A Cacophony of Clickbait
Matthew Munhall | Thursday, November 20, 2014
One of the most tiresome recent examples has been Mark Kozelek’s one-sided feud against The War on Drugs, which has been reported on endlessly by Pitchfork and a myriad of other online music publications. It began at the Ottawa Folk Festival in mid-September, when the noise from The War on Drugs’ main stage set bled over to Kozelek’s concurrent Sun Kil Moon show. For the rest of the set, Kozelek disparaged the band with comments like, “I hate that beer commercial lead-guitar [expletive].”
What began as a few offhand comments at a festival snowballed due to incessant reporting on the story by music journalists. Pitchfork in particular, from its position as the most influential music outlet on the Internet, has driven this coverage. While The War on Drugs have mostly seemed confused about the whole ordeal — the band tweeted, “Just upsetting to me as a fan that’s all. We’re just doin’ what we do” — Kozelek has continued to unjustly lash out at the band and make headlines because of his behavior.
The “feud” peaked with Kozelek releasing a track titled “War on Drugs: Suck My C**k,” which Pitchfork hosted as a free MP3 download. Pitchfork also published a response from Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves criticizing Kozelek’s language of male violence (which is well worth a read). Finally, on Nov. 13 Pitchfork’s staff blog, The Pitch, published “Mark Kozelek Has Taken It Too Far This Time,” a post containing only a photo of Kim Kardashian’s nude Paper magazine shoot. The post was a knowing parody of the site’s own breathless coverage of Kozelek’s behavior, but also indicative of its own desire to attract attention.
Pitchfork has bestowed similar coverage to a rift between Ariel Pink and Grimes. In a recent interview, Pink said he had been enlisted to work on Madonna’s next record, claiming her producers could not “come up with a new techno jam for her to gyrate to and pretend that she’s 20 years old.” Soon after, Grimes called out Pink’s “delusional misogyny” on Twitter, and the comments that followed from both artists resulted in numerous articles. Most recently, Pitchfork ran a headline that read “Ariel Pink Calls Grimes ‘Stupid and Retarded.’” Just four days later, the site awarded Pink’s new album “pom pom” its Best New Music designation.
For Pitchfork, both of these stories were clickbait gold, involving well-known artists beloved by the site — this year’s albums from the Sun Kil Moon, The War on Drugs and Pink have all received its coveted Best New Music status. They also allowed numerous opportunities to post new content: the initial incident itself, the other artist’s response, criticism from other musicians, a self-satire, an MP3 premiere.
Clickbait is not necessarily bad in and of itself. Music publications frequently run all kinds of clickbait: videos of a band performing a cover on tour, year-end lists, even Pitchfork’s act of giving an album a controversial to-the-decimal-point rating. These types of posts are reliably popular for music outlets but still ostensibly about the music. The glorified gossip of Kozelek and Pink’s behavior is an unnecessary distraction from the music itself.
Reporting endlessly on these “feuds” between artists is irresponsible journalism. It encourages musicians to trash talk other artists, knowing the inevitable free publicity that will result. Personally insulting another artist is not music criticism; neither is feeding the flames and enabling trolls like Kozelek and Pink. Clickbait does not necessarily have to mark the end of smart music writing, but Pitchfork becoming the “indie TMZ” is a troubling development for artists, critics and music fans alike.