Features | Festivals

A Few Notes On My Continued Press Accreditation to the Pitchfork Music Festival, or, Holy Fuck, Everyone Actually is a Critic

By Clayton Purdom | 31 July 2008

Despite murmurings from various corners of the internet, gleamed via blogs, boards, and reviews I’ve personally written in various states of impudence and/or inebriation, Cokemachineglow does not hate Pitchforkmedia. We don’t want to be it, because we can’t be it; they beat us to the punch on that (being Pitchfork, as it were). We are also not its little brother, no matter how quaintly and readily that phrase seems to apply. If we share a birth canal at all then the bond is not of siblings but of a full-thing and its afterbirth. This isn’t self-flagellation; rather than a chipped toenail of that colossus I’d rather be a central part of this purple gelatinous sludge any day: at CMG I can open a 1,900-word article with an extended metaphor about afterbirth and net a clean pass from the editorial corner and an excited titter in some of the others. “Some of the others” being Alan’s corner. Alan loves afterbirth. He’s gonna be a doctor someday.

Still, despite our slight status in its stead, I pity Pitchfork, purely from an editorial standpoint. They are in the awkward business of acting like one thing while being another. Don’t get me wrong: they’re paid like motherfuckers and have functioned as the lightning rod (if not the forum) for, like, most of the intelligent critical thoughts about music this decade. Remember when you first stumbled upon them, probably like me googling “sounds like Kid A“ and subsequently drowning in indulgence and pithy wordplay and bands you didn’t know to not give a shit about? And then it emerged from a strange shared curiosity to flashpoints of reference in nervous conversation into, like, this thing, emerging fully formed from our browsers and into the real world. But in this transmogrification from what it was then (a secret and a rallying point) into what it is today (its own trademarked brand of media and culture) they’ve performed an editorial about-face. The site’s criticism remains a palatable reduction of what it used to be—which is fine, whatever—but in its open embrace of its role as fountainhead it has turned inside out. What was once its editorial mission is now what it sells to consumers at discount rate.

But let’s back up for a second. The mission statement at first, of course, was one of negation: a rejection of the staid classics pushed by glossy high-circ mags, most notably the Eagles and Steely Dan acolytes at Rolling Stone but also Odelay!-humping Spin and its ilk. In so tearing down this catechism, though, they had to purport a new ethos, which is why you still love the Microphones so much. While indie rock crawled over the corpse of groan rock to usurp popular attention and Pitchfork started netting its own press along the same line, the media swallowed its own (like it does, when confused) and regurgitated it back whole. The site became Funeral and vice versa and the rest is recent history and, in the midst of this strange, festive coronation of indie rock, the site transformed from a curmudgeon into a proactive go-getter. Tearing down someone’s favorite band was a good way to hook booky music nerds but discovering their new favorite one was the way to make bank. As indie rock slipped more into the mainstream so Pitchfork became its own type of music, untethered by genre but all possessed of the same (cough) glow. At first these designations shared similar sonic touchpoints—dance-punk, Canada, Sufjan Stevens—but now they span an immaculately tasteful array of genres and scenes. We straight listen to their anointed picks, closely, critically, and in so doing we cluck with pleasure, ticking it off our list and assimilating it into our notion of what Pitchfork sounds like.

Eventually this explosion of cultural influence bloomed atomically into the other traditional venues of music consumption, and—with speed and generosity—Pitchfork co-opted every opportunity as it arose about a fiscal year before it ever seemed like a feasible thing to do. This expansion wasn’t avaricious; it was custodial: if they didn’t make pitchfork.tv then MTV would’ve shat something out, and if they didn’t do this festival quick and right Clear Channel would’ve done it and the Strokes would headline every year and it would be sponsored by Bud Lime. They didn’t really mean to blow up, but they’ve done so with class, all things considered. By point of comparison that fits chronologically and sociologically: look what the fuck happened to Modest Mouse. Pitchfork could’ve gone that way. By keeping the editorial staff small and consistent they’ve managed to become a cultural force that feels, for the most part, pretty genuine.

If, to these ears, a bit unadventurous of late. I mean, whatever: I’m not going to sit here and criticize Pitchfork’s taste, and on the upswing at least they haven’t written anything about I’m From Barcelona lately. But this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival felt the most indie rock-centric yet: Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, King Khan & the Shrines, big fat Spoon and Animal Collective headliners. (Dom to his friend Adam, groaning over Spoon’s ubiquity: “This is like the sixth time we’ve seen Spoon. We’re like Spoonheads.” Are these guys the least famous famous rock band or what? Who doesn’t have a Britt Daniel story? This is probably all our fault.) For variation attendees got !!! and Les Savy Fav, who, respectively, added extra hi-hats and more costumes to their brands of indie rock.

To be fair this still makes for a nice, cost-effective weekend, if one with a bit too much Wrigleyville scum scouting for hipster crotch. Many attempting to dress the part ended up looking like half-assed pirates. The watered down crowd was met by a certain disdain from the artists not clearly delineated as “indie rock,” and unfortunately these were the acts I most anticipated. For his part Dizzee Rascal killed it, all id and fascinating, puerile machismo, but got his biggest cheers from an opening Fleet Foxes diss and his subsequent reminder that we were not at a fucking picnic. Less affable were Boris, who split after twenty minutes because “not enough electric power” (quote, I think), and Ghostface and Raekwon, who did that thing where they get all pissed when people don’t have every word memorized and then, perhaps warming to the crowd, informed us that they “had to come to Chicago because it’s one of (their) best markets.” Thanks, guys—I’ll be sure to fight through hundreds of ravenous fans in deathly heat just to be near you while you kinda-rap a few half-hits again, if the opportunity presents itself. Also: people didn’t buy or cheer for The Big Doe Rehab because it sucked, you withered, coin-thirsty shill.

...anyway. The big surprises from my end, if it matters, were the Dodos, who transmuted the crowd’s interest into a joyous thunder, and Animal Collective, who took the best things about Strawberry Jam (2007) and Person Pitch (2007) and stewed them into blissed-out long-form dub-influenced trance-hop, or maybe what might count as good rocktronica. Never a fan, really, I enjoyed them more in this setting than I ever have on record, and find myself hitting those old discs searching for traces of this new beast. The buzz seemed loudest around these two performances and, bafflingly, around Fleet Foxes, but this last babble felt to my ears like the music of the band in question, and so passed fleetingly into the blank ocean in my mind where I also store information about Kevin Costner movies and stories about your trip to Europe.

Still, more than any other festival, the cross-fan banter is impossible to ignore at Pitchfork Music Festival, this year as much so as any other despite (or perhaps because of) the watered down elitism and eclecticism of previous crowds. Whether mildly approving of Fleet Foxes (is there any other way?) or fervently discussing Craig Finn intricacies (statistically speaking, this must happen), this festival’s attendees continue to net as much outside interest as the bands that headline. To be fair, though, this is a ridiculous group of people, and while I include myself in that assessment I remain flabbergasted that so many likeminded musictards exist. Before Boris’ show, I found myself indulging some guy that looked like Craig Eley in a deep-discography Boris argument; I namedropped Feedbacker (2003) and he actually one-upped me with a preference for “the last Thing That Solomon Overlooked release,” which: fuck! Before 22% of the Wu-Tang hit the stage, I heard a dude, apropos of nothing, intone, “You know, Feist didn’t write ‘1, 2, 3, 4.’ New Buffalo did.”

Which: fuck! Who are these people? The net result of Pitchfork’s decision to undercut their know-it-all reviews by being an outlet and rallying point for this emergent strain of indie music while still pushing out know-it-all reviews isn’t so much an editorial cheapening or, certainly, lack of appeal; it is, rather, a commoditization of the experience of being a music critic. Which, I mean, a) I thought that was my thing, and b) is an incredibly strange experience to have made so lucrative. This is probably why I don’t enjoy talking about music with very many people anymore: the admission of being a music critic is, among people that came of age thinking they already were one, an invitation for accusatory chest-poking. When I meet someone who knows in advance that I like music a lot, s/he tends to agree. I express my appreciation for the artform regularly and often unintentionally. When I meet someone who knows in advance that I help run a music webzine, they wait with bloodthirsty avidity for my first gaff. “You mean you’ve never listened to Jaco Pastorious before? Shit blood forever!” And I lose another friend.

We are a culture defined by the way we define culture, which is like a snake at an all you can eat-buffet of its own tail. To wit: The biggest cabal of photographers I found myself smooshed against was during Boris’ set, but the photographers were taking as many pictures of the fans as they were of the band. A photo of Boris won’t make the Reader, but a photo of All The Indie Rock Kids Flipping Out At Their Little Festival may. I swear, it could’ve been heat-stroke, but I think I saw a couple of photographers taking pictures of the other photographers, an action so meta it threatens to break my dick off. In a way, though, it makes perfect sense. This branding and consolidation of the idea of critical thought into a single type of music—mostly, indie rock, but largely, whatever Pitchfork recommends—has produced a culture of singular singularity. It shoots against planes within the internet and shoots back against those from which it came, ever quicker, a laser incinerating itself. As I dozed off in the field on Sunday evening, my press lanyard leaving a half-inch line against the sunburn, I was breathing proof that the internet is destroying journalism. I was at one with the universe, a speck against the million blogs around me that argued music like me and hissed quietly against me and all dust swirling to create planets in a place where Ryan Schreiber is the sun. The difference between me and so many of those other specks was that I knew where I belonged; I am a speck with a home.

Also, I got free beer.