Pitchfork Staff Writer & New York Magazine Pop Critic, Nitsuh Abebe
There’s this idea that floats around — the one where critics are mostly just snobs and know-it-alls, the people who have heard everything and live to tell you why your taste is bad and what you should be listening to instead. But that isn’t really the goal, right? – Nitsuh Abebe
It can be difficult to grasp the speed at which the internet has moved, and, in moving, changed our perceptions of what is both normal and possible. Just ten years ago the web was a very different place. Blogs were only just gaining traction, and if you wanted any kind of group interaction with someone, small web boards and e-mail listservs were sometimes your best bet. No Twitter. No Facebook.
Ten years ago, current New York Magazine pop music critic Nitsuh Abebe was toiling away at a desk job, spending his lunch breaks and free moments sifting through threads on various message boards geared toward fans of independent music. Laboring in obscurity like any young twenty-something with literary aspirations and a boring day gig.
Over time he became acquainted with another young man, Ryan Schreiber, whose small music website, Pitchfork Media, would one day grow to become the most influential taste-making site in the history of internet-based music criticism. The Rolling Stone of a web 2.0 generation. Abebe began writing for Pitchfork in 2002, when it was still a fledgling startup. He still contributes regularly to the site, most recently in the form of his insightful “Why We Fight” column.
Abebe’s work stands out amongst music critics, particularly Pitchfork’s stable of writers, for its lack of pretension and condescension. For all their brilliance (Brett DiCrescenzo was a genius of hyperbole and creative metaphor), Pitchfork’s writers have been derided for regularly coming off as pretentious, mean-spirited, and generally riding fairly high on the horse. Some readers have found them galling to the point that they’ve launched entire retribution sites. You’d think Abebe would be an heir of that legacy, but his tone is anything but snide. Instead, it’s filled with a refreshing curiosity, open humility, and an apparent lack of interest in defending any particular corner of the music world. To give you an idea of what I mean, allow me to quote at length from the piece with which Abebe introduced himself to the readers of New York back in October of 2010.
There’s this idea that floats around — the one where critics are mostly just snobs and know-it-alls, the people who have heard everything and live to tell you why your taste is bad and what you should be listening to instead. But that isn’t really the goal, right? No one person can hear more than a tiny sliver of everything, and these days, you can listen just as easily for yourself. When it comes to writing about music, the things I love are still the same things I loved about those behind-the-gym arguments — the same happy, ongoing conversations that are happening when friends clash over what to listen to during a long drive, strangers chat at shows, or kids split earbuds and marvel at some new song. Conversations where there’s no right or wrong, just all the surprising ideas that crop up when we’re trying to work out why one person’s voice moves me but annoys you, or why some act strikes you as the greatest thing going but makes the next listener want to punch somebody.
After reading several of Abebe’s pieces, including one column in particular in which he talks about everything from the act of discussing music with people whose tastes diverge wildly from his own (and wincing at the aforementioned DiCrescenzo’s cynical sarcasm), to the generation gap between people of his generation and those younger folks who became invested in the My Chemical Romance wave of MySpace bands, and then ties in the rise of Skrillex, I knew I had to speak with him.
Professional music criticism would seem to be the prototypical watched-pot-never-boils career. Being hell-bent on becoming the next Lester Bangs guarantees you nothing in an industry with so few openings. I figured it might be one of those things you have to just back into through a confluence of luck and circumstance. Abebe confirmed my suspicions.
“To be honest I tried to avoid (becoming a critic) for a while. When I was younger, when I was just getting out of college, I wrote really short reviews for databases, but that was just because I needed some sort of a job. There were times I would think about freelancing, like when I moved to New York for grad school. But it just wasn’t a career path that seemed particularly gratifying. For a long time I was focused on my fiction.”
Then his acquaintance with Schreiber turned into an opportunity to write for a publication whose cultural stock would skyrocket on a pace to match shares of Google, and when New York launched their search for a new pop critic a year and a half ago the 34 year-old Abebe was poised to land a full-time gig. In wrapping up 2011 with a list of 50 of his favorite songs from the previous year you get a glimpse into what the search committee must have seen in Abebe.
Did you hear all the music released this year? That’s a trick question: You couldn’t have. It’s impossible, time-wise. Especially if you take time out to eat, bathe, talk to people, live your life, or — this is the most dangerous one — listen to any one thing repeatedly. That’s just one of many reasons I’ve never been good at trying to list the “best” albums or the “best” singles of the year: There is a ton of music in the world, and I only have one set of ears, and all our ears are different. So I tend to finish the year with a lot of albums and songs that I love and care about, and very little desire to tell anyone they’re “better” than anything else — just a scattering of music that meant something to me…
The guy doesn’t just own the inherent subjectivity of his profession; he embraces it. It’s a choice, or maybe just a psychological state, that lends his writing an unfettered and disinhibited quality. Abebe writes like someone freed from the tyranny of trying to be cool. I asked him if he was friends with other music critics.
“Music critics are good people!” he laughed. “A lot of what comes off as elitism to other people is due to them being opinionated. Sometimes very strongly opinionated. They’re passionate about the music they love and they want to get that across.”
I articulated my feeling that his work seemed free from the kinds of “strong opinions” that smack of elitism.
“I may not have that particular gene, you’re right. People like different things. That seems very basic to me. It’s not something that has to be argued out. I can’t imagine having to fight it out with somebody over music. I’m not saying that’s necessarily very good. That’s part of what music criticism is about. But, in terms of expertise, there aren’t any areas of music that I feel a particular expertise around. I guess that helps. I like to approach things just as a listener, not necessarily as somebody who is an expert in the history and workings of a genre or style and has a vested interest in what happens.”
Abebe’s protestations on their behalf notwithstanding, Pitchfork’s writers in particular, in addition to possessing undeniable enthusiasm and knowledge in spades, seem to operate out of a kind of inscrutable impunity. They’ll deliver a glowing review of a record based on the Hubble Space Telescope created by a jazz guitarist who used to be in a punk band called the Pygmy Shrews, and then turn around and do postmodern semiotic gymnastics while praising mainstream commercial gangster rappers. The next day they’ll be bashing a widely lauded rock act while flogging the supposed greatness of an extreme noise group from Detroit. It’s a dichotomy that, after a while, can’t help but seem like the reflex of insecure white men desperate for credibility. You start to wonder if the emperor’s really wearing any clothes.
Over the years the editorial staff has conspicuously removed some of the more egregious reviews from the site, like the one in which they canned Radiohead’s Kid A. All the impression management conveys the sense of a crown that lies very heavy indeed. And yet, any record review, at Pitchfork or anywhere else, is for all intents and purposes the work of an individual, not a collective. Abebe reminded me of this while delivering about his take on the site.
“Ultimately it’s a bunch of guys. Unfortunately, it’s mostly guys. But it’s a bunch of people with different opinions, who argue internally, as people will. People view it as this unified voice, or orthodox voice. In fact there’s a diversity of voice. In terms of it being viewed as pretentious or elitist, a lot of the time when it reads that way it’s a result of critics really attempting to do all the homework. They have this strong opinion that they want to communicate. People who aren’t as invested will read that as pretentious or talking over their head. It (Pitchfork) wants to talk about niche things.”
In one of his “Why We Fight” pieces, Abebe employs a brilliant iceberg analogy in an attempt to explain how different people view music, and how their mystification with other points of view can lead them toward either curiosity or disdain. It is one of several places in his writing where he has undertaken a discussion of what he likens to different dialects in people’s approach to music.
Ironically, given the infamy of that 1,200 word Kid A review (it should be noted that Brett DiCrescenzo no longer writes for Pitchfork and was discredited in a Jason Blair-esque scandal involving the fabrication of details involving the Beastie Boys), Abebe’s iceberg analogy uses Thom Yorke and company as an example. When I brought the iceberg up in our interview he chuckled heartily.
“There’s plenty of people at Pitchfork who like Radiohead! If someone wants to talk about music at the level they themselves are on, people may not want that. Critics either don’t think about that, and let the chips fall where they may, or they’re aware of it.”
He understands, correctly, that any discussion of subjective material forces one to acknowledge that there will always be people who don’t view things the same. That’s life. Which doesn’t explain away the stereotype of music writers as undersexed hatchet-men battling Napoleon complexes, but is a good reminder as to why a minority of them actually turn out that way. It’s at least in part because, as Abebe notes, they want to communicate their strongly held feelings and opinions to other people. This universal human desire is one he shares. Despite not wanting to “fight it out over music,” Abebe admitted to me that, “for some reason it bothers me internally that there is someone out there who views things differently that I do, and that they’re going to think I’m an asshole.”
The delight Abebe takes in engaging and unpacking the thousands of different dialects an increasingly splintered world provides to consumers of music is evident in the range of his work. In the context of his own analogy he would be a hyperpolyglot, conversant, if not fluent, in many dialects. I asked him how he lived in the tension of wanting to enjoy and come to music as “just a listener,” while also taking obvious pleasure in diving into the minutia of all those dialects, which must crop up unavoidably, like Spanish in a dream. The age old quandary around mixing work and pleasure.
In answering, he delineated between writing for Pitchfork and writing for New York, viewing the former as a special interest publication struggling to deal with a vast readership, while the latter, a general interest title, feels no pressure to do anything other than cater to a broad, more general audience.
“As for the dialect issue, one of the things that makes working at New York Magazine a workable thing for me is that it’s a general interest publication. If you’re going to write a record review, you need to have a general understanding of where it comes from. But writing there, you’re writing for a general audience, not people with specific knowledge of some genre. It doesn’t involve defending the nitty-gritty inner workings of a genre. I write under the rubric of “pop,” which means writing about popular music, not how it works within specific sub-genres or scenes.
“I don’t know that there’s a huge difference between listening to things for work and listening to things for pleasure. They should be as close as possible. I try not to listen to things in a verbal way. That gets shut off. I try to listen to music as a human being.”
In writing about the American approach to world music, Abebe captures the freedom inherent in the experience of simply listening to music for the joy of it. It is a feeling most people understand but one we are easily distracted from.
Right now, for instance, I’m listening to a compilation of music from Madagascar. I have zero idea whether it’s good, relative to other compilations of music from Madagascar. I don’t know what the music really means to the people it was aimed at. I can’t tell you what any of the artists are doing that makes them special or more interesting than their peers. I could be “misunderstanding” big chunks of it– maybe this song that sounds joyous to me is meant to express anger; maybe the little guitar trick that sounds so great to me is a tired old cliché to someone in Antananarivo. But it doesn’t really matter: This is one of those areas where almost everyone is thrilled to just be curious, and savor whatever uninformed personal reactions they have to the sounds themselves. When you don’t speak the dialect– can’t chop the music up as art and meaning– you go back to enjoying all the things about music that people have spent centuries saying are universal, in all the ways language isn’t.
Another occupational hazard of being a music critic lies in the reality that, given the differences in the way humans engage and process language and the written word as opposed to how we experience music, using the former to describe the latter exposes one to an abnormally high risk for grasping at bad metaphors. It’s like a meta-Chernobyl. I wanted to know if Abebe ever felt like he was overreaching when trying to describe something as ephemeral as music with language.
“Yeah, all the time. It’s hard to describe sensations, not just music itself, but the weird sensations you have and that come out of it, with words. But that’s the thing I find most fun. When I have some weird mental association and a tight word count, I have to figure out how to describe it to other people in one sentence. Maybe somebody reads that later and puts it on Twitter because they thought it was fun too. That’s the cool part.”
Anymore, weird mental associations are becoming a more and more apt way of describing the very act of listening to music. Unlike the eras of cassette tapes and hand-cranked victrolas, any moment of any song is now almost instantly accessible. I wondered out loud if this was leading to a devaluation of music or music journalism, insofar as we aren’t listening to records in their entirety as often as we used to. Record reviews have been a cornerstone of music journalism for decades, and now the record isn’t being digested in the same way. We’ve become a culture of singles, of playlists, of soundbites. Are albums endangered? Abebe thinks not.
“It’s still the way artists conceive of their work. I grew up in an era when you would take money out of your pocket and buy an album and then you would listen to that a lot because you’d paid for it. Now it’s different. The value you’re forced to put on it is different. Now the issue is sifting through material. I don’t know if that’s a problem. I wonder if anybody who bemoans these things is taking into account all the various nice things they have today. I don’t know how many people would actually push a button that sent us back to relating to things how we did twenty years ago.”
“What about attention spans?” I pressed. Is the reduction of our ability to focus on something as long as an album without fidgeting not bad? Does our consumption of music reflect a tendency toward interacting with the world in the panicked manner of a gerbil? Abebe wouldn’t take my bait.
“I’m reluctant to say that it is. Bemoaning developments in culture seems like a mug’s game. People used to listen to cassettes and say, “I listen to the whole thing because it’s too hard to fast forward.” I get the whole itchy finger thing. You want to listen to the guitar tone on the chorus. It can make some music, for lack of a better word, cheap. There’s not the same obsessive attention to detail. There’s something economic about it too, though. In the past people had these albums that took a lot of time and money to made, and that was an environment in which you could recoup that investment. We don’t live in that time anymore.”
We may not. But we still have a need to converse about our music; as craft, art, and vehicle for emotion. As long as the conversation is going, I suspect Mr. Abebe will have a seat at the table.