Artist: Sun Kil Moon
Album: Universal Themes
Critics: Laura Snapes, Ian Cohen, Mark Richardson
Publication: Pitchfork, 2015
Writing Disorders: Ethical Anemia
I’m going to assume you’re familiar with Mark Kozelek and what he said about music writer Laura Snapes in front of a crowd of concertgoers at the Barbican Centre in London. If you haven’t, use Google — I don’t want to burn space explaining.
Mark has a history of off-color remarks, but he really whipped the Internet into a lather this time around because of the recipient’s gender. Needless to say there’s been predictable arguments lobbed across predictable battle lines. But I’m less concerned with the uproar than I am with how it’s suspiciously influenced the editorial decision-making of Pitchfork, which happens to employ Laura as a contributing editor. It involves a hushed, last-minute switch of Pitchfork’s review of Kozelek’s latest album, one that raises some serious ethical questions.
Kozelek released a new album, Universal Themes, under his solo project Sun Kil Moon on June 2nd, the day after he slandered Laura Snapes. There was palpable anticipation around this follow-up to Sun Kil Moon’s critically acclaimed album Benji, which got high praise from notoriously stingy Pitchfork critic Ian Cohen in 2014. So it made sense for Pitchfork to promptly publish its review of Universal Themes, lest competitors siphon the public’s curiosity and clicks into their own sites’ reviews. Archived tweets reveal that sure enough, Pitchfork had a review (also penned by Ian Cohen) ready to coincide with the album’s release date. The link was posted to Twitter at 7:30 a.m. on June 2nd, as expected.
And then it vanished.
The week wore on, and at least a dozen rival publications posted their own reviews. By this time, Laura had penned her own account of the London incident, which was published in The Guardian on Thursday, June 4th, and the Internet erupted in outrage. But all the while there was no word from Pitchfork — no review, no statement, nothing. So…WTF was going on?
Then on June 10th, more than a week after Cohen’s review was hastily removed almost as quickly as it had been posted, a review of Universal Themes appeared on Pitchfork, promoted through Twitter, authored by editor-in-chief Mark Richardson. The whole preceding chronology was suspicious enough, but something clearly stank when I read the review.
Richardson isn’t known for writing the most humble, straightforward reviews, and this one read like an 800-word afterthought, something you might expect to read in Entertainment Weekly but certainly not on Pitchfork. He also seems to go out of his way to belittle Sun Kil Moon from the outset, describing Kozelek’s project as “under the radar” for the last decade, a band that released “a great many records that were happily received by his (Kozelek’s) cult and mostly ignored otherwise.” This segues into the second paragraph, where Richardson writes about how “all that changed in the last 18 months” and then describes Kozalek’s public brushes with controversy, curiously omitting the fact that in those 18 months, Pitchfork had designated his prior album as “Best New Music,” written a 2,200-word review of it, and rated it a 9.2. Only in the last paragraph does he flatly name Benji as a “one-off masterpiece,” one that was deemed so by the guy who wrote the original review of Universal Themes before he got booted off the assignment after completing it.
All this — the hushed-up removal of Cohen’s review, the replacement with Richardson’s, the suspiciously vanilla (and round) 6.0 rating, and the emphasis on Kozelek’s controversial remarks made outside the recording studio (including to Laura) — is highly suspicious. And then Richardson writes this:
“The end result of these developments is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine Sun Kil Moon’s music outside of how it, and he, are discussed on social media. And since Mark Kozelek’s music is so specifically autobiographical, and because he is the central character in each of these songs, it’s doubly hard for his behavior not to have some impact.”
And then this:
“Even setting all that aside…”
To me that was the biggest stink on top of this whole skeevy situation. You can’t just make a stoic declaration that it’s hard to set aside a musician’s behavior when evaluating his art…and then suggest you’re perfectly capable of doing just that. The latter assurance of objectivity is tarnished by the former statement that subjectivity is unavoidable.
But let’s set all that aside. Let’s not question the relevance of a “specifically autobiographical” incident with Laura Snapes that came months after Mark Kozelek recorded the album, because I think there are even bigger issues at play here. This isn’t just a discussion of whether music reviews should aim for objectivity or whether they inevitably reflect an individual’s subjective experience with the music. Besides, it’s not hard to see what side Pitchfork strives to come down on, since its reviews read like transcripts of androids analyzing music and calculating relative worth based on aggregate musical data on their hard drives. You’re more likely to see the word “hamburger” than “I” or “me” in a Pitchfork review.
I think a more appropriate question is this. Should an artist’s actions and words outside of the studio recording of an album have any bearing on a music publication’s assessment of it? If so, how much? Does it matter what was said or done…to whom it was said or done…when it was said or done? Well, Pitchfork’s shady behavior here doesn’t exactly dispel the notion that if musicians say the wrong things at the wrong time to the wrong people, they’re going to catch heat for it.
I don’t deny the timing here placed Pitchfork in an awkward position. I’m assuming that the original review written by Ian Cohen A), contained no mention of the latest controversy; B), contained uncomfortably high praise with an uncomfortably high rating; or C), some combination of the two. It’s an obvious tight spot.
But that’s what journalism is all about, tight spots. So unless Pitchfork is willing to argue plausibly that there was a more pedestrian explanation for the last-minute switch, the act itself raises questions about journalistic integrity from a publication that purports to be “The essential guide to independent music and beyond.”
What’s the lesson to be learned here? If you want to say controversial, hurtful, or inflammatory things…just wait a few weeks and you’ll get away scot-free? It took about five weeks after the release of Broke with Expensive Taste for Azealia Banks to really ramp up her campaign of being “outspoken” on race and gender, and many found her remarks offensive. Or on the flip side, what about GFOTY’s controversial iMessages that Lotic deemed racist enough to pen an editorial for Pitchfork? Regardless of whether the average music critic shares that offense, does the passage of a few weeks give a musician retroactive immunity on their music reviews? What about EDM artist Ten Walls’ homophobic remarks made just last week? Are his singles and EP far enough in the past to spare critical whitewashing even though the Internet now thinks he’s human Chlamydia? Should any of these artists expect their comeuppance when they release follow-ups? Is that even fair? Is that what readers would want or expect?
What if it’s not even about abusive remarks but rather an event that causes widespread sympathy for a musician or band? Thomas Fekete, the lead guitarist for Surfer Blood, revealed his fight against a rare form of cancer less than a month before his band’s latest album was released in May. So did the heartbreaking possibility that this could well be his last record with the band affect the review of the music on his band’s album? Should it have?
In any case, let’s just assume that external events will inevitably affect a critic’s experience of an album, for better or for worse. Do you think a music review is even the appropriate venue to express displeasure or support for things that had nothing to do with the creation of the album being reviewed? When Kozelek had a very public spat with The War On Drugs after the release of Benji, did Pitchfork switch reviews or edit the incident into Cohen’s original narrative? No. Whether solicited or not, Pitchfork published a lengthy editorial written by Perfect Pussy singer Meredith Graves, where she gave her opinion on the incident and her view of Kozelek’s words. Why wasn’t a similar thing done here with Universal Themes? Was the put-down that much worse, or was it just within the statute of limitations to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes?
In the end I think this all boils down to perception. I can’t prove that Pitchfork switched the reviews with any particular intent. But just like Mark Richardson wrote that it was difficult to view Sun Kil Music’s separate and apart from social media, it’s difficult for me not to perceive this whole affair as a thinly veiled hit job as revenge for dissing an employee. Who knows? Maybe Ian Cohen also thought the album was 6.0-level mediocre but just didn’t mention the latest events, events that his superiors thought needed to be mentioned. Maybe Mark’s review is an honest assessment of the quality of the music, “setting aside” any other considerations. Maybe Ian’s review just blew donkey balls.
But the way all this was handled certainly doesn’t convince me, even setting aside my general and well-known revulsion with all things Pitchfork. Of course you could argue this is all within Pitchfork’s rights. You can even argue I’m guilty of similar charges. I change my posts on RipFork all the time because I’m obsessed with revision. I move words around, clear up typos, and on rare occasions delete old posts that I now find embarrassing. I delete regrettable tweets and Facebook status updates as much as the next man. My content is my own, just like Pitchfork’s content is their own. But I don’t generate any money from what I write on this site from ad revenue. I don’t have relationships with recording labels. I don’t promote a major music festival bearing my name. I don’t boast 2.66 million followers on Twitter. I don’t present myself as the leading voice of independent music journalism.
Pitchfork does. And stunts like this should at the very least prompt readers to ask if what they’re reading on the site is produced solely out of respect for the art…or whether it’s molded by political considerations. Then ask yourselves what you really want.