I personally think that it's shallow and vain, not to mention just a bit arrogant.

That about sums up my views of Pitchfork - there are a number of writers on there who seem to have good writing skills, but a sort of complex that makes them feel entitled about their opinions when it comes to music. I can't say that I've listened to The Airborne Toxic Event before, but I certainly don't think that they deserve a really low score on the album - I've heard a lot of other albums that are worse.

When it comes down to it, music is about enjoyment, and the guys who wrote the letter hit the nail on the head - reviews are just one person's review and opinions of any given thing. I don't give credence to very many other reviews, but there are a couple that I do listen to, and those are generally the ones that make logical sense and aren't out to try and make too much of a point or have an agenda. When they drop names like the Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes into every other review, I have to wonder just what Pitchfork is trying to say - To me, it seems like we just get a string of reviews that say Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes still rock. Well, great, but we read the first notice, thanks. Fanboy worship is pathetic - either they're still trying to get on first name basis with the band members, or they just can't get over the fact that they don't like any other music. Essentially, they don't seem to be an objective reviewer.

This leads me to my second gripe here - for all the appearances of a hipster indie person, rejecting the evil mainstream, it's just a crock. They're following, like sheep, a second mainstream that Pitchfork and other like minded blogs and sites/reviewers create. There's numerous instances of how postive reviews have made an album, while low reviews have essentially broken them. I have no issues with good or bad reviews, but for an environment that seems to promote standoffish and independence, it's a hypocritical and vain one at best. Don't forget, that we're all part of the big commercial cog here. There's a reason why a lot of these blogs are on publicists e-mail lists - we help sell a product, making us part of the mainstream.

I think Zero Punctuation says it best when it comes to reviews with their Mailbag showdown. "I don't believe that a complex opinion can be represented numerically", although he has a lot of good points in the feature.

When I write a review, it's my thoughts. I honestly don't care what other people think about my review, and I generally don't care what other people think about any given group in question. I don't do this to preen and pretend to be someone who knows more about music than the general public, I'd like to think that I have about average music tastes, and use this to highlight bands that I enjoy listening to. You can have a band that sounds very unique, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to sound any good while doing it. I don't even really have a huge issue with Pitchfork or the indie kids who think that they're cool. I'll just continue to ignore them and go on with my life.

This goes for things other than music as well. Over the past couple of years, I've largely gotten rid of the fanboy mentality that I had when it comes to books and movies, and I've sought to become far more objective and critical with my reviews and commentary on things. During high school and early college, anything with the word STAR WARS on the front cover was pretty sure to get high marks from me simply for those two words. Essentially, I was reinforcing the fact that I liked the original movies. Since then, I've gone back and rethought a lot of things, and while I still enjoy a number of the books, I can admit that they're not that great. Since then, I've watched and read things with a far more critical eye, and one where I'm not as easily lulled into succuming to peer pressure when it comes to liking various products. I'm still an unabashed Science Fiction fanboy, but I'll be critical of the genre and its contents when I need to be. Same goes for just about every other movie that I watch, book I read and song that I listen to.

Anyway, that's my rant about all this.