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Love (and Pitchfork) in the Time of Dead Hipsters

Poking fun at Pitchfork Media –– indie tastemaker slash never-ending bastion of cultural snobbery and Portlandia material –– is an act that is facile to the point of being self-defeating. This is the website, after all, that pioneered the decimal-digit review score and worked itself into logical convulsions deciding whether Andrew W.K. was ironically dumb or just dumb, and whether there was any discernible difference between the two positions in the first place. To call Pitchfork hilariously overwrought might be the most redundant statement in the universe. To call it pretentious would be lazy. Pitchfork is certainly both of those things, but more than that it has become a cultural artifact, Rolling Stone for the brunch-goer.

When Pitchfork launched in 1995, however, it was essentially a local hub for Minneapolis area bands and college radio station diehards. Over the next decade and a half, however, the magazine became both purveyor and documentarian-in-chief of hipster culture, churning out a number of hugely influential reviews (remember when Pitchfork singlehandedly launched the careers of Arcade Fire, The Dismemberment Plan, Interpol and Bon Iver (and thus, unintentionally, Post Malone)?) and a number of unspeakably revolting ones (remember when Ryan Schreiber thought it would be cool to write an entire review of Coltrane in ebonics?).

For better or worse, Pitchfork was a champion of something resembling a cultural movement. But let’s face it, hipsterdom was bound to die off. It had, at its core, numerous contradictions: it was a group movement built around rejecting groupthink, an anti-corporate aesthetic you could buy (good fucking riddance, Dov Charney), a pseudo-rebellion that turned not having an opinion on Animal Collective into an act of oppression. It was a culture that had a number of very problematic issues regarding race. It was the pre-distressed denim of revolutions. Its only ideological principle was a supposed anti-corporate aversion to “selling out” that was completely debased when Conde Nast gobbled up Pitchfork in 2015 as part of its continual quest to purchase the concept of culture. “Pitchfork to join the company’s esteemed editorial brands,” the headline went.

Of course, I still read - past and present tense - Pitchfork. Many people did, even as it gradually became clear we weren’t really in on the joke so much as we were the butt of it. Here’s the thing, though: Pitchfork, for the better part of the last two years, has been experiencing one of the most public and interesting identity crises in online media history. All good things come to an end, and in 2015 hipster culture was pronounced officially dead in a slew of unreadably pretentious thinkpieces (my personal favorite is this one from Vice, which opens with a line from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell).

So Pitchfork was now a publication that had lost its cultural motor. Not only that, 2016’s election marked the end of the Obama years, a halcyon backdrop that had allowed hipsterdom to thrive unchecked. Not only is hipsterdom dead in the Trump era, many of its defining features –– narcissism, self-absorption, complacency, political quietism –– represent something dangerously irresponsible and out of touch. In a sadly emblematic development, onetime hipster godfather Gavin McInnes now cozies up to white supremacists and revels in essentially being Rush Limbaugh with better clothes and more extreme beliefs.

The 2017 installment of Pitchfork’s annual music festival was thus a momentous affair. It was, in effect, a massive forum on the future of Pitchfork - and its readership - in a post-hipster America. That might not seem like much on the surface, and it probably (definitely) isn’t, but for someone who has been reading (and sharing/hating/laughing at/memorizing) Pitchfork reviews for the better part of six years this was something close to Woodstock. And, in the interest of time, I’ll lead with the fact that it was pretty damn good. Headline: Pitchfork lives to host another festival without surrendering to its own obsolescence.

Not that anyone would have doubted this based on the lineup, which leaked on Reddit prior to the festivities. It was an interesting mix of alternative music legends (Madlib, American Football, The Feelies, PJ Harvey), the daring new guard of the indie sound Pitchfork helped solidify in the mid-2000s (Mitski, Vagabon, Angel Olsen, Jeff Rosenstock) and some of the most exciting innovators in popular music today (Danny Brown, Arca, Colin Stetson, Solange). And Parliament Funkadelic, just for good measure. Also the guys who did the Stranger Things theme, because why not?

Of course, music festivals are nothing if not their headliners, and the three-act progression of LCD Soundsystem, A Tribe Called Quest and Solange was –– intentionally or not –– a thoughtful examination of the magazine’s past, present and future.

Day one was a funeral, the official death of hipster culture as we know it brought to you by the guys who made it happen in the first place. LCD Soundsystem –– since it burst onto blogs everywhere in 2002 with the hilariously enduring “Losing My Edge” –– had always thrived by branding themselves as the moral core of hipster culture. At their peak, James Murphy was the poster boy of hyper self-aware hipsters who mercilessly skewered the scene (“I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody” is the deadpan thesis statement of “Losing My Edge”) while also being hopelessly, helplessly submerged in it. Case in point: did you know that James Murphy has a wine bar in Brooklyn called “the four horsemen” (the all-lowercase is his idea) where you can purchase bread for six dollars?

As is customary of LCD Soundsystem sets, the performance was awe-inspiring. Pat Mahoney played drums like a man pursued at gun point, Nancy Whang’s keyboard solos made synth pop almost seem like a good idea again, and James Murphy proved once more that he has the reluctant rock-star gimmick down to a science. Tank-top clad concertgoers put down their PBRs and vape pens to group hug during “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” and “All My Friends” was as triumphant as ever. But Pitchfork was wise to put the band up first - there was, at the root of it, a kind of ennui. Hadn’t we seen this before, when James Murphy screamed himself hoarse at Madison Square Garden in 2011, reminding us all that New York was indeed the one pool where he’d happily drown before ending the band and making a $200 box set out of it? Isn’t making fun of hipsters even more lame than hipsters at this point? LCD was a band that had defined themselves against an endlessly mockable cultural moment that suddenly found themselves stripped of that context (in a fitting move, the once ever-present “Losing My Edge” was left off the setlist). James Murphy looked triumphant and drunk as the stage lights turned out, but he also looked old. Don’t ask me how I feel about their new album yet.

If LCD finally torpedoed off all remnants of hipster culture on Friday night, A Tribe Called Quest proved the next day why the funeral was a necessary one. This was Tribe’s first public show since the death of founding member Phife Dawg, and the show was a triumphant, poignant sendoff to his legacy. It was also, in my experience at least, the undisputed pinnacle of Pitchfork Music Festival 2017 (I didn’t get to see Solange). Tribe left a mic empty the entire night for Phife, playing pre-recorded versions of his verses when his parts came up. It was an initially jarring set-up that was as ingenious as it was powerful. For me, nothing at the festival really compared to the emotions of seeing the call-and-response section of “Check the Rhime” live, Q-Tip firing back at Phife’s disembodied cue lines. Above all, however, Tribe’s show was an unfiltered, hyper-urgent call to action. After they played the giddying “Award Tour” and “Can I Kick It?” multiple times –– Ali Muhammad spinning the record back after each repetition –– the group finished with “We the People…..” from their most recent record, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, released shortly after Trump’s election.

The world-weary ellipsis after “We the People” is in many ways emblematic of the album as a whole. That record had been a bittersweet affair, a the sound of a group of poets forcibly summoned out of retirement by developments beyond their control. Sure, comebacks are sweet, but in this case the circumstances that made Tribe so immediate and necessary again were far from pleasant.

By the time Ali Muhammad cued the thundering bass intro for “We the People……” a third time, however, any hint of uncertainty was gone. This was music with a purpose, music that needed to be heard.

“We the people!” Q-Tip led the audience after the song ended. “We all equal!


* * *

Pitchfork was an interesting venue for Tribe’s reunion, but in some ways it was a perfect follow up to LCD Soundsystem. Q-Tip’s call-and-response was a reminder of why hipsterdom was no longer viable in the age of Trump. The hipster mentality –– isolating individuality as an end in and of itself, a life lived under the threatening bogeyman of “the mainstream” –– was an outmoded form of existing in an age that requires social justice and unflinching calls for action. It was no coincidence that the hipster folk hero of old had been Justin Vernon, he who holed up in a cabin alone for months and recorded an indie-folk classic (still a fantastic record, fight me). Vernon, however, represented an idealized distillation of the American hipster’s obsession with retreating from a society that they view as fundamentally unalterable. For the assembled audience, myself very much included, ATCQ’s performance was about revealing the mix of isolationist complacency and defeatism that had subtly infiltrated hipster culture.

It’s been less than a week since A Tribe Called Quest decided to break up for good in honor of Phife Dawg. It was an inspiring, brave run of shows that I was lucky to have been some part of, albeit from an awful corner spot that meant I almost strained my left shoulder trying to catch a glimpse of Q-Tip’s face.

Of course, Pitchfork 2017 did not end on Tribe. The last act –– which, full disclosure, I did not get to see –– was Solange. If LCD Soundsystem marked the end of Pitchfork’s cultural dominion and A Tribe Called Quest highlighted the necessity for a radical rethinking of its mission, Solange’s show was Pitchfork’s case for its continued existence. A publication like Pitchfork, at the end of the day, still has cultural value if it can bring a wider audience to daring, innovative musicians and artists like Solange, whose 2016 release A Seat at the Table blended everything from soul to ambient music into an undeniable statement of personal and political discovery.

Of course, this necessitates a complete re-imagination of Pitchfork’s role. It can no longer be the imposing tastemaker constantly searching for the purest, narrowest form of what true indie music and indie culture entails. Instead, 2017 requires Pitchfork to be less of a cultural monolith and more of a platform and megaphone that serves a secondary role to the individualism and artistry of daring musicians.

As a long-suffering reader, that would be my hope at least.