On Pitchfork, race and indie rock

1. Let me say one thing up front, in case you don’t get all the way through: we have more ways to express ourselves than ever before, don’t we? Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Instagram, Meerkat, Periscope, Disney Submarine Ride, whatever. But all of these apps should be called Yelling: that’s what we do on them, mostly. Not talk. Not listen. Not really connect. I scroll through my feeds every day and I see anger. Reactions. Sometimes they are righteous and productive; sometimes they’re less than that.

We should be learning from each other, talking and listening and listening more, instead of treating every disagreement as an argument, a stupid debate club meeting with two sides and a trophy. In criticism, there is no being right, not objectively: at its ideal, it is the act of trying to understand what’s being offered, and what that offer means. It is a dialogue shaped by experience and emotion.

I offer this essay, this media criticism, in dialogue. Not to be right. Not to attack. Not to have one paragraph out of many copy-pasted into Twitter and Tumblr to be heroically refuted and shamed. I didn’t want to write this piece and it is scary to publish it — David Carr, I’m not — but I felt like someone had to and so I did. Have at it.

2. On Thursday, the Pitchfork website ran a thoughtful editorial by Sarah Sahim titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie,” a fair and provocative headline that could’ve even been extended: “indie,” which has been at turns a genre, a business model and an extensive web of scenes and players, has also been unbearably male, and with a few crucial exceptions, unbearably heterosexual. It took decades for Michael Stipe and Morrissey, the 1980s college-rock scene’s most essential voices, to publicly come out, and no doubt they waited with good reason.

Sahim presents Belle & Sebastian as a genre figurehead, and I have to admit they represent the kind of indie I identify with most: pretty, sensitive, bookish, a retreat from jockish, dumb and hurtful straight, white masculinity. It is music as a safe space, though, yes, a safe space made and supported by white people. Sahim brings up Wes Anderson, and he, too, fills that role: the performance of sensitivity, feeling and sweetness, the anti-Michael Bay. (White) indie has been “proud to dissociate” from popular (white) culture because it sees that culture and feels ashamed and alienated.

But maybe that’s defense, not dialogue. Let’s take Sahim’s overall message: that people of color and their contributions should be more visible in the underground. She’s spot on with this:

“It’s important to seize and act on precedents being set by the likes of Heems and M.I.A., paving a way that makes it easier for new artists of colour to follow suit and make their mark… Visibility of people of color in independent music is absolutely paramount for the genre to evolve and truly represent those cast away from the scene for too long.”

That’s undeniable. The underground, at its best, should foster an unlimited range of artistic perspectives and safe spaces, unburdened by the limitations and fears of economic pressure or pandering mass appeal. Even those pressures are outdated: America is more diverse than ever, and the success of “Empire” and Beyonce and the female-driven action heroism of “The Hunger Games,” among so many others, prove the overwhelming demand for all kinds of people — particularly women and people of color — to make art and entertainment that reflects their lives.

Music and its fans have lagged behind in too many areas: the crusty rock fans who, not understanding pop and hip-hop, think three elementary guitar chords constitute “real music” and post ugly memes about Beyonce; the electronic DJs who advertise their gigs with women’s bodies, as Pitchfork pointed out recently; music festival bookers who are supposed to be on the cutting edge, filling festivals with returning white male guitar-rock acts, even as college kids are really showing up to see black rappers — and would presumably still buy a ticket if the bill was half women.  

But we are talking about “indie” and this is where its definition and scope become important: Pitchfork, to its credit and great financial success, has been synonymous with a generation’s awareness of what the amorphous underground is as an arbitrarily unified scene. No media outlet has more directly shaped the online era’s incarnation of indie. Two of the artists Sahim points out — M.I.A. and Bat For Lashes — record for major labels: what marks them as indie, as acceptable to a snobbish and insecure audience, is a lack of pop success and a presence in Pitchfork’s reviews, news articles and features. M.I.A.’s played the Grammys, hell, the Super Bowl: such artists are underground almost solely by association, an association established and reaffirmed for over 15 years by Pitchfork coverage — and yes, blogs, public radio, music supervision and so on, but those outlets sure take a lot of the same cues, don’t they?

So Pitchfork’s approach to artists of color over the years, to anyone who doesn’t look like they play in Belle & Sebastian — matters. Indie rock is a system, one perpetuated by publicists and booking agents and media coverage and festival gigs, where many parts work in tandem to maintain their exclusionary gravity. Pitchfork is a complicit and responsible partner, as Sahim explicitly notes.

So it’s curious when she misses certain things. Sahim mentions the rapper Heems, whose new album explores the deep and raw lived experience of life as a brown person after 9/11. It is an album that expects to be taken seriously, not trapped in the lingering fog of “joke rap” billowing from Heems’ past in Das Racist, a rap group with a sense of humor. Such a label “invalidates and writes off the truth of their experience as Asian Americans,” Sahim writes, and I agree. The paragraph links to an NPR interview with Heems where he discusses the label. It does not link to the Pitchfork review of Heems’ new album, which calls Das Racist a “joke-rap group” in the first sentence.

Jayson Greene, an experienced and accomplished critic, wrote that review, and he’s of course entitled to have his opinion and make his case. But Greene is also Pitchfork’s reviews editor, and his piece spends one paragraph addressing the album’s conceptual weight and moves on to a critique of Heems’ punchlines. It is a crucial part of modern liberalism that allies, assuming Greene is one, know when to sit down: if Pitchfork’s reviews person assigns himself an album he is not interested in interrogating thoroughly on its race-driven themes, what does that say about the site’s overall approach?

Pitchfork is not the kind of outlet that apologizes or even acknowledges its criticisms: like booking R. Kelly, a destructive force in the lives of numerous Chicago women and girls, to headline its festival; or a review of a John Coltrane collection by site founder Ryan Schreiber written in jive. That review – written with no racism intended, undoubtedly – has been removed from Pitchfork’s website. Earlier this year, a paragraph in a review by Ian Cohen, a contributing editor, began to go viral thanks to a clueless rumination on class and poverty: “In 2015, factory work seems more like a vocation for people who just somehow ended up with that job, because that’s what you do, I guess,” he wrote. “But it’s also a potentially attractive situation where the repetition and physical labor can be meditative, a good way to shut off one’s mind, especially when it tries to parse how you ended up as a factory worker in 2015.”

Pitchfork removed those lines and added a rare addendum to the piece: “Editors note: an earlier version of this review contained an aside in the first paragraph whose meaning was unclear; it should have been removed in editing initially and we have done so in hindsight.” The meaning was perfectly clear: a Pitchfork contributing editor revealed his frankly horrific understanding of systemic working-class realities, the reality of many of the bands he still writes about, for Pitchfork, in multiple reviews a week. Maybe “it should have been removed initially,” but maybe, probably, nobody thought it was a problem until Twitter pointed it out.

Ignorance is often easy and so are mistakes: in the last few years, seemingly every cultural institution (and this writer’s failed Kickstarter) has faced a serious and overdue inspection of its diversity and viewpoint. Music criticism at large still carries the blinders of its own white, male problem (though why there are so many Jewish guys writing about rap, I can’t explain), and Pitchfork can’t be blamed for that original sin. It’s taken strides toward improving itself with hires such as Lindsay Zoladz (now at New York Magazine), Jessica Hopper and Jenn Pelly, and the frequent contributions of Craig Jenkins, Meaghan Garvey, Hazel Cills and others. But it’s not even close to overall gender parity and much farther from any kind of non-white, straight, cis representation, the kind of truly wide-ranging staff newer, nimbler outlets — Buzzfeed, most notably — are built upon.

And in the work itself, Pitchfork’s efforts to reform itself as diverse and activist-oriented are infrequent and offered as one-offs, not as the site’s revamped heart. One could argue Pitchfork’s even been exploitative, picking and choosing its moments of liberal alliance: this is a site that posts a misogynist, trolling Sun Kil Moon song with a premiering download link on one page and a feminist op-ed by Meredith Graves against it on another. Jes Skolnik can take a necessary look at the offensive work of noise-rock bands but the way Kanye West talks about women basically doesn’t matter because Art, No. 2 album of 2013! “‘Strange Fruit’ apartheid, and the Civil Rights sign were given new power through perversion,” Cohen wrote in his year-end blurb — because “perversion,” not “aggression toward black women,” is what West’s lyrical fist must represent. Skolnik has written twice for Pitchfork so far, Graves once: Cohen’s on the site all the goddamn time.

Consider the Faustian bargain Sahim took to place this op-ed on Pitchfork, her first byline there. She no doubt knew it would find a wide reach — it has over 20,000 Facebook shares at the time of this writing — but at what cost? She’s allowed to be critical of Pitchfork’s praise for white artists such as Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors, who have relied on borrowed African musics, but her piece doesn’t inspect the ways Pitchfork treats the artists of color she’d like to see more of. [Edit: I overlooked that Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij is Iranian-American and apologize — which exemplifies how complicated this is.]

There are reasons why indie rock is so white: for one, because its existing whiteness inspires more of it, presenting itself as an alienating space. When media reflects stereotypes, it reinforces them: it is on every writer to have an open mind, to write about music and people who challenge them, and to recognize that means less room for letting white mediocrity slide. Covering another white rock album or another black hip-hop album is an act of boundary-keeping: one by one, these decisions, like many in arts writing, are subjective. But in aggregate, like the Silicon Valley start-ups that can’t understand how they’ve hired so many white men, the bias is the decision. 

There are a number of indie artists who went unmentioned in Sahim’s piece who see regular Pitchfork coverage — TV on the Radio, Toro Y Moi, Deerhoof — but largely, when Pitchfork covers black men, they play rap music. Black women? They sing R&B. White people play rock and occasionally electronic music. (D’Angelo, a rare and transcendent exception, sings R&B and plays guitar.) Where are the news headlines for, say, guitarist Benjamin Booker, who’s toured with Jack White? Are they buried in White’s guacamole? So far this year, the site has allowed three entire paragraphs on the return of Alabama Shakes, a band that moves mountains over on NPR. Since January 2014, only two boundary-breaking artists of color — FKA twigs, who does sort of sing R&B, and Flying Lotus, who has a rap alter-ego — have earned Best New Music album reviews, as white rockers and producers scoop them up like M&Ms.

Looking for indie rock artists of color? They’re everywhere in Portland, the city I write about: how about Vikesh Kapoor, a folk singer and child of Indian immigrants who does Dylan revival as well as any white schmuck with a beard, a beanie and a flannel shirt? Or Magic Mouth, a dance-punk act with a black, gay frontman? Why not more notice for the Thermals, whose Kathy Foster shreds punk bass with the best of them? Portland is literally the whitest major metropolitan area in America. If these artists can be found here, they are in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, Pitchfork’s backyards.

Pitchfork bills itself as a site with an independent core, but that hasn’t been true for years: it is a site as much about major label celebrities as it is DIY. That’s been essential to its depth of diversity: a simplistic view of the site’s coverage breaks down to a world where indie is white and the mainstream is black. Beyonce gets Pitchfork album reviews: Taylor Swift doesn’t. Pitchfork might argue its editorial scope has followed its readership, rather than driving it: people just like major label hip-hop and R&B and independent rock now, and, well, those are made by stereotypical participants! That’s… not a very brave path. 

Look: the question is whether these issues matter to Pitchfork, as a capitalist brand and influential editorial force, or if articles like Sahim’s aren’t reflective of anything beyond a clickable trend — just one freelance writer’s take, sequestered to a blog. Controversy is cheap: if these ideas matter, they need to matter all the time, not just when they’re convenient or profitable. This movement is happening in music writing already, in Rookie and Portals and even Fader. There’s precedent for a publication to do a serious reckoning: it took decades, and new management, but The New Republic grappled just this year with its problematic past in a way that more publications and individuals should. I include myself in that: there are deleted pages and moments of shame and foolishness on my blog as well. It’s a process for everyone — I hope it’s one for Pitchfork.

Full disclosures: I know and like many Pitchfork contributors past and present and think the site does as much good music journalism as anyone. I worked with Greene as a freelancer briefly at eMusic. I’ve been on a panel with Schreiber and seen him socially. I met Ian Cohen once in real life: he was not nice. I’ve pitched the site a number of times but never written for them: my byline has survived.