To celebrate its 15th anniversary, Pitchfork surveyed readers about their favorite albums to come out since the music website launched in 1996. The resulting People's List will be incredibly predictable for anyone familiar with the site: This is the Pitchforkiest Pitchfork list ever, with usual suspects like Arcade Fire, the Flaming Lips and Wilco cropping up again and again, while Radiohead takes both the No. 1 and No. 2 spots. (It's like shuffling through the iPod of a semi-hip coffee shop.) On top of that, the list is overwhelmingly male. It would be so easy to call Pitchfork sexist but that doesn't seem to get to the heart of what's wrong with this list. The real problem is Pitchfork's numbers-driven approach to music. Predictable, white bread lists like these are inevitable when you treat music like data.
Anyone who habitually combs through these kinds of lists will spot one glaring feature immediately. Only two of the bands in the top 20 have female members, and just 12% of voters in The People's List were women. Which is both maddening and entirely unsurprising given the boys' club atmosphere that sill pervades music fandom. Explaining why she didn't make a list, a friend of Pitchfork staffer Lindsay Zoladz writes, "To be able to fully discuss music in a world where men are going to grill you about a band’s discography and mansplain the double bass line on a Hella song to you, you have to either bow out or try to keep up with them, which is majorly bullshit." That authoritative tone and obsession with trivia make up Pitchfork's M.O., through and through.
But let's wait a moment before concluding that Pitchfork is just anti-women. After all, it's one of the very few sites out there that gives women more bylines than men. The lack of female artists on this list seems more like a nasty symptom than the underlying illness. The survey format could be the culprit. Crowd-sourced rankings like these always average out the most interesting choices, allowing the most middle-of-the-road selections to rise to the top. (What's up, Interpol.) So, in a way, statistics might be to blame for the blandness of the People's List.
Pitchfork has always been an anal-retentive, numbers-driven machine. Their reviews suggest that there's a significant gulf between an album given a 6.4 and an album given a 6.5. They draft lists compulsively, attaching stone-cold numerical rankings to albums that emerge from very different contexts. And their reviews often read like a baseball player's stat sheet, full of record label catalogue numbers, precise recording dates, gear specs, and other obscure figures that make Pitchfork a closer cousin to Sabermetrics, than, say, Rolling Stone. Talking about music in numerical terms codes Pitchfork's discourse as masculine. That's not to say that women are scared off by numbers, but geeking out over numbers has long been culturally framed as a "male" activity. (Are there female stat geeks? Sure. But not a very large percentage, we'd guess.) And aside from the issue of gender, discussing music through math simply feels bloodless. In the Pitchforkian approach, music isn't something to be enjoyed, it's something to be catalogued. Records aren't a source of pleasure, they're widgets that need to be placed into vertically-descending cubbyholes.
For the most part, the music on The People's List is good stuff. But it's stuff that's won't surprise anyone who's visited Pitchfork a few times over the last couple of years. You get no sense of why individual, flesh-and-blood human beings are passionate about music, but you do get a sense of what music large swaths of people—predominantly number-crunching dudes—can all agree on.