The Airborne Toxic Event Tries To Kill Pitchfork With Kindness

Lucas Jensen | September 18, 2008 2:00 am

Uh-oh. It looks like we have ourselves another open letter to Pitchfork! After Ian Cohen’s 1.6 defenestration of The Airborne Toxic Event’s new self-titled disc, the band decided to craft a response to Cohen (and Pitchfork by extension) and throw it out there to the Internet, which, of course, lapped it up.

In my just-concluded days as a publicist, I generally discouraged clients–and co-workers–from striking back at publications that just gave them scathing reviews, because once the complaint gets out there you end up looking silly. (Exhibit A: Chris Ott vs. the Decemberists. Exhibit B: Philebrity vs. Solid PR.) You are not going to win.

Of course, the big baddie of them all is Pitchfork, notorious dispensers of smackdowns on their 100-point ordinal scale. Listen, there were times that I wanted to wring their necks. One band’s entire PR campaign collapsed after a particularly mean 4.4 that got a number of the lyrics wrong and accused the singer of affecting a Southern accent (it is very real). After it happened everybody I promoted to said, “I heard that record sucked.” Okay, see…so now I’m doing it. See what you made me do, TATE?

My point, though, stands: You don’t want to get in a pissing contest with someone whose job it is to write opinions about your work. You are never going to win. You come off looking like a whiner or, even worse, a publicity hound–Pitchfork gets a lot of pageviews, and people are talking about The Airborne Toxic Event who probably weren’t before. I bet their MySpace page, which is linked from the review, blew up. And I bet a lot of people heard the music and agreed and many more heard it and liked it. It’s pretty palatable stuff, which is kind of Cohen’s point, whether you agree or disagree (I have not yet formed an opinion, and I do know some of the people involved here).

Reviews with a score as low as 1.6 generate a lot of discussion. As a PR flack, I always thought that 6.0s and the like, while generally positive, never generated the buzz for me that the 2.0s or the 8.9s did, because it’s better to be totally sucky or totally rad than totally alright. When that monkey peed in his mouth, I went and listened to the Jet album. When Travistan got a 0.0, you better believe I listened to that ouch-to-the-pouch again.

To be fair, the Airborne Toxic Event guys are pretty nice in their open letter. In fact, they come off as downright genial, which kind of makes them sound even worse in a way:

Thanks for your review of our record. It’s clear that you are a good writer and it’s clear that you took a lot of time giving us a thorough slagging on the site. We are fans of Pitchfork. And it’s fun to slag off bands. It’s like a sport — kind of part of the deal when you decide to be in a rock band. (That review of Jet where the monkey pees in his own mouth was about the funniest piece of band-slagging we’ve ever seen.)

Aw, that’s nice. I do think it is a pretty well-written review. Full disclosure: Ian Cohen once trashed one of my bands, and it was actually okay because he called us out on some things other reviewers totally missed. In a way, I appreciated the depth of his listening. And I, too, liked the monkey. But show me a person who doesn’t like monkeys and I show you a person with no soul.

We decided a long time ago not to take reviews too seriously. For one, they tend to involve a whole lot of projection, generally saying more about the writer than the band. Sort of a musical Rorschach test. And for another, reading them makes you too damned self-conscious, like the world is looking over your shoulder when the truth is you’re not a genius or a moron. You’re just a person in a band.

Wait, so you crafted this long letter because you don’t take reviews seriously? I do think there is a bit of projection involved with the writer and the reviews and all that, but aren’t we supposed to be listening to how the critic felt about the piece of art? In fact, shouldn’t it be about the writer in a way? (I’m not talking Harry Knowles talking about getting popcorn and stuff.)

Plus, the variation of opinions on our record has bordered on absurd. 80 percent of what’s been said has been positive, a few reviews have remained on the fence and a few (such as yours) have been aggressively harsh. We tend not to put a lot of stock in this stuff, but the sheer disagreement of opinion makes for fascinating (if not a bit narcissistic) reading.

This is not a bad thing, I’d say, and not absurd at all. It’s nice to know that your art generates a diverse emotional response. You should be happy that people feel strongly about it one way or the other. As a publicist, bad reviews, particularly for debut albums, are a good sign that people care enough to listen! Silence is worse than no publicity.

And anyway we have to admit that we found ourselves oddly flattered by your review. I mean, 1.6? That is not faint praise. That is not a humdrum slagging. That is serious fist-pounding, shoe-stomping anger. Many publications said this was among the best records of the year. You seem to think it’s among the worst. That is so much better than faint praise.

I think we’re both on the same page here. I wouldn’t call Ian’s review fist-pounding or shoe-stomping, though–more like a resigned sigh.

You compare us to a lot of really great bands (Arcade Fire, the National, Bright Eyes, Bruce Springsteen) and even if your intention was to cut us down, you end up describing us as: “lyrically moody, musically sumptuous and dramatic.” One is left only to conclude that you must think those things are bad.

Uh, three out of four of those are great bands to me. And, also,” lyrically moody, musically sumptuous and dramatic” is a heck of a pull-quote. Stick that on the front of the jewel case! You win!

We love indie rock and we know full well that Pitchfork doesn’t so much critique bands as critique a band’s ability to match a certain indie rock aesthetic. We don’t match it. It’s true that the events described in these songs really happened. It’s true we wrote about them in ways that make us look bad. (Sometimes in life you are the hero, and sometimes, you are the cuckold. Sometimes you’re screaming about your worst fears, your most vicious jealousies and failures. Such is life.) It’s also true that the record isn’t ironic or quirky or fey or disinterested or buried beneath mountains of guitar noodling.

This is where they start to go off the rails. Now they’re getting defensive. They “don’t match” an aesthetic. They make themselves purposefully “look bad.” They make dismissive comments that they aren’t “ironic or quirky or fey or disinterested or buried beneath mountains of guitar noodling” as if that’s the only type of thing that Pitchfork covers. They use the word “cuckold,” which is problematic.

As writers, we admire your tenacity and commitment to your tone (even though you do go too far with your assumptions about us). You’re wrong about our intentions, you’re wrong about how this band came together, you don’t seem to get the storytelling or the catharsis or the humor in the songs, and you clearly have some misconceptions about who we are as a band and who we are as people.

Artistic intent is the hardest thing to get right, for sure. Maybe Cohen got it wrong, but “you don’t get what we’re really about” is an easy place to hide behind, though hardly a tough position to take. Pretty much every artist could make this argument about any negative review and who could counter them. It’s like the position in Aristotilian logic where you say “sometimes this is not the case.” Yeah, it’s hard to disprove, but it’s not exactly sturdy either. It’s squirmy.

But it also seems to have very little to do with us. Much of your piece reads less like a record review and more like a diatribe against a set of ill-considered and borderline offensive preconceptions about Los Angeles. Los Angeles has an extremely vibrant blogging community, Silver Lake is a very close-knit rock scene. We are just one band among many. (And by the way, L.A. does have a flagship indie rock band: they’re called Silversun Pickups). We cut our teeth at Spaceland and the Echo and have nothing to do with whatever wayward ideas you have about the Sunset Strip. That’s just bad journalism.

This is a legitimate complaint, but the practice is hardly “bad journalism.” Art can be analyzed on multiple levels: the internal, the external, the symptomatic, and more. Placing TATE in context of a larger scene might seem lazy, but it’s just a different way of viewing the band’s recorded output. Maybe it takes up too much of the review, but Cohen clearly sees his perceived complaints about the record as symptomatic of a greater problem with Los Angeles. Not saying he’s right here, just saying it’s a legit way of critiquing.

But that is the nature of this sort of thing. It’s always based on incomplete information. Pitchfork has slagged many, many bands we admire (Dr. Dog, the Flaming Lips, Silversun Pickups, Cold War Kids, Black Kids, Bright Eyes [ironic, no?] just to name a few), so now we’re among them. Great.

This is a classic defense that I think goes nowhere quick, except down a slippery slope. You are also in the company of the aforementioned Jet and that backwards Avey Tare thing and Travis Morrison and more. And again with the positive mentions of Silversun Pickups? Eesh. That’s not something I’d admit.

This band was borne of some very very dark days and the truth is that there is something exciting about just being part of this kind of thing. There’s this long history of dialogue between bands and writers so it’s a bit of a thrill that you have such a strong opinion about us.

I like this graph, but is there a long good history of dialogue between bands and writers? Like I said before, you don’t want to get into a pissing contest with the person writing about you. Don’t know about the dark days. Hope those are past.

We hear you live in Los Angeles. We’d love for you to come to a show sometime and see what we’re doing with these lyrically moody and dramatic songs. You seem like a true believer when it comes to music and writing so we honestly think we can’t be too far apart. In any case, it would make for a good story.

You confirm that Ian Cohen lives in LA and invite him out, which is sweet, but undermines your case against his getting the LA scene wrong in a way. Just sayin’.

all our best–

Mikel, Steven, Anna, Daren, Noah the Airborne Toxic Event

Listen, I think at this point, very few people have the kind of over-the-top blinding hatred of Pitchfork that reared its head a few years ago. The festival is well-done, Pitchfork.TV looks great, and (Black Kids pugs aside) you don’t see too much in the way of gotcha! from the site’s reviews these days. Most people reading this review would think that Ian Cohen really believes it’s a 1.6 album, though he probably goes too far equating it with L.A.’s inability to produce a big band.

Honestly, everything about this, from the review to the letter, is so well-mannered as to be milquetoast. I feel like the only way The Airborne Toxic Event could have dodged either the “whiner” or “publicity-hungry” labels was to lash out. Go for belligerence! If you go in, go all in.

An open letter to Pitchfork Media from the Airborne Toxic Event [The Airborne Toxic Event’s Web site]Review: The Airborne Toxic Event [Pitchfork]