Kevin Barnes, eccentric frontman of indie pop outfit of Montreal (that’s a lowercase ‘o’ mind you!) did something yesterday that not many artists do, for several reasons: he responded to a critic. The main reason, though, is quite simple – you can’t look good. Following his discovery of the 6.7 semi-dismissal from Pitchfork, he took to his blog to give his own snarky, critical response to a snarky, critical review. You can read it here but if you don’t want to, here’s the crux of the issue: Kevin Barnes feels misunderstood. His calls for a “fair and balanced review” amongst the slew of insults and sarcasm did serve a purpose though: it brought an important question back into the spotlight. Just what does a review serve to do?
Let’s put it into a wider context for a moment: the press are a huge part of a musicians life. The influence of a website like Pitchfork alone is enough to rocket the career of an upcoming independent artist into the spotlight or have it crumbling away like a fistful of sand. The evidence is clear enough to see: bands like Vampire Weekend can credit a lot of their current level of success to the hype Pitchfork spun around them (this isn’t a jab at the bands ability, for the record) and Fleet Foxes went from folk minnows to a debut album that charted in seven countries in the space of a year, on the back of a no-holds-barred 9.0 review from the unofficial indie taste barometer. The ‘Best New Music’ tag has become an absolute commercial guarantee, so it’s easy to see why bands would be eager to earn that branding. It subsequently displays, however, just how potentially damaging a bad review can be. Critics, with full knowledge of this, hold some dominion over the livelihood of a working independent musician, particularly rising and low profile artists.
What all this about Pitchfork means – Best New Music and the subsequent commercial success – is that people trust them. The independent music listener (consumer) has more faith in Pitchfork than most publications. This can be credited to a lot of things: Pitchfork’s honesty, style, taste, even the sheer magnitude of their fans contributes to legitimizing their opinions into fact. But that’s exactly where the tricky business begins – where is the line drawn between opinion piece and tastemaker? Though it hasn’t come to the point where a Pitchfork review single-handedly determines the commercial viability of an indie band, it’s scarily close. Considering a lot of the low profile music they get to isn’t touched by most other wide scale publications, it’s even scarier. Pitchfork is, in a sense, breeding like-minded acolytes. Is it possible new bands are latching on to trends in order to fit in with whatever is trending at the moment? Very. And who determines what’s currently trending? Pitchfork. In theory, they’re attaching themselves to styles and images that young artists are then encouraged to perpetuate, lest they be ignored. Of Animal Collective’s seven reviewed LPs, only one has received a score lower than 8.6, so is it any wonder every basement-artist and their mother have played their hand at being the next Animal Collective? It’s very circular. It’s not as if this is a profound phenomenon either, it’s pure logic; you just need to replace the characters. What happened when Twilight became the biggest thing with tweens since The Backstreet Boys? You couldn’t blink without some stupid new vampire gimmick trying to cash in on the craze.
What this all brings us back to is Kevin Barnes’ negative reaction to that criticism. First, let’s establish two things: 1) of Montreal are well into a successful career, 2) a 6.7 is not a bad rating (almost our equivalent of a 3.5, which is what Rudy Klapper gave it in his positive review). Secondly, of Montreal are far enough into their careers where a 6.7 from Pitchfork isn’t going to tip the scales on their success more than the actual reception of their music with their already-established fan base will. Now with that in mind, Barnes comes across as a bit of a brat. He’s acting as if his music was never up for interpretation in the first place. He consistently mocks Pitchfork’s take on his sound, even going so far as to suggest they didn’t listen to the full album, and implies that Pitchfork has always had it out for him. Something he might’ve missed though was that Rob Mitchum, the man behind the review, was also responsible for that glowing 8.7 take on 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Pre-meditated murder? Hardly.
What connects Barnes’ toys being thrown out of the pram and my thoughts on Pitchfork’s status as a publication is that Barnes clearly doesn’t want his music to be read this way by the ‘drones’ that Pitchfork readers have been tagged as by the cynical anti-hype machine and he’s clearly angry about it. Does he have power over that? No. Is he scared people will agree with Pitchfork? Evidently, yes. This brings up something that’s important to realize about music reviews. Critics are prone to suggestions and assumptions – most reviews specifically do so with angles and irrelevant details that they interpret to play into the significance of the record. I do it all the time. It’s central to the idea of being a critic: subjectivity. What a professional critic amounts to is nothing more than an eloquent and excitable music fan. There are a lot of those kinds of people, evidenced by this website alone. What a Pitchfork, or Rolling Stone, or Vice Magazine writer amounts to is the one eloquent, excitable music fan who was eloquent and excitable and entrepreneurial enough to earn themselves that title on their business card. You have to remember that they are no less subjective than the rest of us. There is no algorithm or secret to knowing what good music is; only how we interpret it through our own ears and tastes. It’s just that not everyone’s tastes get plastered across the internet for thousands to read.
Kevin Barnes may not think the “falsetto-funk” of his record was something to be shocked by but Rob Mitchum definitely did. Is Barnes, the man behind the music, correct in saying that’s not how you should interpret it? Absolutely not. Music might be the most visceral of art forms – it is nothing without interpretation. Does this mean Mitchum is right in saying that’s what the album sounds like? No. That’s just how Rob Mitchum described his reaction to it. The 6.7 rating is indicative of nothing but Rob Mitchum’s taste. Music is an experience, not something that can be put into words and descriptions. While Barnes wasn’t wrong to be afraid of Pitchfork selling his work to listeners as something that he never thought it was, he should perhaps be more afraid that this is how it was interpreted in the first place. Furthermore, publications should not be used as a musical compass as much as a reference point and artists like Kevin Barnes should react to negative press with the reassurance that their fanbase isn’t comprised of robots. Is there such a thing as a “fair and balanced review”? Apologies to Mr. Barnes but I’m afraid not. The trick is putting it all into perspective. A music review is a means of promotion; what we should really be concerned about is when publications are treated in a way where marks on a scale of 10 can make or break a commercial career.