Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why I Don't Like The Pitchfork 500 - Part III

I guess I prefer lists that present themselves as simply one person's taste in music (like our own Top Ten Albums of the '90s, for instance). Because once you start trying to pass of a list as "definitive," you're basically trying to tell other people what music they should like, and in the process, you somewhat make an ass of yourself.

Witness the writing in this book. My lord, the writing. It suffers from the same problem, I feel, from which most contemporary critical writing suffers: the writers share very little about their own personal experience with the subject. They're trying really hard to say something "new" about music that's already been written about, but mostly they're making up nonsense. They would have come much closer to saying something "new" if they'd simply written from a more personal perspective. In addition to being obnoxious, the writers also frequently get their facts wrong, misquoting lyrics and attributing singing parts to the wrong singers in certain bands. I could go all day, but I have other things to do.

Well, one more thing. Their attempt to emphasize "the song" over "the album" mostly backfires. Often they seem to realize that they need to represent a significant album somewhere on the list, so they simply pick one song from a great album out of many other equally strong possibilities. Maybe some albums contain more than one of the "Greatest Songs From Punk To The Present"? Doesn't matter. They only choose one song per album, no matter how loaded the with classics the album may be. It makes some sense; who wants to list half the songs on London Calling? But it's disingenuous to pretend that they only picked "the greatest songs." Besides, in the essays for certain songs, you can tell the writers just wanted to write about the whole album, and they barely even discuss the actual song they've chosen. "But no, we can't pick an album because this list is about songs." Oh, right.

And what does it mean for a piece of music to be "significant" and "influential," anyway? I think music can be significant and influential in many ways.

One way to measure the influence of a musician is to see how many other musicians who followed ended up creating music in a similar style. This is probably the definition of "influential" that Pitchfork has in mind. But hell, you could say that Alabama and Reba McEntire were extremely influential, in that the sheer volume of modern music that owes something to their borderline Adult Contemporary approach to '80s country could fill the Caspian Sea. Does that make them "great"? I would not say so. Music can't just be "influential." It has to be something more.

If you ask me, to measure influence within the confines of some sort of linear musical narrative is to only measure a small slice of what music can mean to people. The other aspect of "influence" is the amount of influence a piece of music can have on an individual's life and philosophy. For example: many rock critics would say that Pink Floyd's The Wall was not very influential on music, in the sense that few later acts tried to emulate its "meticulously produced rock opera" style, whereas they would say that The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols was, in the sense that many later acts did decide to emulate its "we can't play worth a damn but who really gives a shit" style. But personally, The Wall (with its message against self-imposed isolation) has been more influential in my own life than Never Mind The Bollocks has (with its message of...telling the Queen to piss off?). So to look at "influence" only in terms of some historical artistic narrative is to view influence in a narrow and limited way.

But in order to talk about that kind of influence, the Pitchfork writers would have to share much more personal information about themselves. Which is something they don't seem very interested in doing.

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