Column 148 — Stars and Pitchfork; Erin McKeown tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 11:49 am November 1, 2007

There’s no love lost between Stars and Pitchfork, at least not from the Pitchfork side. Just yesterday they published a tour update on Stars, where they called the band “the most romantic theater troupe around.” Torq isn’t the first to rail against the ‘zine, and he won’t be the last.

Column 148: Critical Mass
Stars and Pitchfork

When I was interviewing Torquil Campbell, one of the driving forces behind the band Stars (see feature), there was one topic I tried to avoid. I wanted to keep the interview focused on music, not on gossip, not on business details, not on web-based controversy.

But I couldn’t help myself. If you look up Stars in that vast online research junkyard called Wikipedia, there’s a portion of the entry dedicated to Campbell’s recent scrap with Pitchfork, the all-knowing, all-seeing online bible of the indie music world. Was a day when Option and Magnet were the key critical publications for all things indie. Not anymore. Pitchfork, an online music ‘zine located at, has become a make or break critical entity for new and unknown indie bands. A rave review in Pitchfork can mean the difference between playing to 20 people on tour and 200 (or 2,000). This, despite the fact that music consumers can simply go to Myspace and listen to tracks for free and ascertain for themselves if they like a band’s music or not.

Glowing reviews by those “tastemakers” at Pitchfork have been cited for helping break bands including The Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, The Go! Team and Tapes ‘n’ Tapes. But strangely, a negative review in Pitchfork isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Just being mentioned on the site means possibly piquing the interest of some of its reported 200,000 daily readers. No, the worst thing that can happen is for Pitchfork to ignore you altogether. That means you don’t even exist.

I’m not a regular reader of Pitchfork, not because it’s a bad website, but because I generally don’t have time and almost never agree with their reviews, which are consistently too long and too wordy. When it comes to criticism, all I want to know is if a record is worth checking out. Pitchfork‘s 10-point rating system is archaic and noncommittal. The common denominator is that anything scoring over an 8.0 is good. The rest is mediocre.

Maybe that’s why Campbell was so pissed when he read Pitchfork‘s 7.4 rating of Stars’ new album, In Our Bedroom After the War. Most bands would kill for a 7.4. It probably wasn’t the rating, but the review itself that pissed him off, specifically writer Ryan Dombal’s descriptions of the songs. “The Les Mis-esque weeper ‘Barricade’ doesn’t fare as well,” the review goes. “Its storyline is trite (a couple brought together — then torn apart — by a common, radical cause!) and, accompanied by a lone piano, there’s nothing for Campbell to hide behind” and “Muddled by forced postmodern nonsense and an oddly lifeless narrative, ‘Life 2: The Unhappy Ending’ is about as boring as its title.”

Funny, but those two songs are among my favorites on the album.

For some reason, critics struggle with Stars’ lyrics. Take the All Music Guide description of the song “Personal,” a track about two people passing through the night via personal ads who never actually meet. It has one of the best lines on the album, sung by Amy Millan: “28 and bored, grieving over loss, sorry to be heavy, but heavy is the cost, heavy is the cost.” The AMG review interpreted the line this way: “‘Personal’ is a character-driven melodramatic ditty that chronicles a protagonist who places a newspaper ad and is stood up because she is too obese.”

Campbell’s response when I asked him about AMG‘s interpretation: “That’s what happens when a 16-year-old writes a review.”

He wasn’t as restrained with Pitchfork, however, which he lambasted on his Myspace page (the comments have since been removed though nothing ever really gets deleted on the Internet). He said “Barricade” is actually about two fascist soccer hooligans “who can only top a night of beating old people senseless by having rough anal sex and sniffing glue. I know, I know, figuring that out would require LISTENING to the lyrics…” Campbell went on to make some rather, um, unkind comments about Dombal, concluding with, “You know what a reviewer for Pitchfork makes? 40 bucks a review. You know what they should make? 38.50.”

AOL Music picked up on Campbell’s and Pitchfork‘s back-and-forth and asked about the controversy. “Pop music is the venue of the ridiculous,” he said in the AOL article. “If it isn’t ridiculous, it isn’t pop music. It should be simultaneously beautiful and profound and ridiculous. If you’re not amused by a piano ballad about fascist soccer hooligans, then you’re not amused by it. But I think it’s a good thing that people like us are around. I wish that journalists would write about what interests them instead of what doesn’t interest them. It just doesn’t seem to me to be very constructive.”

Adding to this discourse only gives it more relevance, yet I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask Campbell what impact the Pitchfork discussion has had on the band.

“I don’t think it’s had the slightest impact,” he said. “Most people don’t care what I think of Pitchfork and what Pitchfork thinks of me. Most people listen to music and go on with their lives. I think it’s a pretty trivial detail that only interests other journalists.”

Maybe, maybe… But in an age when the music industry seems to be in free-fall, and bands as big as Springsteen are struggling just to get noticed, is there such thing as a bad controversy? Or a bad review?

Twangy folkie Erin McKeown is playing at The Waiting Room tonight. McKeown is sort of this generation’s Ani DiFranco with a touch of K.D. Lang thrown in for good measure. It’s an early show — 8 p.m. (with apparently no opening acts), $12.

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