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The Issue with ‘Pitchfork’ Ratings: You Don’t Have to Justify Your Favourite Album

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at McGill chapter.

The website, ‘Pitchfork’, self-described as “the most trusted voice in music”, has long been criticized for its scathing reviews and overall air of pretentiousness. The writers rate albums on a 1 to 10 scale, and these ratings are typically determined by cohesiveness, originality and story-telling. The website was launched in the mid-90s, however, I think that the “rating” of music taste has become a common conversation in recent years. The website, ‘The Pudding’, developed a project called “How Bad is Your Spotify”, in which an AI program judges your most listened to music. The project pokes fun at music snobs, jokingly deeming pop music basic, and therefore bad. Essentially, if you are exclusively an indie fan, your score would be perfect. I found the project to be a witty jab at music snobbery, as it captures how ridiculous it is to claim someone lacks taste because they listen to Ariana Grande.

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Photo by Crew from Unsplash

The authors at ‘Pitchfork’ have a special interest in indie artists, their notable favourites being Bjork, Radiohead, and, recently, Fiona Apple, who received a perfect score for 2020’s ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’. While I can recognize Fiona Apple’s originality and appreciate the songwriting in her most recent album, I would not personally deem it to be a masterpiece. To me, the tunes are somewhat stilted and the lyrics are performed more as spoken word than singing. Obviously, my personal opinion has no correlation with how good an album is. This is where I take issue with the music rating system that ‘Pitchfork’ uses. By claiming that the authors at the website are among the most trusted music critics, there is some suggestion of objectivity. How can someone claim that an album is bad simply because they don’t like it?

After reading a few articles, I was a little peeved by the fact that some of my favourite albums received low ratings, but passed off the website as light-hearted insight into music and lyricism. It is easy to disregard their pretentiousness as harmless, but because of the acclaim that ‘Pitchfork’ has, their reviews can have a significant effect on artists and culture in the industry. An example of this effect is a rating of 3.3 given to the first album of a band called ‘Black Kids’ in 2008. The band had previously received a high rating for their first EP, and were promptly signed to Columbia Records. Following the review of their album, though, ‘Black Kids’ dropped in popularity and separated from their label only a couple years after. While there can be no direct line drawn between their success and the ‘Pitchfork’ reviews, this correlation is coincidental at the least. The website has the power to amplify smaller artists, but it doesn’t seem right that they also use this power to discourage readers from listening to up-and-coming musicians.

I doubt that music criticism is a dying field, but am also of the belief that music taste isn’t something that can be accurately measured. Many of the low reviews on ‘Pitchfork’ do not reflect album popularity in the slightest; both of Harry Styles’ albums have below-average reviews. Harry Styles’ most recent album was criticized for its lack of depth, the author saying that he “summarizes and apologizes and reflects as if he were just telling this story to his mates,”. I found this interesting, because the simplicity and honesty of the album were what I enjoyed most about it. Because the website is framed as trustworthy and the reviews are typically cohesive and well-written, their critiques can easily be misconstrued as fact. Ultimately, listeners form their own perceptions of an artists’ music and lyricism, and it seems that in several cases the main reason the low reviews are written to prove some sort of superior taste level. Music is made for enjoyment and self-expression, and while artists must be open to criticism in their field, discography is not a school assignment that can be graded based on specific criteria.

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