In conclusion, leaving is easy when you've got some place you need to be
On "Six Feet Under," Pitchfork, "evolutions" and evolution as a Music Writing Old
Even as I have access to pretty much every single second of recorded music in the past century, until I break the seal on my “jazz era,” I feel like I’ve probably run out of musical phases to go through. Whether it’s individual artists (Prince, Kraftwerk, Springsteen, Van Morrison, Dylan) or genres (Krautrock, drum-n-bass, etc.) that led to deep dives in the past, they required both the time and brain plasticity that I’ll never recover as a 43-year old with a full-time, IRL job. True, I’ve never run through, like, the Neu! discography - but I’d come to it having to contend with decades upon decades of received wisdom rather than, like, a page in the Rolling Stone Album Guide. God forbid anyone ask me in person what I think about Neu!, I could probably fake my way through it.
So nowadays, I go through phases with authors or movies or, most often, television shows, typically ones that I completely missed out on because I spent the vast majority of my 20s dedicating nearly every waking free moment immersed in whatever musical deep dive might mold me into what I assumed was the Good Pitchfork Reader (and, subsequently, Good Pitchfork Writer). That and music paired way better with my preferred drinking habits at the time, which tended to make reading and/or absorbing multi-episode plot points nearly impossible.
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Over the past few months, my wife and I have been speed-running through Six Feet Under - though an almost uniformly excellent show that’s been critically acclaimed in its own right, it tends to get overshadowed in “prestige TV” rankings by The Sopranos, Band of Brothers and other HBO fare that existed during its initial run. While its treatment of sexuality, mental health and the conflict between artistry and commerce now feels really ahead of its time, it’s still extremely entertaining for its inherent “2004”-ness: watch an episode, and if it seems like men wore nothing but V-neck sweaters and tried to get high and/or laid to “Naked as We Came” and Nada Surf’s “Inside of Love,” I mean…that’s sorta how I remember it too.
Though a heavy and at times uncomfortable watch, there was never a point when I was seriously considering giving up. Season 4 had some brutal subplots, though - Claire going to Fake CalArts and making the most annoying, untalented friends imaginable, Rico becoming a total simp for a stripper named Infinity (I do wonder if any rappers watched this show, because this is pretty much human “Captain Kirk”/“Captain Save-a-Ho” in the flesh), etc. But while I have vague memories of the series finale being described as “beyond devastating” or whatever at the time, I don’t think Six Feet Under ever topped the ending of Season 5, Episode 6, “The Rainbow of Her Reasons.”
SPOILERS AHEAD and all, but long story short - Ruth, the long-suffering, emotionally/sexually/spiritually/etc.-repressed matriarch of the Fisher family, hits one of her many emotional bottoms and is comforted in a chance encounter by a guy named George who attends a funeral at Fisher & Sons, has the camera focus on him for an unusual amount of time during the service, and comes back hours later to pick up his glasses (one running theme in Six Feet Under is that you can tell if a new character is going to be a romantic interest within the first five seconds of meeting them). They have a whirlwind courtship, George moves in and they end up getting married in an impromptu ceremony weeks later. Like basically every other relationship Ruth has after her husband dies in the pilot, it’s a fascinating merger of her intractable character flaws (caretaking, a need to define herself in the context of another man) and the person she wants to be (more spontaneous and self-seeking). There is absolutely no way this ends well.
Inevitably, George starts revealing the person that he truly is - someone who’s been married six times and has a poor/non-existent relationship with nearly all of his children, an emotionally distant mansplainer, an academic blowhard, completely incapable of holding a normal conversation with women or anyone else under the age of 40, etc. Not exactly a con man, only because Fisher & Sons doesn’t seem like a deep pocket. Painful as it is for him to treat Ruth like complete shit at the outset, it’s at least in line with the characters with whom I most associate James Cromwell (Logan Roy’s estranged brother in Succession, Jack Bauer’s dad in 24).
But at a certain point, it becomes clear that George has a psychotic break and is pivoting towards “doomsday prepper” - it’s sorta hard to tell exactly why, but he continually makes points about how he’s been “online” a lot lately and throughout this show, “internet” and “websites” are still spoken aloud in a way that makes both of those concepts feel novel and vaguely dystopian. Tack on a lifetime of undisclosed mental illness and outwardly hostile relations within the Fisher household, and he’s all of a sudden living in the bomb shelter that Ruth’s husband had somehow built during the height of the Cold War. In a flash forward scene, George is fished out of his makeshift man-cave and 5150’d, where he’s eventually subject to electro convulsive therapy (still an acceptable form of treatment for clinical depression in 2004).
It’s pretty clear from the jump that Ruth was trying to divorce him before all of this went down and she wants that even more so when she recognizes how her most impulsive, pleasure-seeking decision has lead to her taking care of an invalid for the rest of her life (or, most likely, the rest of his life). The only thing more urgent than her desire to cut bait is her guilt for feeling that very desire.
As Ruth finally starts to establish friendships with other women, she stumbles upon a way out - one of her sewing circle friends was dating an alcoholic and the relationship was ruining both of their lives. But rather than cutting him off until he got his shit together, she dried him out, got him set up with a job and a place to live, and dumped him only after he was secure on his two feet. The perfect solution for someone with Ruth’s caretaker disposition, as it results in both her freedom and personal absolution.
And so she gets George an apartment near some of his favorite Los Angeles landmarks (The Grove, still kinda new at the time!), encourages him to renew his professorship and gets the kitchen stocked…but even in his diminished mental state, George sees what’s really happening here. None of Ruth’s clothes are there, she’s only brought one bar of soap for the bathroom (and no toothbrush), it’s clear that she has no plans to stay over, ever. But rather than trying to fight off the inevitable, he tells Ruth, “you’re freed” and it looks like this exchange hurt Ruth way more than it did George, if only because she overestimated her ability to set something this cruel in motion. Either that, or she wanted to say, “you’re freed” and treat it like a priceless parting gift. Like a lot of the Fishers, she tends to latch on to other people’s fantasies and assume them as their own; perhaps the only thing sadder than the George scene is one that comes a little bit earlier, when Ruth finds out that the “no-men commune” that her Topanga Canyon hippie sister Sarah cooked up with her libertine friends (including Kathy Bates) during a kitchen-drinking spree was actually a joke and not something that was going to happen, like, this weekend.
Just to be clear, this isn’t a TV-recap Substack and you can probably tell where I’m going with this. A couple of longtime colleagues and friends reached out with condolences after the news broke of Pitchfork’s “evolution” into GQ and as much as I appreciated the sentiment, I couldn’t help but feel a little unworthy. I’m not one of the people who lost their jobs for real. Like George, I’m in a position of relative privilege where my immediate needs are met and “the end of an era” is a scare-quotes “existential crisis” rather than a threat to my actual existence. And I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty, since these are the same people - mostly writers who’ve been doing this for at least ten years - with whom I commiserated over both our increasing alienation from music (both the actual artform and the bigger Discussion) and music writing (or, Pitchfork specifically) and the part we played in creating that very alienation.
In the same way that George was starting to pick up on the prolonged silences, passive-aggressive comments and withholding of physical intimacy, you notice the little things at first when you’re one of The Olds in the music writing game - the big-ticket promos don’t come as early, or don’t come at all, and when they do, it’s in a jumble of SoundClouds or untagged .wavs or janky label websites or PromoJukebox links that lock you out after three listens, all of which are nearly impossible to consolidate on a single device. I literally need a spreadsheet for this shit. Or, hell, you don’t recognize what the big-ticket albums even are anymore.
The pitch emails take a lot longer to get answered or they don’t get answered at all. Sometimes the byline understandably goes to a younger writer with a different perspective, or sometimes, it goes to a different old head for reasons that escape you. You’re listening to less new music because you’re not writing as much or you’re not writing as much because you’re listening to less new music, or it’s both at the same time. Maybe you’re not getting assignments because you’re not pitching as much or maybe you’re not pitching as much because you’re not getting assignments. There are easier ways to make $200; I shudder to think at how much my hourly rate comes to when I add up the time I’ve spent listening to an album, conceptualizing the review, writing the review and going through the edits. And at this point, a normal person would make an accounting of their frustration and resentment versus the financial rewards and accept that, as with George, this marginalization was ultimately for our own good.
But that’s for normal people. There have been as many warm, thoughtful Pitchfork tributes as former Pitchfork writers and while I haven’t read them all, I’ve read enough to feel comfortable talking about my experience truthfully without it coming off as hyperbolic or delusional. Marc Hogan, one of the few people who’s more of a Pitchfork lifer than myself, said the following at Rolling Stone: “It might sound incredibly lame and pathetic, but it’s no exaggeration to say that Pitchfork has been as big a part of my adult life as anything besides my wife and two kids.” Me, I’ve been married for about a year and a half and I don’t have kids.
Like a lot of people in my age demographic (i.e., people who could’ve watched Six Feet Under in real time), I’ve been conditioned to still think of any relationship forged on the internet as being inherently pathetic or “not really real” - whenever I get asked how my wife and I met, there’s still a tiny, reflexive hitch before I say “on a dating app,” probably in some self-deprecating way. And this is certainly magnified when I’m talking about a website, even one whose mailing address is literally One World Trade Center. To this day, when I talk about writing for Pitchfork or having a podcast to my IRL coworkers, even if it’s allowed me to hang out with Snoop Dogg in his studio or have an actual literary agent or receive a regular paycheck from Warner Music Group, they still see this kind of stuff as “blogging.”
But the truth is, even as I’ve lived in Virginia and Los Angeles and Georgia and Michigan and Kentucky and San Diego, completely changed careers, had relationships begin and end, written angry emails to Pitchfork while drunk and hundreds of reviews while sober, it’s has been pretty much the one constant in my life over the past 25 years - from reading the Emergency & I review in the UVA library, because home internet access was still somewhat novel, to right this minute. Talking about the impact of Pitchfork on my life would probably result in 20,000 more words and every time I try to get started, this whole piece gets put off track more than it already is. But I’ll leave it at this - since my first review in 2007 (the Deadly Syndrome! Remember Some LA Blog Rock Guys!), I don’t think a day has gone by where I wasn’t working on a review, listening to new music in the interest of pitching a new review or thinking about a review someone else wrote and how I might have done it. Tallying up the amount of time I’ve invested - physically, mentally, however - it’s always been a full-time job, regardless of whether I was actually on staff or just someone who turns in 10 reviews a year. It’s a relationship that competes for time with for-real real relationships; the amount of time I spent working on a Turn on the Bright Lights oral history probably expedited a 2012 breakup and in 2014 as well, except that time on a Johnny Jewel cover story.
But with very, very, very few exceptions, there aren’t a lot of ways to age gracefully into a position of security (let alone whatever resembles “tenure”). The reality of music writing (and probably music in general) is that it’s always been the province of the young and hungry and idealistic, that there’s an endless supply of 24-year olds dying to upend the old regime (as I was in 2004). You know those reply guys (and gals) who seem far too invested in “the state of the things” and insert themselves into every conversation? The ones who mourn the death of even the most obscure music website and treat this line of work like it should be protected with government funding? The ones who treat any expression of personal ambivalence about music writing as a sign of moral failure? I don’t care how annoying they seem at the moment, the future is theirs because music writing will always reward the people who straight up want it the most.
I certainly found that to be true for myself - despite certainly being a massive pain in the ass to my editors and colleagues, I’ve written 910 reviews for Pitchfork and by my unscientific measure, that’s at least 200 more than the people I suspect are #2, like Mark Richardson or Philip Sherburne, guys who are spoken of in hushed tones by anyone who takes music writing seriously as a craft. Other people I’ve met along the way have become best-selling authors, professors, A&Rs, Pulitzer Prize nominees, staff writers at capital-p PRESTIGE places like New York Times and New Yorker and GQ, executive producers, screenplay writers, the list goes on. I didn’t get here because anyone thought I was some kind of generational talent (least of all, me). I never read any Lester Bangs or Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau thought I had shitty taste. Long story short, after spending my teenage years reading each issue of Rolling Stone and Spin and Guitar World front to back three times and feeling like music writing was as inaccessible of a job as, like, musician or Stonecutter, Pitchfork was the first time I felt like I could write about music in a way that felt achievable and honest to me and I wanted in.
Even though I pull out this quote at least once a year, I feel like this Japandroids interview has resonated with me more than any of their music, which is really saying something:
There's a difference between people who are born with that special thing and people who love the people who are born with that special thing so much that they want to try their best to get as close as they can to it. I don't consider myself to be a very creative person. We have to work really, really hard to write a song we think is really good. I mean, we have two records in three years, and the records only have eight songs each. It's a slow process. It might take a whole month to write a song we think is good.
If you lock Jack White in a room with an acoustic guitar, he's gonna come up with something great. If you don't have that gift, you have to grind away-- that's more what our band does. The Replacements seem like a band where no one was born particularly great. They were just along for the ride and kind of accidentally came out with something incredibly powerful.
I’ve known a lot of Jack Whites in my time. I also guess I just lacked any greater career ambitions and found the 800-word album review format best suited to the way I like to think about and discuss music - pretty much the same format they teach you in law school (IRAC - Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion).
And I figured that grindset would compensate for everything that was chipping away at my enthusiasm over the past few years - feeling like one of many individual fiefdoms scrapping for territory rather than a part of a unified voice, watching people my age lose their fucking minds on Twitter, seeing music criticism become both increasingly credulous and smugly academic, watching the music I connect with the most fall out of favor, becoming increasingly self-conscious about being misinterpreted or doxxed in a way that would hurt my dietitian career, the cynical cooption of therapeutic and identity language as preemptive critic-proofing of music, and (sadly) internalizing the subtext of every celebration of Pitchfork’s editorial direction as a referendum on my life’s work.
Obviously, I still cared deeply about it all, but the caring had curdled; I can’t tell you how many “should I still even bother to pitch y’all?” emails and texts are stored in my Drafts folder because, almost without fail, the moment I’m about to press “send,” I get a response saying, “hey, we’re gonna assign you [X], can you turn it in by Friday?” And I’ll do it because even if other places paid better or offered less stringent editorial oversight, it was still the most legitimizing cosign for my work and the music itself, a way to stoke the conversation that nothing else could match. The problem is that I started to feel like the conversation was only happening between other 30 and 40-something music writers at this point.
Is this really true? Was that ever not true? As with most things related to “the state of music journalism,” I’d rather hear from an uninvested, 24-year old reader. If the Readers’ Poll is any accurate reflection, it’s clear that Pitchfork isn’t at odds with its audience, that the current iteration was probably the best suited to survive in the current music landscape. But maybe it just survived in the same way that Saturday Night Live does - still blessed with an air of prestige, a place where people arrive after rising through the ranks and capable of virality at least a few times per year…but ultimately feeling like it’s always operating off the back foot, reacting to whatever’s happening on TikTok rather than setting the agenda itself.
Like any Pitchfork lifer, I have plenty of ideas on how I think it could have been more enjoyable or accessible, and maybe even a few that would make it more successful, but there’s nothing that could make it as clearly “cause and effect” influential as it was in 2003 or 2012. Model/Actriz is a Schreiber-era Pitchfork Band if there ever was one, but if we gave Dogbody an 8.9 like Cryptograms instead of an 8.2, do they really become Deerhunter? If Will Welch turned out to be a diehard Indiecast listener and immediately handed the keys over to Steve and I, would a 9.4 for plastic death be a Bat-Signal for Twitter nerds for the next 20 years the way it was for Blueberry Boat?
My generation knows what we lost - not just one of the only music publications with actual financial and editorial infrastructure, but probably the last one that could actually shape opinions that weren’t in lockstep with every other industry faction (I feel like I became a true Pitchfork convert not because of Kid A but when they were the only place willing to say that Sea Change was boring as shit). I feel like all the bitching about poptimism and wokeness (fun fact: Oso Oso has gotten Best New Music more times than Taylor Swift) or whatever else people used to diagnose What’s Wrong With Pitchfork felt like a distraction from what was really being mourned.
The state of things is obviously Bad, a nesting doll of discouraging news. It’s Bad on a human level that a lot of people lost their jobs in any capacity, especially when the only alternatives being offered are “start a worker-run publication” or “start a Substack,” neither of which alleviates the tremendous financial hit. Receiving money for work is a lot easier than asking for it. And it’s Bad on an industry level that this happened at a revered publication that was, by nearly all accounts, probably the most successful and economically viable under the Conde Nast umbrella.
[This gets to the most egregious of the (many) failures in Freddie deBoer’s framing of Pitchfork as a “go woke, go broke” cautionary tale. I’m usually up for some uncut hater shit even if I don’t totally agree with it, I’m not above clicking on the For You tab just to feel something. But deBoer can’t even commit to being a real hater in it for the love of the game, instead he’s accusing Woke Pitchfork of doing the same exact thing he is for about 7000 words, i.e., shielding their subjective preferences with specious sociopolitical justification. It’s the equivalent of someone who’s too shook to just say they think Big Thief is boring and has to bring up the weird Israel stuff instead]
On last week’s Indiecast, I talked about my relationship with music, music journalism and, really, Pitchfork as being in a state of slow-motion grieving. I always knew that it would eventually go the way of CREEM or Spin or The Source, but the most surprising thing about when it actually happened was my ambivalence towards it all, whether this closure was even definitive and whether my neuroses about music writing would still survive. Every time Twitter seemed like it was on the verge of collapse - not going the way of Facebook, but literally becoming unusable - there was always a contingent of Real Posters begging for the sweet release of death, of god doing what they could not do for themselves.
As much as I romanticize my peak music writing years (say, 2012-2014), I romanticize 2005 just as much, when I was thinking about music critically but not professionally. It was nothing to throw together like 3000 words about how the latest Georgia loss to Florida reminded me of Plans or ranking the 25 songs on the latest Drive-By Truckers album. And I did that like twice a week because I had no other outlet for these thoughts. Maybe I’ll still have these thoughts, maybe I won’t, but if I do, I hope I can trust myself enough to put them on here and pass the hat rather than give up after failing to get a greenlight from one of the three remaining music publications.
The most resonant thing I’ve read on this subject has actually come from Patrick Lyons, a writer a decade younger than myself and also maybe the best indication of what my own relationship with music criticism would be as a true millennial rather than a cusper (after all, he did do the Whenever, If Ever 10-year piece at Stereogum). In a recent Substack, he wrote the following about his reaction to the Pitchfork news:
After that, I'm shocked and appalled to say that I went into something resembling grindset mode: alright, let's get it, no gods no masters, I'll take what little I can get from remaining publications and then it's Inbox Infinity or bust, baby.
So I dove into the promo emails that had piled up while I took an extra bartending shift earlier this week and started plugging away at them. I got to one that interested me, went to log that album in my Notes app page of release dates, and then it hit me: do I even need to be doing this anymore?
It’s a scary question I never really allowed myself a chance to answer - whether out of financial fear, more likely, a question of identity; after nearly two decades, it’s not just writing about music feels inextricable from listening to music, but doing so on a publication’s timetable. When the imperative to stay current, to constantly revise a running year-end list filled with albums I don’t allow myself to listen to more than twice because it’s always onto the next week’s release slate, is no longer as strong, my day-to-day routine starts to buckle. If I’m not keeping up on hardcore and rap, what I am supposed to listen to at the gym? Glow On is three years old! If I’m not keeping up with what’s happening in the Indie Industrial Complex, what am I going to listen to when I’m doing my notes at work?
Speaking of which, the commute from work on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays is damn near 45 minutes, do I really want to be doing music writer homework with the promo pile or listen to a podcast made by my friends? Or a Spoon album? Will all of the friendships I’ve made on Twitter cease to exist if we can’t bitch about Iceage? I’ve wondered what would happen if I transposed the energy I put into checking Pitchfork or Stereogum numerous times per day to Nutrition Twitter or whatever and let me tell you, those convos and message boards are even more bonkers than anything on Rate Your Music.
So yeah, Six Feet Under really helped me synthesize everything swirling around my head right now because even if every episode begins with somebody dying, the vast majority is really about letting go, baggage, the mourning that happens on a daily basis. The most satisfying moments happen when one of the main characters finally fights back against a relationship or identity (self-made or inherited) that keeps them stuck in a victim mentality - when David finally comes out to his family, any time Nate or Brenda or Lisa say what they really feel about each other in their toxic relationships, Rico buying into partnership at Fisher & Sons and then buying himself out, Keith standing up to his homophobic, abusive dad, etc. But in pretty much every one of those situations, people revert back to being the people they’ve been all their lives, but under slightly different terms with their partners. Hell, in the time it took me to write this thing, I finished Six Feet Under and George and Ruth ended up getting back together - not living together, or raising either of Nate’s kids together, but just together, maybe not totally in a way that either wanted, but enough in a way where they sorta get their immediate needs met. They’re probably the best they can do for each other at their age.
Meanwhile, after reflexively checking the Pitchfork homepage at the customary 9 PM PST time on the day of the Conde Nast announcement, and then again at 9:15, and a few more times before going to sleep, I began to think that it would be stuck on the same 21 Savage review for eternity. And then I checked later the next day and there was a shrug of a Bruiser Wolf headliner. Some SoundCloud rapper I never heard of got Best New Music a few days later for representing Online New York to the fullest, and then The Smile’s boring-ass new album did too. I felt personally slighted when they didn’t include either glass beach or Infant Island in either “8 Albums You Should Listen To This Week” feature. Pitchfork Festival got announced for this summer and I’ve already seen a fake leak of the lineup (seeing two emo bands on the bill was the major tell).
As much as my heart goes out to the top brass who got axed, I’ve found myself thinking about the “Remember Some Guys” of bylines, the people I’ve come across over the years who knocked out a few reviews, were active on the internal message boards and then…just sorta did something else. With all due respect on their names, the Amy Granzins and Josh Loves and Kasia Galazkas and Jason Crocks. I don’t know if they ever fully divested themselves from writing or if they spend sleepless nights wondering if the time was right to get back in the game and pitch a Toro Y Moi review. Either way, the surviving editors sent their “call for pitches” email out on Monday. I’ve got a Sunday Review in the hopper and a review slated for something that reminds me of the first Yuck album and Dye it Blonde-era Smith Westerns. Leaving is easy if you’ve got some place you’ve need to be…but here I am in this gig for another season.
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