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Cultural Capital

People Hated Pitchfork Because It Mattered

Condé Nast's decision to gut Pitchfork and stuff it into GQ is a huge blow to music journalism, and to music.

(Logo: Pitchfork Media / Wikicommons, Photo: Kidfly182 / Wikicommons)

It was a frosty Wednesday evening in Brooklyn and most of the staff of Pitchfork had just been laid off, in an announcement that was apparently a shock to staff at the highest levels. The legendary music criticism website, parent company Condé Nast announced, would be brought "into the GQ organization." It was unclear what that meant. 

Even as other websites that publish music criticism seemed to be in their twilight, Pitchfork had continued reliably publishing multiple reviews a day. Now it's becoming part of a men's fashion magazine? Condé did not respond to Hell Gate's request for comment.

"Both Pitchfork and GQ have unique and valuable ways that they approach music journalism," Anna Wintour, the "global chief content officer" of Condé Nast said, "and we are excited for the new possibilities together." In a statement, the NewsGuild of New York and Pitchfork's union said they "categorically condemn" the decision.

Reeling from the news of the layoffs and whatever is happening with GQ, Pitchfork writers were drinking at Doris and telling stories that are off the record. I decided not to go (I've written for Pitchfork before) because I had already said on X, formerly Twitter, that I was planning to write about the situation, and I didn't want to interrupt a moment of mourning with my conspicuous curiosity, so I was at Sharlene's down the road texting people. 

I couldn't escape the funereal mood, though: Music journalism has been on an extended pack watch for years, but hearing that the publication that had become the industry's central pillar had been reduced to just a few staffers—its editor in chief, features editors and many others were cut, leaving a skeleton crew that includes a couple of writers, editors, and the review staff—was shocking. 

Because unless some kind of replacement pops up, or some mysterious benefactor juices the budgets of places like The Quietus and Stereogum, I mean, that's more or less it for music criticism as we knew it, for having anything to say to the "why write anything negative?" people, the "artists can do their own media now" people. Music is fun, and yes, now it's pretty much free. But we wrote criticism because popular music is art, too. It's recreation, sure, if you want it to be. But it's art, if you want it to be, and art can't exist without criticism. 

It's so over, yes, unless of course the writers and editors form a publication that they own. 

Wouldn't that be crazy? As I'm sitting down at Sharlene's, I'm imagining it going something like: Fictional GQ Editorial Director Bill Belch is approaching the entrance to One World Trade Center, on the heels of Tate McCrae. He's begging the singer to give GQ just one round of copy edits on her self-authored cover story, but she won't budge. Just as he's getting to the doors, he hears the rumbling of an old song: "We're not gonna take it…" He looks inside. "NO!"—the doors fly open and Pitchfork reviews editor Bearemy Barson's running shoe collides with a crack with Belch's custom, tastefully-tinted Friedrich's Optik sunglasses, sending them flying—"we ain't gonna take it!" Pitchfork features editor Bill Bapes emerges from behind Barson and grabs Belch by the scruff of his Louis Vuitton leather biking jacket. No, please, Belch whimpers, I have to return this! But it's too late—

"What are you drinking?" asks the bartender. Bud draft and a whiskey shot. He turns to pour.

And then, I scrawl in my notebook, with the tripwire successfully affixed to the last button of Banana Bintour's Chanel waistcoat, the now-former Pitchfork staff start kissing, finally—

"That's ten dollars." Of course, yeah, here's my card.

People fucking hated Pitchfork. Like, people hated Pitchfork. So much so that I even started to think: Oh this is an immigrant thing; I must have missed the part of American adolescence where you develop the kind of deep seated, nearly parasocial resentment a lot of people—not just writers, but ordinary people you encounter in the world—seemed to have towards Pitchfork. The few times that I wrote a review for Pitchfork that people hated, I was able to pretty easily avoid trolling, so fixed was peoples' ire on an idea of Pitchfork. Some rants seemed so surreally dislocated from the actual professional organism that I worked with. The only other place I've written for that felt like that was the New York Times. Pitchfork had problems: The pay was among the best you could get for album reviews, but still wasn't, I felt, proportional for propping up what is, I guess even still, the primary moneymaker for the whole enterprise. 

The best I could ever really understand the simmering anti-Pitchfork rage among the general population was that the site came to represent a sensibility to either align yourself with, or against. But that just meant that no matter how much you despised it, your music taste always somehow existed in relation to Pitchfork's idea of good music. It always felt like there needed to be some kind of communal bloodletting in Brooklyn, like everyone needed to publicly name whichever ex or cruel hipster whose approval they never got, and release the actual humans who were writing for the website for not that much money from the crosshairs of their ressentiment

I guess that won't ever happen. Pitchfork had already begun to change, very publicly and quite dramatically. It was changing its scores, literally rewriting its own history every Sunday. People were constantly trying to apprehend what exactly had changed about the site in the 2010s: Pitchfork's approach to music writing had become very professional—professorial, and earnest, a far cry from its irreverent origins. It had been bought by Condé, but also concomitantly was hiring more diverse voices, some of which even questioned the site's history in its own pages. As writer and musician Jaime Brooks noted, that was diametrically opposed to Condé's reasons for buying Pitchfork in the first place, which was to capture its audience of "passionate audience of millennial males."

Imagining some person who doesn't work at Pitchfork deciding that Pitchfork would be better as a GQ column, drawing circles around the names of the few staffers they think will best serve that "passionate audience of millennial males," is such a fucking hilarious and sad image. 

I don't want to be in the circle that those Condé Nast people draw. I don't want to work with those people at all. For now, it seems like Pitchfork will continue to exist in some diminished form. But looking around at pretty much every music writer I looked up to, who are among the best ever at what they did, and seeing that most work at record labels, or they're asking for money to pay their rent on Instagram, or they're pretending that Substack is working, or they're in a Discord now figuring out what the fuck to do next, and just the slimmest sliver have made it onto the hull of a legacy publication, I don't know that clinging to these last ships is a suitable vision for music journalism having any kind of future.

The truth is that I'm not really in a position to tell anyone what they should do: I wasn't the first over the wall at Hell Gate, I didn't take the risks the founders did. I've always been a person who cleaves to the safety of elite institutions. That's who I've always been, and it's always made me feel really ashamed, and honestly I don't even know what good it did me. It's also true that I don't know what it's like to have "dependents" and whatnot. 

But for now I have to say I still really do want to read critics. Hearing other peoples' takes, even when they piss me off, helps me to get a firmer grasp on what I feel about the most important art in my life. Also, I want to read Jill Mapes getting Beach House to finally (kind of) admit that they're fucking. I may not have a mortgage to worry about, but I really do think that even if I did, I'd rather live free for one day and start writing ad copy in my 40s than die like a dog in thralldom to the guy whose first act of editorial judgment was to let Frank Ocean's DJs interview him for his own cover story.

Updated (1/18/24, 2:37 p.m.): This post has been updated to credit the journalist who first broke the story of the Pitchfork layoffs.

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