When did music critics lose their ability to kill? It happened gradually. And we never quite stopped to acknowledge the sea change.
Look at Pitchfork: It’s been years since the site had the kind of cultural cachet on which it built its empire. But music fans of a certain age can still rattle off the acts that landed notorious reviews and landmark 0.0 ratings—Travis Morrison! Robert Pollard!! Liz Phair!!! I’m a music fan of that age: When I first started paying attention to Pitchfork, in the early 2000s, it was at its tastemaking peak. And when it panned you, it stung.
The most infamous tale is that of Black Kids, a perfectly harmless indie-pop band from Jacksonville, Florida. In the fall of 2007, they broke out with a cutesy single, “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You.” Their debut EP, Wizard of Ahhhs, got an 8.4 out of 10: good enough for the site’s coveted Best New Music designation. They were Pitchfork-approved, and they were ascendant, quickly signed to Columbia Records, a major label. By the summer of 2008, when they released their debut, Partie Traumatic, the whiplash came fast and hard.
Pitchfork gave it a 3.3. There was no review, just a photo of two frowning pugs. It was overlaid with a single word—Sorry—and a pre-emoji emoticon, of the kind now lost to the ravages of time:
Officially, the review didn’t end Black Kids’ career. But it certainly knocked it far, far sideways: The LP sold only 5,000 copies in the first week of its release, and within a couple of years, the band split with Columbia. (Last year, nearly a decade later, Black Kids finally put out their second album, titled Rookie, as if to suggest that the first album had never happened.) Black Kids’ arc was the most compact, perfect example of Pitchfork’s reach at its most deleterious.
At some amorphous point within a few years of Black Kids’ rise and fall, the idea of the critic as assassin dissolved completely. First, the internet democratized access to music. We didn’t really need gatekeepers anymore; for a whole generation, reading about what something sounded like, when you could just listen to it for free yourself, felt increasingly like an insane thing to do. Second, the internet atomized music fandom. The monoculture weakened; a million little tribes sprung up in its place. How could any one person claim a universal authority over all of that?
A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to look back at those last moments when critics could kill. I would do it through Pitchfork, for better or worse the defining critical portal of the past 15 years. I would talk to Black Kids and to Travis Morrison and to the other targets of Pitchfork’s most infamous reviews, asking them: How did it feel? What did those reviews do to you?
I started with Black Kids—and, through a publicist, was quickly, politely rebuffed. The same thing happened with the Flaming Lips, whose experimental 1997 album, Zaireeka (released as a four-CD set meant to be played simultaneously), landed one of the site’s earliest double zeros. (The review is no longer online, and the site later published a sort of mea culpa, but it can still be read via the Wayback Machine.) And with Liz Phair, whose 2003 self-titled album (a joyously blasphemous pop effort from the indie god) got blanked too.
With optimism, I moved on to Robert Pollard, the famously freewheeling frontman of Guided by Voices. Technically, his 2005 solo album Relaxation of the Asshole—a compilation of live stage banter—was given a simultaneous 10.0 and 0.0. In retrospect, the review was self-aware and full of love. A quote: “[E]very time Bob bitches about Adam Duritz, I kind of secretly wish that he was my dad.”
My optimism was misplaced. First I was told he was doing press. But finally, after weeks of consistent badgering, I was told, “He is not going to want to talk about that record :(“
I pushed on, to the more obscure corners of the Pitchfork annals of shame.
No one remembers the derivative San Diego cock-rock band Louis XIV. Which is actually too bad, because their reviews were some of the most entertaining pans Pitchfork ever pulled off. Writing up 2005’s The Best Little Secrets Are Kept (which they awarded a 1.2), Nick Sylvester imagined a bizarre back-and-forth between frontman Jason Hill and a doctor to whom Hill is spilling his rambling, horny guts. A quote: “[S]he was like, what the fuck, Jason, am I gonna get some, too? Gimme some of that shit! And then I’m like, fuck you, bitch. I’m a fuck machine with only one speed: fuck.”
Louis XIV is no more but Hill is still, it turns out, in music: He’s the composer for David Fincher’s Mindhunter. I reached out through a Netflix publicist and, quickly, they agreed to an interview. First I was told, “He mentioned he couldn’t remember which Pitchfork coverage you were referring to (I guess it didn’t bother him too much!)” We set up a time to talk. And then it was canceled. I suggested to the publicist that perhaps Hill was getting cold feet for confronting his demons, and I was assured it couldn’t possibly be the case. He was just “swamped and hyper focused on work.”
Nearly the same thing happened with a publicist for the Airborne Toxic Event, another forgotten Southern California rock project. When their 2008 self-titled album got a 1.6, the band actually responded in real time, with “An Open Letter To Pitchfork Media.” (Sample quote: “[W]e have to admit that we found ourselves oddly flattered by your review.”) Wouldn’t they embrace the chance to talk some more?
First I was told that, if I just waited a few weeks, frontman Mikel Jollett would be happy to chat. I waited. And then I heard Jollett had suddenly entered the studio in Brian Wilson–esque seclusion. The publicist told me, “He was cool with it 3 weeks ago and now is literally being a hermit.”
My experiences with the Australian band Jet were, at the very least, quicker. I reached out to a publicist for Jet’s co-songwriter Chris Cester, who’d just put out a solo album. I heard, “Chris is in L.A. and available.” I explained I wanted to ask him about Pitchfork’s 0.0 review of Jet’s 2006 album Shine On, which was just an embedded YouTube video of a monkey peeing in its own mouth. I heard, “Chris has a lot on at the moment and I’m not sure it is good timing so we will give it a miss. Sorry mate.”
Then I went to Morrison. In the ’90s, Morrison fronted the beguilingly peculiar D.C. band the Dismemberment Plan. In 2004, his solo debut, Travistan, landed a 0.0. Wrote Chris Dahlen, “Travistan fails so bizarrely that it’s hard to guess what Morrison wanted to accomplish in the first place … I’ve never heard a record more angry, frustrated, and … more determined to slug [its] flaws right down your throat.”
One mitigating factor with, say, the Black Kids review was that the band, to be honest, really wasn’t very good. But Travis Morrison is a unique and special artist. And after that review he effectively never had a solo career.
I emailed Morrison directly explaining my piece. He wrote back:
I regretfully have to decline.
Thanks and good luck.
I wrote back that I understood his decision and that should he change his mind, I’d be all ears. He thanked me again and this time added:
Btw I did not know Liz Phair got a 0.0. I see it was for her “pop” record. I don’t want to do any interviews. But I [want] to say something about that. Because I so deeply love her art.
I think that record was not her most completely executed. But I do think it was her most visionary gesture. I always admired her for it. Now hipsters listen to Carly Rae Jepsen and no one thinks about it. But Liz Phair was pretty ahead of that curve. And she really got some nasty shit about it. Mostly, of course, from white male “critics.” What a bunch of fucking garbage.
Ok that’s all. Sorry, I suppose it is the one thing I have to say about all this. Now I’m actually done. Dunno if it’s usable! Good luck.
I was ready to give up altogether. Then, blessedly, Thurston Moore agreed to talk.
From 1981 through 2011, Moore fronted Sonic Youth, as iconic an act as exists in the history of indie rock. In a 2000 review written by Brent DiCrescenzo, Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers was allotted a perfect zero. “No, I have not forgotten to put the numbers into the rating spaces above,” DiCrescenzo gloats. “In over two years of writing for Pitchfork, I’ve waited for the one album that would warrant a 0.0.”
At first, I was surprised that it was Moore—who was, of all the people I contacted, objectively the most famous—who was available to talk. Then I realized it was his stature that was freeing him to do so. By declining my interview requests, the other acts suggested that perhaps this is still, all these years later, too sensitive a thing to explore. But Moore led Sonic goddamn Youth. Pitchfork couldn’t hurt him.
He Skyped me from London, where he’s lived for the past few years, to talk about the 0.0.
“So was it pretty dramatic?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t say it was traumatic,” he laughed. He’d misheard me. It felt appropriate.
It certainly didn’t get to me in any personal way. It did seem fairly perverse that we were being shredded by Pitchfork. I forget what the text of the review was, but I do remember it made a stink. It was something you’d hear people talking about. Like, “Oh my God, a zero. Nobody gets a zero! It has to be pretty terrible to get a zero!”
I don’t remember getting angry at it. I just remember thinking, “Oh, we’ve become the whipping boys of indie rock because we’re kind of old and in the way.” As challenging as that record was to certain listeners, I didn’t think it really deserved a zero. It was a bit of a schoolyard “ha-ha” kind of thing. We were certainly critical darlings through the ’80s. It was like, “That’s the sacred cow—let’s put a spear through it.” I understood it on that level.
Years later, Moore told me, he was doing an innocuous phone interview when he heard the interviewer say, “By the way, I have to tell you something.”
The interviewer was DiCrescenzo, the former Pitchfork critic. He revealed to Moore that it was he who had given the band the 0.0. “And he said, ‘I have to tell you that I’ve changed my perception on that record. I actually think it’s great.’ ” DiCrescenzo added he’d actually asked Pitchfork if he could do a new review. They had passed on the offer. “And I kind of just laughed,” Moore said. “I don’t know if he was saying that to appease me. He did sound like he was being genuine. It was nice to hear. And that’s pretty much the whole story.” (In 2013, writing for TimeOut Chicago, DiCrescenzo recalled his own end of the phone call. “I apologized and told him that I now love the record,” he wrote. “It’s unlike anything else, eerie and beautiful. The fiftysomething eternal punk told me never to be sorry for the nonsense I typed.”)
I asked Moore if it affected the recording of Murray Street, the follow-up to NYC Ghosts. If somehow, at least for a bit, the review had gotten stuck in the back of his head. He laughed again. “Absolutely not. The next album was recorded just after 9/11. We were working from a place of, just, complete shock. You picked up your heart and your intellect and went forward with it. And, you know, a funny zero review: It had absolutely no credence on your life.”
A lot of artists maintain an antagonistic pose toward critics. For fans, that puffed-up antagonism can read like the ugly returns of a large and prickly ego. And it is ego, for sure! But the antagonism is justified too. It is part of the artist’s job, after all, to believe in their art completely.
In our conversation, Moore was self-aware about that antagonism. He told me that early on, in the ’80s, if he “saw something written that was snarky or negative I would think, ‘OK, I’m gonna go find this person and do some doughnuts on their front lawn and throw some eggs at their house!’ “ By the ’90s, he’d made peace with the negative reviews. (He also clarified that, sadly, he never went through with the doughnuts and the eggs.) I asked him if he thought we’d ever again have voices in music criticism that could make or break careers. “I don’t know,” he said, simply enough. He made it clear, though, that he’d loved music criticism as long as he’d loved music and that he still loved music criticism. That he saw it as a very necessary force.
After speaking to Moore, I tried all the other acts one more time. I hoped maybe an association with his cred would get them to open up. It didn’t do the trick. From Morrison, at least, I got one more message:
Hi Amos. Thanks but no. I’ve been talking about this for over a decade. I would really like to move on.
It was a really frightening and awful experience. Everything that goes along with modern internet humiliation stories happened to me in 2004. It was at much smaller scope, since it was a smaller scene then, but it all happened.
I’ve actually decided to stop doing interviews altogether so I can get away from this. For the most part, people “irl” don’t see me in this light, or bring it up very often, or even know what Pitchfork is.
But I’m just “branded” with this as the media sees it. I don’t think it’ll ever stop. So I think I need to take action to get away from it.
Obviously, this email is fodder for anything you do. I understand that. Consider this my last statement on the matter, or anything, I suppose.
That email—that email breaks my heart a little bit. Morrison doesn’t sound antagonistic at all. He sounds resigned. Other than Moore, who’d been granted catharsis via a reviewer’s apology, everyone passed on my offer to revisit the old Pitchfork wounds. Which brings us back to where we started and underlines the point of our endeavor. We are left with the assumption that these were career- and life-altering moments. That they were painful then, and they are still painful now. And that—that is something that is very, very hard to imagine happening again.
It was all I really wanted to hear. And Morrison seemed to be the only one with the grit to come out and say it. What was it like when critics could kill? It fucking hurt.