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An open letter to Pitchforkmedia

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I found myself quite offended at the excuse of a “review” that is Pitchforkmedia’s take on the new Metallica album, St. Anger. Let me reiterate that I don’t care how they feel about the album – everyone has a right to like or dislike something. What I take offense at is the off-hand, immature approach taken to the review. On a site that advertises itself as a portal of “independent music” a review of anything by a mainstream act like Metallica is questionable, and once read it is obvious that the critic simply used the opportunity to make jokes and feel superior. Below is my response, and I’m posting it to Blogcritics because I feel that all critics, amatuer or professional, owe it to themselves and their audiences to be as fair as possible under all circumstances. (My review of the album makes it clear that I enjoy the album, but I approached it with caution and tried to be fair because I actually assumed I wouldn’t like it at all. If I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t have posted a review at all, or if I had I would have been fair about why, instead of insulting readers the way this reviewer does.)

I usually take Pitchforkmedia’s reviews with a giant grain of salt, because the slant is always toward “indie,” which is what your site is obviously aimed at – and that’s fine. I review music myself (not by profession, but on my site and on http://wp.blogcritics.org,) and I admire many of the reviews on PFM because they do help to expose music that may not make an impact on the “everyman.” But there are times when your reviews really embarass the efforts of legitimate critics out there. Brent DiCrescenzo’s “review” of Metallica’s St. Anger is one such review. It is very clear that DiCrescenzo does not care (or no longer cares, as he does exhibit some knowledge about the band’s music) for Metallica and approached the music with the intent to make fun of it. A critic’s duty is to listen and report without the baggage a fan – and an anti-fan – would bring to it. A good critic will listen to something and not let personal feelings, positive or negative, get in the way. DiCrescenzo was obviously unable to do this, and set out simply to poke fun at something that is easy to poke fun at. In short, he fell victim to the very thing most people associate with critics – a superiority complex.

I’m not suggesting that the review should have been positive. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it, and that’s fine. I’m suggesting the the review should have been *fair*. The task of reviewing music should be taken seriously, and a critic should know how to apply critical distance to the subject – instead of treating it like an excuse to make childish jokes. Not only that, but the question arises of why you were even bothering to review a Metallica album in the first place. It doesn’t fit into any of the styles that your site is known for reviewing. So why bother to review it at all? The only reason I can come up with is simply because Brent DiCrescenzo felt like poking childish fun at something. A quick search of the site reveals that Brent DiCrescenzo’s reviews aren’t of the “metal” variety at all, which makes his critical judgement meaningless. Asking him to review Metallica is like asking him to review Britney Spears – he isn’t going to like it, no matter what. What kind of service have you provided to readers when you push biased reviews like this?

The questions I’ve raised above are questions *all* critics should consider. Your readers rely on you to be unbiased because they want a fair review of material they may be considering purchasing. To stoop to the point where you use a review as a means of making yourself feel superior in some way only shortchanges the reader, and decreases the objectivity you need in order to be credible. Like I said before, you don’t have to like it, but you do have to be *fair* about why you don’t like it. Anything less and you only prove yourself to be a disgrace to critics everywhere.

Tom

http://www.unproductivity.com

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About Tom Johnson

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    i agree. a while back i went to a lecture given by Bob Blumenthal, the jazz writer/critic….and i asked him about negative reviews: specifically, reviews where it’s pretty damned obvious that the write hates the particular artist (and always has).

    his response was that he thought it was too easy to be “cleverly negative”….although in this case i don’t think “clever” enters into it.

  • Perry Perdis

    Tom, I have to agree with you on this review. As yet i have not listened to the St. Anger cd,but after reading that ridiculous excuse of a review i’m heading out to buy it. As a fan of Metallica i can honestly say that their music has been a source of creative release for me. No, I dont like every song and will criticize where criticism is due. At the same time i will not hail every release as a god send.
    I found the pitchforkmedia review as nothing more than a bitter, failed musician trashing a talented band because Brent could not make a living doing what he and a great number of reviewers can not do. If trashing a band because they cant possibly live up to every single fan’s wishes or simply explore a new musical avenue is bad,then the entire music industry is in trouble. And that’s bullshit.
    Brent needs to give up his dreams of being a reviewer along with his musical aspirations which will benefit the entire planet. I have never seen such whining wrapped up in an individuals need to be seen and heard.

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    Thanks, guys, I’m really glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. I have a feeling my letter to them will be read with laughter punctuating it, but I at least felt I had to contact them about this. This is the kind of reviewing that makes people distrust critics, and I’m entirely offended by that. I’m not even paid to review music, as the Pitchforkmedia staff is, yet I feel a duty to be truthful and honest about what I listen to. Bob Blumenthal’s term is right on the money. How sad to be the person who has to resort to being “cleverly negative,” huh?

  • steven

    i love pitchfork, i love metallica, and i still think the review is funny. but i don’t think pitchfork ever intended to publish a fair review of such an album. thats not why people read pitchfork. i agree with what you said about journalism, but this isn’t the new york times, its pitchforkmedia.com and its on the internet. relax.

  • BRICKLAYER

    What a pompous, overblown, sadly feeble attempt at musical review. Sucka needs to go to the Blender school of album reviewers. And if you wanna be a funny guy, Mr. Nerdley, check out some Chuck Eddy, he’s a jerk too, but a normal (and funny) jerk whose reveiws I can understand! Stick to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, electroclash, crappy white blues/garage hacks, and all of those other bands from Brooklyn who are supposed to be hip, but are really irrelevant, derivative, and will be forgotten 2 years from now! I’m not straight outta CMU, I’m straight out tha community college! oh, I guess I should admit that I only read a few sentences of the review, but who has time for all those words? Almost as bad as the chronic self relievers who write about EACH song in detail on an album-save it for your dissertation, egghead. But not quite as horrid as the jagoffs who write for Metal Maniacs-those poofers make up words that don’t even exist!

  • The Theory

    if you want to read a poor excuse for a review check out the Rolling Stone’s reivew of the new Jay Farrar cd here…http://rollingstone.com/reviews/cd/review.asp?aid=2046787

    As far as Pitchfork Media, I think they have a better sense of good music than most ezines. I haven’t read the Metallica review, and I wont because I’m not interested in the band, however, it seems the general consensus everywhere is that the new metalica sucks.

    Anyway, get a life and stop worrying about what some ass on the internet thinks about your precious band.

    peace.

  • patrick

    i have not read the review of metallicas st. anger yet. I generally enjoy reading the reviews on pitchforkmedia and read them regularly.
    But i do feel they tend to over intellectualise on some reviews and they are often quite harsh.I think they should perhaps appreciate how difficult it is to create music instead of taking this cynical, superior understanding approach adopted by some of their reviewers. Maybe they should make some of their musical exploits available for review if they have ever created music.

  • Mot

    stop pussying out ya buncha flaky nice guys (well the one guy who is absurdly white that talks black isn’t a pussy, he’s just an idiot). the point that you all are missing is this: metallica is nothing to write anything BUT immature jokes about. the pf reviewer simply assumes (correctly) that 99% of his audience know this

  • seth

    If that cd was any good, brent would have given it a good review…Pitchfork is very fair. Deftones “Around the Fur” got a good review, and that is considered metal. That metalica cd was complete garbage, that’s why it got such a bad review….as for the immature jokes, cmon, I can’t blame him.

  • stephen daedalus

    You’re right, PF’s reviews are often “quite harsh.” There has been an album or two that I thought was harmless enough, only to hop on their site and find out that it “breaks new ground for terrible.”

    And that’s one of the major reasons why I’m on their site every day. A lot of the “critics,” whether they’re with MTV, Rolling Stone or some other mass-publication, do nothing but kiss the asses of little-to-no talent acts like JLo and Good Charlotte solely because they are guaranteed to sell millions of albums. Being in favor with these groups could lead to exclusive interviews, guest appearances, etc., that will boost the sales/ratings of the “critic’s” employer, which will lead to more money and fame for the “critic,” and possibly an appearance on the celebrity edition of Fear Factor or their own late night tv show. The worst thing you hear in a mainstream review these days is some tripe about the artist not performing to their potential or their fans’ expectations.

    It’s nice to find some people who are overly critical of a lot of albums, because when an album comes along and gets a great review, I know it will probably end up being a worthwhile purchase, even though it may require a little more effort on my part as a listener.

    If Pitchfork had been around when I was 12 to provide “cleverly negative” reviews for Mr Big, Right Said Fred and Tom Cochrane, it would have saved me (and a lot of other people) some money, not to mention the snide remarks of the employees at disc-go-round a few years later.

  • Eric Olsen

    It’s all a matter of perceived function: for the most part here, we do reviews on a recommendation basis because life’s short and there’s lots of great stuff out there we want to share.

    If you attempting to be a comprehensive review service, then you are going to have to review a lot of crap. I persoanlly don’t want to waste my time.

  • aNDREW m

    pitch fork media is an average site with average reviewers. They are guys who couldn’t tell a good song if it smacked them in the face and they all bum off radiohead and ok computer which is a fairly average album compared to showbiz by muse which kicks ass. Those guys are biased which affects what music people buy. im not a big metallica fan but they deserve a fair reveiw instead of giving all the praise to radiohead. they should just call the site weluvradiohead.com!

  • Sandra Smallson

    I do not know why this post amuses me but it surely does. The responses so far even further amuse me. I think there is a lesson in this post for many people on this site, maybe even for the writer.

    Still, good post Tom. The best post I have read on this site by far. You may respond in another vein to me but I want it to go on record that I think this is an excellent post and I wish you could win an award for it, lol. Infact, may I borrow it? I will quote you..seriously? I need to email it to some friends of mine who parade as journalists. I won’t copy it without consent. If you refuse, then its okay, I’ll just get them to come check it out here when they have the time.

    It makes a lot of sense. Encompasses my feelings about a majority of so called critics. Though I fear, it seems these are points that some people only want practised when it has to do with something they like.

    This sort of baseless, biased criticism with misplaced superioruty complex is carried out on this site almost everyday by all sorts of people. What’s sad is that I am not surprised you never noticed Tom, until another critic made out of the same ilk like some on here, chose to criticise a metallica Album you like.

    That’s just human nature I guess. People revel in it until it hits YOUR view then you realise what rubbish it all is. This pitchfork media foolery, is foolery seen on this site over and over again.

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    Sandra, feel free to quote or copy my review if you feel like it.

    This sort of baseless, biased criticism with misplaced superioruty complex is carried out on this site almost everyday by all sorts of people. What’s sad is that I am not surprised you never noticed Tom, until another critic made out of the same ilk like some on here, chose to criticise a metallica Album you like.

    As for ignoring this kind of criticism on this site, I don’t. If I happen to read a review that I feel is unfairly critical, to the point that it is simply using the excuse of a “review” to poke fun or it’s being used as an ego-boost by showing off how “clever” the critic can be, I will and do call the writer out on it. Feel free to browse back through my comments – they’re in there somewhere – if you have the time to dig through them all. The most recent I can remember is this.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    have i missed all of the unfair, cleverly negative reviews posted here at blogcritics?

    the flaming lips thing was one for sure, but have there been that many?

    have i stepped into some alternate universe or something.?

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    I don’t think so, Mark. There’s been a few, but not many, probably because, for the most part, we all review what we want to review, and why waste our time and energy on something we don’t like? I think in Sandra’s case she’s pointing out the fact that her favorite artists (Britney, Madonna) have not always received the most warm of reactions on this site. Still, outside of making fun of their ridiculous, pompous need to feed the media-circus, I don’t really recall any truly negative “nasty reviews” of their material – moreso, I just seen ignorance of it, which, in its own way, is a pretty good judgement of what most BCs think of their musical output.

  • http://www.geocities.com/cjmazurus Christopher Mazur

    Metallica turned it’s back on their fans in 1991 with the release of the black album. Anyone who’s ever been a fan of the band knows that since Bob Rock was championed as their new producer that they decided that the slow and steady incline of their fanbase was not good enough for them, that they went for the quick and dirty and instead opted for pop music. No one is denying the Black Album is a great pop album, but don’t ever say it’s metal, let alone a Metallica album.

    You can debate this to the end of the earth that “they can do what they want”, “maybe the rest of the world caught up with them”-optimism. The simple fact remains they just aren’t relevant anymore. This is coupled with the fact that they further alienated themselves with their whiny self-righteous lobbying on the behalf of the RIAA. (How ironic, since they got their start in the bay area by way of tape trading).

    It’s hard to take a ridiculous title like “St. Anger” from whiny 45-year-olds I’m afraid, my money is best spent elsewhere anyway.

    I praise Brent’s review not necessarily as a great well-balanced review, but just for what it is, NECESSARY.

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    Christopher, I’m glad to see at least some fans also view the black album for what it is – the real sellout moment in their catalog. It lays at the bottom rung of the catalog, with St. Anger above it. However, in listening to St. Anger recently I still find that it’s much, much better than most of the “fans” want people to believe. This is a bandwagon that people jumped on because it was just what everyone was doing. It’s not a spectacular album by any means, but it certainly is not as horrible as many claim it is. This is like Ishtar – when that film came out, everyone said it was the worst film ever made. Is it really? No, of course not. I’ve seen it, it’s not great, certainly, but it’s not retched. The same goes for St. Anger. With time, I think people find their views of St. Anger were more tied to their views of the band after the Napster incident than to the music. The production, on the other hand, remains pretty regretable, and that will likely not change for anyone anytime. It was just a big mistake to mix this album this way.

  • sandra croft

    i really can’t see the problem with the pitchfork review. it’s the same way that you laugh at the awful truth coz you know deep down it’s true. this is one of the better reviews i’ve seen of st. anger, one that doesn’t take metallica’s efforts at face value, because really, after the black album, who can? i don’t like metallica but brent makes perfect sense to me. anyway, who cares? it’s metallica, they old rich white bastards who killed napster. i say, fuck them! they deserve the 0.8 just for that.

  • http://www.thebeautifullull.com Tom Johnson

    Thank you, Sandra, for making the point of my review for me: this is not a review of the album, but of “Metallica in the pop-culture conscience of today.” Again, had this been released by another band, it would have been well-received. The Metallica moniker hangs on this band like an albatross. Nothing they will ever do will be taken seriously, even if they do manage to top, say, Master of Puppets because of people like you who can’t look past the personality of the musicians in question. These are exactly the kind of people who destroy music, or really any art on which they focus their energies. You have to judge the music by the music, not the people behind it.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Well, I had not seen this thread before. Ve-ry interesting.

    Pretty much people who wang-dang doodle in their reviews get old quickly except from other people with equally bitter minds.

    And that’s probably what happened in this case.

    At the same time, a reviewer should remain true to what their ears are telling them. This is dissapointing? Get that across in your review.

    This is exciting and performing above your expectations? Get that across in your review.

    If a reviewer knows nothing about a band, though, they should say that up front.

    One thing in the original post troubled me. Tom said if he didn’t like the group or the album he (probably) wouldn’t review it. That’s much more of a disservice to readers than a wank-a-thon review.

    People rarely take a reviewer’s word as gospel; and it’s a conceit of the reviewer to think people don’t read around and talk to to others to get a general impression. If you’re only one reviewer who doesn’t like it out of many who do, the weight of the listener / buyer will go towards the majority.

    Of course, as you did with Brent, people know where a reviewer is coming from a lot of the time. They know – according to their own tastes – which reviewers are most compatible.

    Most often music should be reviewed along the lines of, “Do I like it, and am I typical?”

    Also, people SHOULD review music they don’t already like. That would be the function of the band to draw in new listeners. That would be one way you and people find new music.

    I agree with Chris Mazur – I was one of those fans who eagerly brought “Black” home and then went, “Um, yuk.” And it’s been the same ever since. Of course a band has the right to evolve and change, just as fans have the right to say, “well that fucking blows” if they don’t like the changes.

  • sandra croft

    if your point is that the review is flawed because it’s not a review of the music, then yes, in theory you’re right, but you also fail to see that style-wise pitchfork reviews are never really about JUST the music, and that is the singular quality that separates them from the not-pitchfork. the music is important, but so is history with the artist, both personal (where were you when you first heard that song?) and in the context of all work. in the case of st anger, i think it is futile to argue that the review is not valid because they don’t directly make reference to the music. in fact, it seems they even take things one step further by NOT talking about the sound of st anger. it allows them to move beyond the half-realized juxtapositions and name-dropping analogies that other reviewers use to circumvent actually saying something useful. the best reviews communicate abstract things, like mood, the FEEL of an album, random associations, rather then TELLING you something that would be plainly obvious to anyone with ears. i hope you are able to see the merit in this argument and really, how it’s the best explanation for why pitchfork is the way it is. even when pitchfork is wrong (and it does happen!) you still know you are in for a good read.

  • http://www.thebeautifullull.com Tom Johnson

    Sandra, I see your point and I even admire it, but I stand by my post – if a critic writes a review of the album, they’re more than welcome to dig up whatever they want on the band, but to judge the music by the band’s past is not fair to the music. Pitchforkmedia has gotten caught up in the “style review” where they spend more time trying to be snarky or clever, and rarely, especially in the case of bigger releases, spend much time talking about the music. Far too often have I seen the “short story as review” on Pitchfork, where the writing is more about the writer than the music or musicians, even. This is writing to inflate one’s ego, as Brent’s writing on St. Anger is, and this is a typical ply of Brent’s – he’s obviously pretty bored with music and music writing and so has turned to creative writing for his reviews. Unfortunately, this kind of writing and the snarky attitude garners PFM a lot of attention, and they’ve added more and more writers in this vein. Over the past few years, I’ve watched Pitchfork go from being one of the places I always trusted to find something intriguing and new to being something more of a joke, where I might find a name that’s intriguing, but I absolutely cannot trust what they say because they’re just as often caught up in finding the obscure for the sake of obscurity, rather than being actual good music. If I see a new name and find anything that indicates there might be something of interest in the music for me in a review at PFM, I always find other sources – especially AllMusicGuide, whose reviewers by and large really are reviewing the music – to see if the critics that I find much more reliable like it. PFM is far too concerned with keeping up appearances to trust with music reviews.

  • sandra croft

    ok, i see your point, and you probably shouldn’t read pitchfork. just from experience, i find that people who like things literal generally don’t like pitchfork…sometimes they are overbearing, but mostly i love the personal spin that the reviewers put on things. it reminds me of the things that i value in those same bands myself. it’s like theories of art, see…the total experience should be greater than the sum of its parts, and there is definitely an art to what pitchfork does, not entirely dissimilar to the works that they are reviewing.

  • http://www.thebeautifullull.com Tom Johnson

    I don’t see an art to anything Pitchfork does, definitely not anymore – what I see is quick grabs for attention because they’re much more in the public eye due to exposure in some really big publications. I see no value in the snarky attitude PFM takes pride in – this is not the kind of writing that is meant to inform the reader, it is meant only to entertain. A good critic is one whose work you can read and know whether it would be something you’d be interesetd in, regardless of how he or she felt about it. The writers at Pitchfork, for the most part, are not good writers because they’re incredibly inconsistent, given more to flashy displays of trick-writing learned in creative writing courses than to actual information dissemination. I always like to point out Roger Ebert when in a discussion like this. He’s a great critic not because I like everything he likes but because I know his biases and prejudices and he makes no effort to hide them. The PFM writers are shameless trend-chasers, and frequently albums they slam wind up as their favorite albums of whatever list they’re working on at the time. There’s also a disturbing amount of hive-minded activity going on over there – it’s pretty frequent that I see a “we thought this” type of thing. If these reviewers are truly independent, I don’t want to see any connection to others like that – it sounds more like a clique than anything else. And, really, that’s all PFM is to me anymore – they’re just a clique of self-important writers who are basking in the attention they’re receiving right now, but they’re doing nothing to better themselves or their readers, opting instead to just drive more snark-ridden drivel down readers throats. Most of their new readers are too uninformed to realize that they need to balance the creative writing assignments of Pitchfork’s writers against other more legitimate, dedicated writers. And that’s why I wrote this piece, because there are plenty of people going to PFM because they don’t know there are other more trustworthy options out there (Blogcritics being but one.) People need to know that most of the writing on PFM is more about ego than information. That’s a travesty for critics, and is exactly the kind of thing that keeps people from taking critics seriously.

  • http://Everest Cliff

    Pitch ‘reviews’ are not incomprehensible to me; they’re actually transparent. I would hardly commit the act of calling it the ArtForum or something of music (though both are completely conservative, nay, reactionary, the latter sometimes has a trace of intellectual substance).

    Who ARE these people? I’ve never heard of any of them.

    Radiohead (et al)? I think Pitchfork Media is not nearly elitist or snobbish enough. They just sound like some self-fancied bureaucratic appointees of amnesiac Kool that too happily fulfill the indie stereotype – because the mainstream needs something to walk on, right? (Yikes, that was close to being Pitchfork-esque.)

    Besides it being utterly institutional and clone-producing, I can never decide what powers this contraption – corporate greed or complicit fame (it’s always that toss-up, isn’t it?). Or maybe just general dead boredom. Simply, I feel sad for music.

    Pitchfork is over.

  • Tony

    I know I’m several years late, but I have just recently discovered Pitchfork and its criticism.

    I will begin by saying that I am not a Metallica fan. Indeed, I am not a metal fan. It’s virtuosic guitars/bass/drums simply does not appeal to me. I am an indie fan.

    That being said, I will now say that I cannot stand Pitchfork. It’s reviewers rarely know how to write. They attempt to show how “clever” they are by doing things such as comparing Metallica to communism, all while pretending to be stuck in the Mid-East. But for some reason, it seems they forgot to say anything about the music. And in doing so, they forgot their reason for existing. The point of a reviewer is to give readers a clear opinion. The opinion must be earnest and the reviewed object at hand must be approached with an open mind. The reviewer should not have any preconceived ideas or biases. Otherwise the truth will be at stake.

    Unfortunately, Mr. DiCrescenzo seems to have come with those biases. And almost as unfortunate, he was unable to shed them. And most unfortunate, he could not justify his opinion.

  • Ryguy

    Word.