#170: Version Control

In an apparent effort to provoke a large swath of my age group, Pitchfork announced earlier this week that it was revising its numeric ratings for 19 albums that the site had reviewed over the past 20 years. The short intro to the blog post sheepishly explained the reasoning: “The truth is we are always litigating how we feel about a piece of music, revising opinions based on context, culture, who we’ve become, who we once were. We can’t change what we said, but we are almost always changing how we feel about it in ways both small and large…(These adjustments) are hypothetical, which is to say, not canon, but rather a fun little diversion” (the bold text is Pitchfork’s, not mine). With great power comes such awkward responsibility. Founded by Ryan Schreiber in his parents’ Minneapolis basement in 1995, Pitchfork has grown up with the internet, a process that culminated in the site’s 2015 acquisition by Conde Nast and solidification its of mainstream dominance. Pitchfork originated in the elitist milieu that had characterized rock music criticism for decades prior, its iconoclastic writers proudly flaunting their esoteric knowledge and frequent contempt for mainstream sentiment; by the mid-‘00s the site would help to usher out that perspective and replace it with the big tent of poptimism, which remains criticism’s guiding principle today. I am not making a value judgment about either approach here, but the paradigm shift had major implications for how Pitchfork would navigate the transition.

When I say that Pitchfork has grown up with the internet, I mean that it has evolved from a mischievous adolescence—as an essentially analog media outlet that happened to be online—into a more boring, responsible, and financially stable adulthood during which it became a fully digital juggernaut that learned to embrace the contradictions of 21st-century culture. One of those contradictions, particularly thorny if you’re in the business of canonizing popular music, is that all digital content is inherently fluid and nothing is immutable (I know, I know, blockchain solves this). When Pitchfork’s editorial staff declares in bold text that its revised ratings are “not canon,” it’s hard not to wonder whether it means the exact opposite of that. After all, the false precision of Pitchfork’s notorious 100-point rating scale, ranging between the elusive extremes of 0.0 and 10.0, has always been the key to the whole endeavor. I originally interpreted this system as a tongue-in-cheek gesture, poking fun at critics’ self-importance and susceptibility to overanalysis. But the outward poptimist humility that characterized Pitchfork’s mainstream ascent concealed a crucial secret: The site started taking its numeric ratings more seriously, not less, losing sight of the fact that those scores have always been arbitrary and random (if the numeric ratings are not canon, after all, why bother changing them?) It was no longer possible to lightheartedly slap a young indie band with a near-zero score—a faux-objective dismissal of an artist’s value by such an influential publication was suddenly too harsh a punishment. Pitchfork’s archive happened to by overflowing with evidence of its youthful abrasiveness, a problem it rectified by purging most of the reviews from its early years, and in some cases replacing them with new on-brand versions. For every rescored album on this week’s list, however, there are hundreds more that vanished unacknowledged, many too cringe to revisit.

As an elder millennial, my generation faces a crisis that Pitchfork’s revisions threw into exquisite relief this week. Deep down, we still expect certain types of content to remain stable over long periods of time, and that some relatively durable archive of cultural history will age with us. Until about ten years ago, that was largely true, or at least the illusion of it was. Trends and preferences would whipsaw in ten- or twenty-year cycles but Robert Christgau’s A+ reviews would remain indelible on dust-gathering Village Voice pages, reminding us which once-dominant taste patterns we were momentarily rejecting and embracing if we even dared to go back and check (and at least with Christgau’s scoring system we knew the ratings were the arbitrary decisions of one guy). Things change just as fast now but it’s increasingly difficult to compare them against the past, because Pitchfork’s reviews now mutate to match whatever the present zeitgeist happens to be. As of October 2021, Interpol’s first album is a 7.0, not a 9.5, but in time, Interpol will presumably be “better” again, while something reviewed favorably this week will have vanished altogether. I tweeted earlier today that Pitchfork should embrace this emergent volatility and make its ratings fully dynamic, allowing them to fluctuate constantly like stock prices and displaying the values on a realtime feed. Ephemerality is quickly replacing durability as a cultural norm and before long we won’t even expect to be able to find anything posted online in the past—the ‘00s internet is already degrading into a black hole, which means the first decade that was significantly documented via digital media will increasingly be an ineffable mystery to those who missed it as well as to those who were there. One of software’s most powerful qualities is transforming objects that once seemed static into dynamic information flows, which we now experience the way we experience weather: reacting to its newest variations but indifferent to its past states, even if they meant just as much to us when they happened.

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