Credit: Pitchfork

Appraising Re-Appraisals

By Alex Enaholo

Pitchfork’s recent re-scoring fiasco reveals the misogynistic snobbery still haunting music criticism.

Music site consider themselves to be “the most trusted voice in music”, but I prefer to consider them as BuzzFeed for male manipulators. To celebrate its 25th birthday, the publication released a list of albums re-scored. Of all their pseudointellectual listicles this one struck a nerve, as Pitchfork – ever the contrarian – ostensibly seemed to be backing down to the will of the people. So, when it comes to music criticism, should the first spin of the turntable be the defining one? Or is there a place for re-thinking?

“I prefer to consider them as BuzzFeed for male manipulators…”

Pitchfork’s most telling re-review was of PJ Harvey’s prizewinning, turn of the millennia LP Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (SFTCSFTS). Upon initial release, they scored it a 5.4/10, describing it as “bland” and “neither good nor bad, just…there”. I’m most not exactly a neutral source on this topic, as SFTCSFTS is possibly my favourite album of all time, but the original review is ludicrous and essentially misogynistic. It is less to do with the album and more to do with the reviewer’s personal vendetta against all things mainstream.

Other criticism upon the album’s release was positive; the album averaged 4.5/5 stars and won the prestigious Mercury prize, beating Radiohead and Super Furry Animals. So, you’d think that I would be overjoyed by Pitchfork’s upgrade to an 8.5, but the re-evaluation is less to do with the album itself, and more to do with the fact that Harvey never made another like it. While the album is more noticeably polished and less abstract than her other work, the storytelling and musical composition is near perfect, and the album’s treatment of themes such as sexuality and femininity clearly have influenced artists such as Wolf Alice and MARINA – who cites Harvey as her biggest influence. 

“The album’s treatment of themes such as sexuality and femininity clearly have influenced artists such as Wolf Alice and MARINA…”

Yet, Pitchfork’s re-review is less to do with the music, and more to do with the facts that a) arena rock is cool again and b) her next few albums were more miserable. So, as the album did not lead to Harvey going full-pop – as the original review had feared – Pitchfork is allowed to like it. Pitchfork hasn’t put any effort into genuinely approaching the music with fresh ears, and rather has acted to rectify its prior wrong opinion on it. Neither the original review or re-review is concerned with the quality of SFTCSFTC, or its cultural impact. Rather both are concerned with whether or not it is socially acceptable to like.

The true purpose of this re-review is to atone for the casual misogyny and elitism of the original one. The review does pay lip-service to this: “the rampant maleness of music criticism at the time didn’t help: Even positive, eminently thoughtful reviews of the album could be off-puttingly brusque on matters of sex.” This is not enough however, as the re-score does not directly engage with the original review.

This failure to engage sums up the real problem with Pitchfork’s brand of music criticism, which is highlighted through the re-scores. Not once do they admit they were wrong. None of their re-scores deride their predecessors as a bad take, or fundamentally misconceived. Nothing is explicitly stated to be poor criticism, and this leads to the re-scores essentially feeling like a game of hot-or-not. While it is easy to debunk the SFTCSFTC review as reactionary and bitter, the re-score chooses not to and so reads as “PJ is cool now, right? Better up her score then.” 

“Nothing is explicitly stated to be poor criticism, and this leads to the re-scores essentially feeling like a game of hot-or-not…”

Likewise, the review of Grimes’ Miss Anthropocene – a downgrade – reads as a wild contrast to the original review without engaging with it, giving the impression that the publication’s mind has been changed simply by the fact that at the beginning of 2020 Grimes was likeable but, after several attempts at market manipulation via Tik-Tok, she is now a social pariah. The re-review of Prince’s Musicology goes as far as to say it explicitly: “It’s cool to like Prince now, and this was arguably not the case in 2004.”  If this is the only reason they can give for their change in opinion, then at least one of the two reviews cannot exactly be called a robust piece of criticism. More importantly, if you can’t explain why the original review was wrong, then surely the re-score is poor criticism. 

Overall, Pitchfork hit an off note with their re-scores. Their failure to engage with the original reviews by explicitly highlighting statements which were misguided, the impact of legacy, or even instances of misogyny leave the re-scores ringing hollow. If critics want their opinions to be perceived as valuable (and I think that they are), they must learn to admit when they are wrong.


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments