Pitchfork and Hipster Runoff: Two Sides of the Same Coin?


Today is the day the hipster universe imploded, like a jumped shark biting its own tale. All well-educated, urban, white 20-somethings who have ever worn a feathered headband or sported a statement mustache must hereby pick a side. Because when you see Hipster Runoff’s Alt Report run a headline like, “Pitchfork writes article about brilliance/shittiness of HIPSTER RUNOFF,” complete with a “Pitchfork vs. Hipster Runoffs Blog Wars” graphic, you know it’s on.

The blog’s response to Nitsuh Abebe’s essay “A Brief History of Knowingness and Irony” is classic HRO, featuring feigned confusion, many unanswerable questions, and this money quote: “Not even sure what the message of the article is about, just feeling ‘incredibly culturally relevant’ after reading the HRO blog name in Pitchfork. Feel like a bro in the 1970s who got blurbed about in Rolling Stone Magazine.” But after we stopped laughing and started thinking, we couldn’t help but wonder: Aren’t Pitchfork and HRO just two occasionally depressing extremes of hipster culture (a.k.a. the culture of “knowingness”) in 2010?

Let’s look for a moment at Pitchfork, which, in its decade of existence, has come to define hipster music taste. In fact, HRO’s typical, ironically breathless description of it (“Pitchfork Media is a popular music website which as [sic] evolved into the most influential music media outlet in the modern world”) isn’t as hyperbolic as Carles may have intended. What sets Pitchfork apart from both the mainstream music media (your Rolling Stone, Spin, and NME, say) and the newer wave of MP3 blogs? Well, unlike the new, exuberant wave of bloggers, Pitchfork (usually to its credit, but often enough to its detriment) does serious criticism. But its values are different than the older generation of magazines, which reserve most of their pages for well-established acts with lots of marketing money behind them and oodles of newsstand appeal.

Pitchfork’s niche is as a gatekeeper of the new and obscure. Sure, like any group of writers in their 20s and 30s, they show their populism and diversity through an appreciation for big-name hip-hop stars (although they have little to no patience for radio rock; see a recent 2.9 rating on a Hole record that otherwise garnered generally positive reviews). But their real bread and butter is breaking new bands, smacking down artists and movements that don’t meet their standards, and generally geeking out on their vast knowledge of obscure musical genres and scenes and periods.

There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, we’ve been known to indulge in similar forms of nerdery), but it is endemic of one prominent strain of the hipster personality type: knowledge fetishism. On Pitchfork, unexplained references to minimalist composers and long-forgotten bluesmen are everywhere, a constant confirmation of both the writer’s knowledge and the audience’s sophistication.

And that’s what’s kind of mind-boggling about Abebe writing an analysis of “knowingness” for Pitchfork, taking apart one of the site’s greatest darlings, LCD Soundsystem, HRO, and “the Internet” as a whole without holding up a mirror to the very outlet that published the article.

Abebe has the following to say about HRO:

This idea of knowingness, though– our relationship with it can get complicated. Right now, one of the internet’s most successful bastions of knowingness is a blog called Hipster Runoff, a performance that’s almost nothing but knowing: It shrugs, it takes an arch, pseudo-scientific tone, it puts every other word in scare quotes. Here you go, it seems to say: Here is your weird market of hipness and cool. The end. You can take it as withering satire, if you want to, because its skewers are dead on target. Of course, if its pseudonymous author really thought the market of cool were that pointless and vacuous, why spend so much time thinking about it– why know it well enough to be savvy? It’s not so much a satire as a whole performance of knowingness. And even if I don’t often have the stomach for it, I can’t pretend the performance isn’t an immaculate one: it’s knowingness raised to the level of poetry, free of the burden of “intent” or sincerity or any point beyond what the reader reflects out of it. It goes beyond “the author is dead” and turns the author into some kind of zombie.

But then Abebe goes and includes a question in the final paragraph of the very same article that highlights to us Pitchfork’s specific strain of performed knowingness:

“I’m not sure I want to think about the spectrum of ways people might relate to Xiu Xiu; I love thinking about it when it comes to Why?”

As Abebe’s audience, we’re supposed to know independent music well enough to recognize what might be upsetting and unsavory about contemplating the full range of Xiu Xiu’s fandom while celebrating the collage of cultures that attracts people to Why? Instead of going farther into that, he simply leaves those of us who know both bands feeling proud of ourselves for catching his drift. Those who don’t are consigned to a frantic Google search. If that isn’t a performance of knowingness (albeit of a variety distinct from HRO’s ironic/absurdist version), we’re not sure what is.