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With Pitchfork in peril, a word on the purpose of music journalism

Unionized staff picket outside the Condé Nast offices in New York on Jan. 23. The company is merging the popular digital music publication Pitchfork with the men's magazine <em>GQ</em>, which has triggered anger over the resulting layoffs and concern for the outlet's future.
Angela Weiss
/
AFP via Getty Images
Unionized staff picket outside the Condé Nast offices in New York on Jan. 23. The company is merging the popular digital music publication Pitchfork with the men's magazine GQ, which has triggered anger over the resulting layoffs and concern for the outlet's future.

Last week was a tough one for music nerds. I use that phrase with love and kinship — I am (like you are, perhaps) the kind of listener who loves music so much that it hurts. And that kind of passion for new and beloved sounds can make those like us odd, or at least amusing, to "normal" people who maybe only listen to their college favorites and only go to one concert a year, because it happens to be in a park or at the pier.

I offer this declaration of fellowship because that sometimes petty distinction surfaced in a real way last Wednesday, when the editorial director of media behemoth Condé Nast sat in a conference room wearing sunglasses and told the staff at Pitchforkthat the renowned music webzine would be absorbed, Star Trek-style, into the men's magazine GQ, and that most people present would be laid off pretty immediately. Her memo condescendingly thanking Pitchfork's editor-in-chief, Puja Patel (who was let go) leaked online soon after, announcing that this decimation is what Condé thinks "is the best path forward for the brand." While its renowned reviews section will live on, Pitchfork's remaining staff is a skeleton crew. GQ's paywall is likely to diminish the reach of what the site publishes, and its identity — the thing that led musicians and fans alike to make it their home page or check the day's new reviews at midnight — will inevitably be challenged. I've been through similar bloodlettings at other publications, and what they do to morale and manageable workloads can't be overstated.

The days since have seen myriad tributes and jeremiads published in article form and as social media threads, alongside heartfelt goodbyes from staffers and regular contributorscelebrating the great work they did at the publication. Pitchfork's long life and evolution both dominated and embodied 21st century music writing: It began as a blog, basically, powered by the attitude of its mostly white-guy founders, and established itself through creatively nasty pans of popular artists and paeans to arty but cool hipster bands like Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective that were augmented by a numerical scoring system that wasn't unique (hail Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide, 51 years old and still going) but which reinforced its status as the tastemaker within those circles where Jonny Greenwood is a god.

Even before its owners struck a deal with Condé Nast in 2015, though, Pitchfork had begun transforming, becoming more like a conventional magazine with features and news alongside its reviews. As its authority solidified, mid- and late-period editors like Patel, Mark Richardson, Amy Phillips, Jill Mapes, Jessica Hopper and more dedicated themselves to expanding and diversifying Pitchfork's coverage, reassessing its legacy as an indie "kingmaker" (LOL sexist) and transforming it into the publication best equipped to cover the vast, atomized waterfront of contemporary music. In the past decade Pitchfork has nurtured many of the best and most influential music writers working today. Now several of them are looking for work.

If you're not a super, super-nerd, you may wonder why Pitchfork's half-demise has generated so much anguish. The links I've provided above tell the story; I'll just add a few more thoughts:

Great culture writing reflects the world it covers

The diversity of Pitchfork's recent masthead, and coverage, matters. It's only been four months since Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner's dismissive comments about women and BIPOC musicians set off its own firestorm as many former Stone employees came forward with stories of structural sexism and racism at the company, spurring a larger conversation about the exclusionary history of the music press. Pitchfork was part of that problematic lineage until its editors chose to actively confront it. Features like the Sunday Review, in which previously ignored albums from beyond its indie-rock core are given the attention they deserve, were the public expression of what was happening behind the scenes as more women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people assumed positions of power. Pitchfork's absorption into a men's-magazine brand feels like a highly conservative move at a time when music has proven to be one of our culture's most beautifully progressive spaces. Scholar Robin Jameshas written insightfully on how such moves reflect the false assumption that "bros" are more reliable as consumers than women. I find this particularly bizarre coming out of a year in which the biggest entertainment stories have all been dominated by women and BIPOC creators, from Taylor Swift to Barbie to Beef.

Critics are also explorers

This blow affects more than just music journalists; it contributes to the larger downward spiral imperiling everyone in music beyond that Swiftian one percent. I'm not the first to point this out. Publicist Judy Miller Silverman notedthat Pitchfork's coverage of "out" subgenres like experimental jazz, electronic music and even Hawaiian slack key guitar "helped an entire 'economy' of musicians succeed." Writer Marc Masters made the connection between this consolidation and the paradoxical narrowing effect of streaming's dominance — platforms like Spotify offer galaxies of music, yet their algorithms confine most listeners to tiny areas of taste and offer no context or real community. To those who say music writing is irrelevant in an age of discovery through TikTok and other video-based platforms — ask any artist who doesn't have the time or money to also be a shiny happy influencer if they're going to miss the old Pitchfork. Plenty poured one out for it after the news broke.

Usefulness is overrated

While the role of music writing as a form of discovery, promotion and gatekeeping is undeniable within popular music's history, I also want to push back against the well-intentioned attempts to assert its productive role within the entertainment biz. To me, the best thing about music writing is that compared to other elements of the culture economy, it's relatively useless. Some forms of entertainment journalism feed the star-maker machinery more than others: celebrity profiles, for example, flesh out the personae that turn artists into fetish objects. And as those Pitchfork scores both assert and satirize, many people enjoy the game of trying to quantify art, to judge it as performance or product.

What I love about music writing, though, is that it can sidestep that productive, competitive side of culture, the market-driven need to sell more tickets, more records, more streams. Instead, great music writing messes with productivity by creating a space to slow down and really immerse in someone else's creative work. To really listen. The best writing at Pitchfork or anywhere reflects that process and is as variegated as the human experience itself. Maybe what a writer finds inside an album or a song is a new way of thinking about a particular musical practice as she gets meticulous about analyzing song structure or studio tools. Maybe she discovers lost histories, whole scenes and subcultures. Sometimes she uncovers something she'd forgotten about her own life story, of the hidden coves of her own feeling. Maybe the sonic innovations she confronts cause her to use language in a different way, and what she ends up with is a kind of poetry. Reading the most powerful writing in Pitchfork – the kind that some surveyors of the media landscape are declaring obsolete, replaced by influencers and algorithms – I feel nourished by the daring of my fellow scribes, by the way their words are indeed extraneous to the churn of art and emotion as product, carving out a zone where the pause matters, time spent thinking, laughing at a good line, feeling my brain crackle as it absorbs an insight.

What I am talking about is pleasure. In the end, what matters about music writing is exactly the same as what matters about music: It isn't leading anywhere productive. Instead, it's offering a break from the grind, a free zone for thought and a few glorious, rejuvenating moments of fun. This is a different kind of pleasure than the quick nervous kind TikTok brings, always moving on to another source of stimulus, always ratcheting up the competition for attention. Music writing says: Slow down. Pay attention. It witnesses the unfolding of meaning within measured time, and calls back to it.

The singer-songwriter Josh Ritter said it well in a tweetthe other day: "Loving music is one thing, but to then attempt to translate those ineffable emotions into words for the rest of us, takes talent and bravery and beautiful human optimism." Optimism is exactly right. To believe that on any given day, a person can make room to absorb something soothing or electrifying or challenging, something that others made with their whole souls, and then find a way to share it with others – that's a gift worth cultivating. At its best Pitchfork offered many people a chance to live in the optimistic, gloriously pointless space of loving music. I know that the writers it nurtured will always continue to seek out ways to do so; that's where my hope remains.

This essay was originally published in the NPR Music newsletter. Subscribe here for more.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.