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Thursday, April 03, 2003
So I read Pitchfork a lot. Some people really dislike them, and I can see that, but I like those crazy kids, even if I think they're wrong sometimes. They seem to only get wackos mailing them, though, so a while back I started sending them more intelligent criticism, or at least criticism that doesn't sound like it was written by a seventh-grader. They seem to like this and publish it sometimes, and ignore it other times, and that's OK too.
Then came the White Stripes review, and I wrote in, and I got a letter back. Here's the saga--enjoy.
re: "You Suck! White Stripes Rock!" letter #3,381
At the end of his review of the White Stripes' "Elephant," Brent DiCresenzo writes:
"People who just want some fried chicken may drive-thru and get a quick fix, but
remember that underneath the spirits of the heroes are waiting for a true
It's a convenient tie-up to the interesting factoid that led off the review, but
I'm confused by the argument. He seems to be saying that because there are
pop--or, horrors, "twee"--elements to the album, the White Stripes are as
bankrupt as fast food chicken and the discerning listener (one without, ahem,
"Questionable Musical Taste"--not baiting the "you guys are indie snobs!"
argument there, are you Brent?) will go...what, listen to the Stooges and Robert
Johnson again? This is where he loses me, and it's where the traditionalist
argument always loses me. Are certain genres just dead and any attempt to
revive them is morally wrong? It's an especially strange argument coming from,
you know, a critic reviewing new music.
I guess I'm the wrong target for this argument anyway, since I think the idea of
a Church's Chicken at The Crossroads is AWESOME. I want to go there and eat
fried chicken, because fried chicken tastes good. I want to go there and piss
on the shrine to Robert Johnson and form a garage-rock band with two guys and
two girls wearing trucker hats and call ourselves "Robert Johnson's Blues Band"
and get signed to Atlantic and get a video on MTV featuring a digitally animated
picture of Robert Johnson playing guitar with us. Robert Johnson wasn't a god
because he was black and poor. He was a man just like the rest of us and
there's nothing served by treating him like one except traditionalists'
(who--for the record--I'm not necessarily grouping Brent with, he just seems to
be copping their party line) fragile senses of self-worth. C'mon, kids--what's
more rock 'n' roll than a fast food joint on a holy place?
Of course, you have every right to dislike the White Stripes album--I'll admit
that I wasn't so crazy about it for a week or two, although now I think it's
great. And, fair enough, if you're looking for a straight blues album it won't
be to your temperment, and if you think the last song is useless and cheeky
instead of kind of cute and unassuming (although I know most male rock crits
hate "cute" with a passion--but c'mon guys, lighten up here), and if you think
Meg's drumming is naive instead of, well, naive and pretty fucking powerful,
then the review makes sense, although it did seem a bit harsh for the 6.9 at the
top. Still, it does look a wee bit suspicious for Pitchfork to slap down the
first album after a mainstream breakthrough for an indie band, and I have a hard
time seeing what justifies the over 2-point drop in rating from White Blood
Cells to this. Yeah yeah yeah, different reviewers, but if Ryan saw fit to
co-sign the WBC review, I have a hard time swallowing that particular argument
here. Anyway, like I say, lighten up--Jack White can fuck Robert Johnson's
corpse and appear on TRL for all I care, Elephant is a fun, good album that I'll
be listening to for quite a while.
From: Robert DiCrescenzo
actually it's letter #2. The positive letters are far outweighing the
negative. Sure, this might just imply that people aren't writing me like
the used to, but, uh...
let me explain. I'm not saying the White Stripe's ALBUM (not the "WHITE
STRIPES" as an entity- a point which people often forget when reading a
RECORD review) is not very good, not just because they're "indie" and
"contemporary." It's not good because it fails at what it tries to
accomplish. A lot of my review is coming from the fact that everyone else
DOES compare them to Zeppelin and Son House and such. Zeppelin is not
better because they're older, but because THEY'RE FUCKING 100 TIMES MORE
TALENTED. Sorry! I was hoping to set out to say that the White Stripes
won't be so highly regarded years from now. These perfect album ratings for
Elephant are just absurd. De Stijl was their best album, and critics are
just compensating for the fact they didn't even know who the band was at
Elephant is not as good as White Blood Cells. Deal with it. This is why it
got two points lower (not to mention the fact Ryan's tastes are different
than my own). Should "Preservation Act 1" been giving an equal review to
"Lola"? I review albums, not bands.
For the most part I would say I am a traditionalist, not because I'm an old
crank who thinks kids today don't make good music. Robert Johnson is not
better than Jack White because he's dead, old, and black, he's better
because when he sings "hellhound on my trail" you fucking FEEL the guy's
pain. When Jack White sings "a seven nation army couldn't hold me back" I
don't feel like he's fighting for everything. I feel like he's trying to
feign cool. He may not be, but his talents won't let him emote like Robert
Johnson. Or Jimmy Page.
Just as you bemoan critics being traditionalists, I bemoan neophiles who
think the White Stripes should be hailed just because they're fresh.
There's no difference.
Please believe me on this. I'm very passionate about music, new and old. I
try to compare music on it's own merits and unhandicapped from the lens of
lore, indieness, or whatever.
thanks for reading
I'm not doubting that you were trying to review the record, not the band (your
reviews are generally very evenhanded), but what I was saying in my letter that
it seems clear that you slipped here a decent number of times. For instance,
you even say in your reply that you're reacting in no small part to the album's
critical assesment in other places. To clarify, though: just because someone's
comparing them to Zep doesn't necessarily mean that they think they're as good
as Zep, just that they sound like 'em, and just because the album's getting a
lot of perfect ratings (which are, agreed, inaccurate) doesn't mean you have to
skew yours lower to balance out the Rotton Tomatos average or something. I
actually liked De Stijl better, too--I don't even own White Blood Cells (please
imagine this clause spoken in a music-nerd voice)--but I still contend that I
think you'd have given Elephant a point more if "Fell In Love With a Girl"
wasn't on MTV. But obviously you can't prove that you were unbiased and I can't
prove that you were biased beyond what I've already said, and that's OK too. I
just think that maybe you're less hearing insincerity in White's singing and
more reading what he says in "459 press articles on The White Stripes over the
last two years" and deciding that he's insincere. But I could be wrong.
Brent, I don't "think the White Stripes should be hailed just because they're
fresh." I think they've already been hailed, and whatever. Good for them. Now
I just want the album to be reviewed fairly. Like I said before, it's clear
we're coming from different perspectives--I don't care if Jack White sings in a
Bozo the clown voice and plays guitar like a 2nd-week Mel Bay student as long as
the songs are good, which I think that, on Elephant, they very much are. Is
there some damage that's going to be done to music if they are successful? That
seems to be what you're implying.
I cc'ed ryan on the original letter--and I should have made this clearer, I
admit--because I think having a traditionalist review a White Stripes album is
like asking a shark to review a flounder. They're a pop band, in no small part,
which obviously you know. I just think that you anger seems a little misplaced
in the review (especially the last line that I quoted originally) when, like I'm
saying here, they're just basically not your thing, and that's a bit different
from them being a Church's Chicken on Robert Johnson's shrine.
Thanks for the reply.
From: Robert DiCrescenzo
I swear on a bible (sounds like Jack!) that I reviewed this album fairly! I
thought about this review for a much longer period than other albums. I'm
so far past caring about hipness. The fact they were on MTV makes me like
them even more. Really, if I get you to believe one thing, believe that I
have no regard for fucking hipness, indieness, mtv, fame, or whatever. If
that comes across, I can understand, as it's one of my main reservations in
writing for Pitchfork, who I find to be way too concerned with indieness.
See, I don't think the White Stripes even SOUND like Led Zeppelin. That's
like saying Of Montreal are like the Beatles. It's really lazy to just
compare them to the biggest heavy blues/rock band ever. Why not Canned
Heat? Hawkwind? Early Fleetwood Mac? Bloodrock? That's lazy journalism
and reactionary criticism.
I appreciate that you're not just cussing at me. I miss having intelligent
discussions about music. I'll be reviewing more often for sure. I hope you
[Editor's note: Hmm, just noticed that they didn't actually publish my letter. Weird. They did publish 3 less articulate letters, and none of the real positive letters that Brent said they got. Hmm hmm hmm.]
Yeah, thanks for the replies. It's always hard to prove that I'm not another
hairy-palmed Audioslave fan (or, worse, a relative of Ted Leo) but I do my best.
I've heard the complaint that Pitchfork is a bit too indie and hip, but it's not
such a big deal for me--I mean, I read it cause I like indie rock, and hipness
can be fun sometimes, too. I do live in East Williamsburg, after all (shh!) so
I don't have too much right to complain about that. I only have a problem when
folks use hipsterness and indieness in a negative way, using their separatism or
knowledge about a particular small wedge of culture to lessen others' enjoyment
of things. That seems shitty. I would much rather people recognize this kind
of neat community/subculture we have and use it for havin' fun, which sounds
pollyannaish, I guess, but there you go. I don't really have a problem with
hipster or indie attitudes leaking their way into record reviews, but I was
mentioning, say, the MTV thing because it seemed to be well-nigh impossible to
review the White Stripes and only review the album. But you said that the video
increased your opinion, so no complaints there!
The thing I and some others I've talked with do have a problem with, though, it
Pitchfork's (professed?) desire to be the anti-NME. Now, I know you're a writer
rather than an editor, and maybe I'm preaching to the choir, but I'm gonna
preach anyway. I totally understand why the NME style puts people off. It's
overblown, hype-ridden, trend-obsessed, and short-sighted. That said, at the
same time it's enormously positive and tends to get me more excited about
music--both individual artists and music as a whole--than almost anything else.
I'm sure they'll rip down, say, the Coral's next album, but fuck it, I'm a fan
now and I don't care. I can see why it would turn people off, but I feel that's
just a bit too--forgive me here--hipsterish and indie, showing an ingrained
distrust for anything people like too much. Maybe this is just me, but I feel
like when you like a band, sometimes you should be like "Oh my god this is the
greatest thing ever in the history of the entire fucking world," because that's
what music does. And when someone does that about a band you think maybe isn't
all that, you can shrug and pat their head and let them have their fun, like our
significant others do when we start getting really worked up about Eminem or
So by attempting to "correct" that, I feel like Pitchfork takes a problem that
does more good than harm and replaces it with a problem that, by an admittedly
small margin, does more harm than good. The more an album is hyped, the more
merciless the site is in tearing it down, usually--and that seems a weird
attitude when you're addressing an audience that has an aversion to hype anyway.
It would seem to be a much more useful service to try and Zen out the hype--as I
was saying about the White Stripes album, and which I'm glad to see you did--and
give a more fair assessment of its worth. The urge to tear down, while
undeniably amusing, just seems like pandering to the indie-snobs at times.
Since Pitchfork is (hold you nose here, this is gonna be painful) a bit of a
tastemaker about indie-rock, I'd like to see it elevate the tone a little,
especially towards bands that show promise. But then again, maybe I'm
overstating the problem, and maybe the audience would leave if the tearing-down
reviews slowed down, I dunno.
Again, I know you're not responsible for editorial direction of the site, so
maybe I should direct this to Ryan, but he seems unable to respond to stuff,
although Mr. Ott has is pretty good about that. All I'm saying, as I did
before, is that it seems like Ryan (or whoever) assigned the review to you
expecting a negative reaction, which is kind of weird given that Ryan's post on
Repeat a few months back about "There's No Home For You Here" seemed pretty
happy with the album. Weird and kind of shitty. It reminds me of the lead
essay in The Believer about book reviewing, when it tells the story about a
certain critic who wrote this post-9/11 essay virtuperously decrying certain
writers, including Zadie Smith, and then when the new Zadie Smith novel came out
the LRB assigned that critic the review. You can guess the outcome. The
essay's worth reading, if you haven't yet--obviously book reviewing and music
reviewing are considerably different, but there are some interesting parallels.
Anyway, I will keep reading--I still like Pitchfork, and it does occasionally
turn me on to good new stuff, most of which is electronic, where our tastes seem
to most coincide. I've learned to laugh at its grumpiness the way I've learned
to pat the NME on the head for its bright eyes, and I don't think people should
get so worked up about the reviews. Still, like it or not, Pitchfork is a major
force in the indie scene, and given that position, I for one wouldn't mind
seeing it move hipsterness from the dark side to the light side a wee bit.