by Liza Mackeen-Shapiro
art by Eleanore Winchell
[originally published October 2021]
Frequently invoking the ire of everyone from teenage stans to musicians themselves (most notably the singer Halsey), the music publication Pitchfork is arguably the most infamous hub of musical criticism on the internet today — particularly in terms of their treatment of pop music. Founded in 1995, the website has since transcended its original status as specifically alternative publication to somewhat of the virtual paper of record for music criticism, covering both independent music and mainstream releases. Although I can’t speak to exactly why Pitchfork decided to widen the scope of their coverage — perhaps due to the emergence of “poptimism” or a desire to distance themselves from the tired yet enduring stereotype of the pretentious, Radiohead loving Brooklyn toxic hipster man — I find their attempts to cover pop music to be largely uninspired and pointless whether supposedly conducted with a new sense of serious critical appraisal towards the genre or not.
To those who are unfamiliar with the term, “poptimism” refers to the belief that pop music deserves to be treated with the same critical legitimacy as rock/folk/alternative etc. — a philosophy that may sound reasonable enough, but has unfortunately devolved into reviewers like those who work for Pitchfork tripping over their own feet to extract quality and meaning out of even the most mediocre major label pop releases lest they potentially miss something (and this is coming from someone who loves pure, unadulterated pop so much that I often listen to original songs from Nickelodeon or Disney shows.)
As part of this attempt to move away from their gatekeeping days of yore, Pitchfork recently issued an article updating the score/commentary on albums many of which were of a poppier nature and had been previously panned by their reviewers. One of such albums was Charli XCX’s Vroom Vroom EP, which was produced by the legendary late SOPHIE and marked the singer’s turn from a relatively mainstream artist to pioneer of the experimental genre now loosely known as “hyperpop”. The original review, which awarded the EP a rather dire 4.6 out of 10, is mostly concerned with trying to decide whether both XCX and her PC Music brethren are pulling one over on the listener by taking the typically vapid tropes of pop music to an abrasive extreme, as if they’re too scared of falling for a hypothetical joke to admit they might like it.
To Pitchfork’s credit, the re-reviewer readily acknowledges this fear of being trolled as the primary impetus behind the publication’s initial negative review; however, she justifies their decision to update the score to a 7.8 by writing that “nowadays, it doesn’t seem that extreme. And when you don’t think too hard about it, it's pretty fun. ” This implication that the base pleasure of infectious dance beats combined with goofy hooks can be ruined by thinking about it too hard betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of both XCX’s brand of hyper-accelerated pop and the genre as a whole; the genius of her and the PC music project is that they understand that pop music can be largely vapid and formulaic while also joyfully intoxicating, much like how McDonalds is still delicious even though we know it was chemically engineered to hit the maximal amount of our taste buds and dopamine receptors. Although the parody of the original genre is clear, their satire is never at the expense of what makes pop so enjoyable in the first place. It’s more than a little ironic that Pitchfork’s obsession with hunting for meaning within pop would lead to them dismissing one of the rare records that combines salient commentary with actually enjoyable and interesting music, and even more frustrating that their re-appraisal of the album still falls into the same trap.
I don’t really like Pitchfork, but I don’t necessarily think their misguided approach towards pop music is the fault of anything about their publication in particular so much as the nature of the genre itself. It may seem obtuse to complain about music critics practicing, well, musical criticism, but I honestly don’t think most pop music is befitting of detailed analysis unless it is specifically oriented towards the cultural legacy of the work in question, which obviously cannot be accurately assessed in the immediate aftermath of its release. There’s only so much you can say about music which is either, from the charitable perspective, fundamentally designed to accomplish little more than making people feel good and want to dance, or, from the cynical perspective, masterminded by a bunch of Swedish men to appeal to the most amount of people with the minimal amount of creative effort (two attitudes which I don’t believe are mutually exclusive) without inventing a purpose that isn’t really there — or, in the case of the Vroom Vroom EP, agonizing so much over what that purpose actually is that you end up missing it entirely.
Ultimately, music critics like those at Pitchfork could learn a lot about how to handle pop from XCX’s own response to Pitchfork’s re-evaluation of her EP; instead of writing a multiple tweet-long thread articulating her own subversive artistic mission statement, the singer merely quote tweeted the article with a simple “lol.” After all, if you’re anyone other than a professional critic, her music — and pop in general — is more than capable of speaking for itself.