Like many music enthusiasts in the world, I have a love/hate relationship with Pitchfork. My most exhilarating encounters with music criticism occurred while reading Brent DiCrescenzo’s outrageous (yet emotionally stirring!!!) reviews while I was still in high school. Pitchfork has informed the way I conceptualize music; it created the first paradigm for richly informed, detailed, obsessive music criticism, thereby driving the blurb-driven snark machines of Rolling Stone and Spin into the bitter, bitter dirt of irrelevance. Also, Pitchfork has contributed to my vision for a blog like this one, in which I deconstruct a Beyonce single in like 1000 words.
Back in 2005, DiCrescenzo wrote a column chronicling various indie prototypes created in Pfork’s reviews, among them an intellectual female artist known as “The Stef,” and the freak-man-boy known as “The Sloth.” In it, he describes Pitchfork writer’s analyses (both underlying and upfront) of women musicians:
Specifically, writers paint Fiona Apple and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall as hormonally capricious victim-savants and read all their lyrics like Psy.D parents unlocking a daughter’s pink diary, while Devendra Banhart’s jabberwocky skews as fecund genius.
When convenient, male songwriters slip into omniscient skin to amuse and illuminate, while female songwriters meddle in their first-person emotions, unable to escape the black hole of their romantic astrology. Naturally, emotional analysis always overshadows technical musicianship in Stef reviews.
In other words, reviewers focus on the emotional qualities of women artists’ work, while they are more generous with men, granting them agency over their identity.
Too bad no one ever heeded his words over at the magazine. Despite Pfork’s “Best New Music” section featuring a larger proportion of women-led acts than perhaps ever before, the language of the reviews stirs in me a reaction similar to that of feminist bloggers‘ responses to The New Republic’s recent profile of Sonya Sotomayor. (That’s a whole ‘nother controversy, but one that revolves around the reading of a female subject through a lens of motherhood and unhinged emotionality.) Do a close, or fuck, a distant reading of some of these reviews, and all the acceptable feminine identities are neatly rolled out in a matter of four goddamn sentences, then the woman artist in question will be shoved into each and every niche, until she is a sex symbol, a princess (!!), a mother, and an earth-goddess.
So, czech out the latest example, from the review of St. Vincent’s Actor.
Annie Clark, the musician otherwise known as St. Vincent, projects an aura of eerie perfection– beautiful, poised, good-humored, and well-adjusted to a degree uncommon for rock performers, let alone ordinary people. She’s clearly not oblivious to her disarming qualities. On the covers of both her albums, her wide eyes and porcelain features give her the appearance of a cartoon princess come to life, and in the songs contained therein, she sings with the measured, patient tones of a benevolent, maternal authority figure. The thing that separates Clark from any number of earth mother Lilith Fair types, however, is her eagerness to subvert that effect. Her album covers may showcase her pretty face, but her blank expression and the tight framing leave the images feeling uncomfortably ambiguous. Her voice and arrangements are often mellow and soothing, but those sounds mainly serve as context as she exposes undercurrents of anxiety and discomfort hidden just beneath a gorgeous façade.
Clearly, St. Vincent has an authoritative presence; but the critic here qualifies her assertive vocal tendencies as “maternal,” for no reason I can tell other than Ms. Clark has a woman’s voice. And, Lilith Fair? I don’t hear much 90’s lesbian music going on here; St. Vincent is more akin to those indie musicians pushing the classical envelope. Again, the only thing I imagine would conjure such a comparison would be her womanly voice.
Also, she’s a pretty pretty princess.
If Dicrescenzo is arguing that critics assume an insulting lack of agency on the behalf of women artists’ identities, this review pats St. Vincent on the back for being shifty; she has stealthily avoided all the traps pfork has set up for her.
With that in mind, the album is perfectly titled, as Actor proves St. Vincent as an artist capable of crafting believable, complicated characters with compassion, insight, and exacting skill.
“Thanks, guys! I am capable!” I’m certain that’s what Ms. Clark was thinking when she read that.
You know who else is capable? Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Check out the last sentence of the recent review of Two Suns:
Not only does Khan hold her own, there are moments when she holds his, too [on the song The Big Sleep]. That she’s capable of doing so is evidence enough that we should be paying attention.
Apparently Pfork needs a lot of proof from the women artists they review. I find it uncanny, not to mention lazy, that these two reviews end almost identically. Furthermore, the fact that Khan “holds her own” with a man is supposed to prove to us we can pay attention now? Thanks for the permission.
Then again, I am relieved that the critic even came to that conclusion, given his best efforts to totally undermine the seriousness or aesthetic worth of Bat For Lashes in his opening sentence:
Natasha Khan likes pretty things: fur, gold, melody, the moon, feathers, things that sparkle, chords that resolve.
The thing I am most shocked about is the weird lack of awareness running through these articles. Aren’t these music critic dudes at all sensitive to the potentially cringe-inducing usage of words like, “capable” or “pretty” or “maternal?” Didn’t these hip young men ever take a gender studies class? Don’t their girlfriends get annoyed with them? Have they ever talked to a woman?
I am not proposing censorship, I am proposing a little sensitivity. I am delighted that women artists are being reviewed favorably by Pfork, but I won’t be satisfied until they apply the language they use in reviews of dude bands/acts to the womenfolk.