Critics Poll 34 — Singles

You’re wrong, the world is right.

Not content to let any single one of their writers hog all the embarrassment, Pitchfork convened a critics’ roundtable to declare that 2023 contained no Song of the Summer. At the time of their summit meeting, Morgan Wallen had held the top spot on the Billboard 100 for weeks, and he’d go on to hold it for many more. His hit was everywhere: in stadiums, in stores, bumping out of cars, at the beach, on the mountains, in the cities, you name it. I’d wager it was even playing in the heads of those critics who namechecked it, decided it was insignificant, and moved on to whatever mushrock act they’d determined they’d champion instead.

Months later, in an event that I wouldn’t say was entirely unrelated, Pitchfork was absorbed by GQ.  A corporate site’s corporate parent transferred it to a new corporate overseer.  Many writers were axed. I am supposed to feel bad about this, and on a personal level, I do — I never like to see journalists lose their jobs. I hate to witness publishing conglomerates pushing their titles around with no regard for the human beings who make the publications, even stupid ones with Satan as a figurehead, what they are. I understand why this is a chilling development for non-independents in the opinion-having industry.

But it is deeply telling that post-transfer Pitchfork is indistinguishable from Pitchfork before the purge. Those not obsessed with Condé Nast machinations wouldn’t know that anything had happened.  This is because Pitchfork has become so predictable, so safe, so formulaic, that it effectively writes itself; in fact, it’s been on autopilot for years. Its coverage has devolved into warmed-over term papers distinguished by the earnestness with which the writers strain to win top marks from an imaginary virtuous sociology professor.  If you gave an artificial intelligence program the task of writing Pitchfork, I reckon it would prompt the singularity and blink out of existence in sheer computerized boredom. Seriously. I’d feel bad for that computer.

Because Pitchfork is so predictable, and because its editors are, and were, such moralizing approval-seekers, it was always a lead pipe cinch that they’d go out of their way to snub the new Morgan Wallen album. So they did, hanging a 4.1 on it and chastising Wallen for his language, his sepia-toned worldview (their cliché, not mine), and his spitting and Skoal-chewing. Other reviewers followed suit, as modern reviewers so often do. Hey, I understand; I’m an educated coastal scumbag too. Drop me down in East Kentucky and I reckon an eyebrow would stay arched throughout my visit. If we can’t feel superior to an alcoholic shitkicker like Morgan Wallen, who, really, is left for us to feel superior to?

But how about the cream of Music City songwriting, including Bisquick-frying poet Michael Hardy, eloquent tractor-driver Josh Thompson, seventy-time (!) chart topper Ashley Gorley, true-blue lifer Rodney Clawson, and the peerless Miranda Lambert; do we feel superior to them, too? Do we think they’re just here to pick up a check and exploit a drink-addled superstar, or might they have something to say to us about the society we share and the lives we live?

What about all the producers who journeyed to Nashville to pitch in, including rocker Cameron Montgomery, R&B fusion specialist Jacob Durrett, and the visionary Ryan “Charlie Handsome” Vojtesak, who has worked with, among others, Drake, Kanye West, and Chance The Rapper?  Do we reckon they’re just opportunists, or might they have identified in Morgan Wallen a rare vocalist with enough roughneck charisma, and maybe enough subtlety, to abet their acts of stylistic subversion?  

And how about the top guns on the Tennessee session circuit, including Pedal Steel Hall of Famer Paul Franklin of the Time Jumpers, who has been gracing tracks since the 1970s, impeccable bassist Jimmy Lee Sloas, collaborator with everybody from Kellie Pickler to Megadeth, or Jerry Roe, winner of the Drummer of the Year award from the Academy of Country Music, or Tom Bukovac, veteran of a thousand albums (not an exaggeration), and in the conversation for the title of the single best guitarist working in modern showbiz?  Do you reckon they lent their world-class musical talents to a hunk of junk, or do you think they might have recognized songs with the capacity to connect to millions?

And what about those millions, anyway?  Are they just stupid?; unable to fathom the intricacies of the Fever Ray album, hungry only for the musical equivalent of greasy BBQ-flavored pork rinds?  

It occurs to me that the problem might be us. Perhaps, as Lil Wayne once said in a not dissimilar context, we don’t get the basics. Those musicians I just mentioned did not phone it in, not one bit: they gave it their best, and One Thing At A Time contains exemplary performances of moving songs with sturdy compositional architecture, masterfully arranged by producers cleverly dodging genre expectations. Moreover, these strong songs are brought to life by Morgan Wallen himself, who sings with a mix of nuance, swagger, trailer-trash magnetism, late-night barroom vulnerability, and good humor that wasn’t always present on Dangerous.  In 2021, Wallen was really good; in 2023, he got better. Fans noticed.  Musicians noticed. Radio programmers and industry showrunners noticed; hell, Drake noticed.  The only ones who didn’t notice were corporate-website critics totally out of whack with popular music as it is currently experienced and appreciated by human beings. In an act of monstrous arrogance, they tried to tell us that a triple album of astonishing consistency that spun off seven hit singles and went platinum five times over was barely worthy of comment. If you read Pitchfork, you might believe that the story of the year was instead a shoegaze resurgence invisible outside of high-rent precincts of certain coastal cities. And if you didn’t live in those cities, well, obviously your priorities and tastes were beneath contempt; let them eat mushrock and all that.

Or maybe they did notice.  Maybe they just didn’t feel comfortable telling the truth.  As even non-music fans know, Morgan Wallen was banished to the outer limits of respectability three years ago. He got hammered out of his mind and used the n-word, which is absolutely, positively not something that those sitting in judgment of him could or would ever do; no sir. Today’s critics do not drink and party and act the fool or hold aberrant, offensive opinions about anything.  They are morally unimpeachable and were never idiots.  They were never even young: they popped right out of the uterus with a baccalaureate degree and a monocle.  Morgan Wallen has become a boogeyman for them. He’s the monster under their bed.  He cannot be forgiven for what he did because he represents everything they cannot do — or that they can’t get caught doing — lest they lose their position in the professional-managerial publishing industry.  He is an expression of the discursive id, and everything that writers have been forced to repress in order to fit in with the business objectives of corporate overseers who might downsize them at the drop of a hat.

I am a twinkle-toes Democrat from one of the bluest districts in America — a tree-hugging, vegetarian cosmopolitan who does not drive, own a gun, or believe in borders. As Hardy sang about where he’s from, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But as a critic, I cannot waste time worrying about whether the artists I listen to are ideological mirrors for me or for those around me. That’s not what I’m here for, and frankly, it wouldn’t be very interesting to me if they were.  How am I to learn from that?  I’m here to evaluate the music, and that’s it. And Morgan Wallen’s music is good, very good, meticulously crafted, wry, energetically performed, beautifully recorded, and, as America has shown you, endlessly replayable.

The irony of Wallen’s critical exile is that on record, at least, he’s a bridge-builder, and an omnivorous and open-minded one, too. When his producers give him a trap beat to work with, he attacks it with the sort of flow that a vocalist only acquires by rapping along to scores of hip-hop records. There’s nothing tentative about it — he acts like it’s his by birthright, and as he’s a poor Southerner, I’m inclined to believe him about that. His biggest singles are the seamless fusion of urban and rural music that thousands of artists have tried and failed to make. He’s got the winding acoustic guitar and the thunderous 808 kick, the finger-snaps, the aching blues melody, the slide guitar and the whistling synthesizer, all fused together and cauterized by the easy heat of his performances. He makes it seem like there’s nothing to it, no strain and no sweat, everything bubbling together in the crockpot of Dixie sound. None of this means that Morgan Wallen is an enlightened person or a paragon of good race politics or even personally tolerable; he’s an artist, so I assume he’s psychologically messed up ten ways from Tuesday. It does mean that his achievement demands respect, and not just for aesthetic reasons. It’s an example of the transcultural conversation that we’re always saying we want to have. For the better part of eight years, publishers have strained to understand the hinterlands. They’ve beat the bushes for strategies for reaching Billy Bob. Let it be known that when Morgan Wallen extended an olive branch, they wouldn’t take it.

This widespread refusal to behave with basic courtesy and fairness is, I think, the inevitable consequence of having a corporate conglomerate press rather than outlets of independent opinion. Unlike the hairy Internet weirdos who they displaced and/or snowed under long ago, the publishers of corporate websites won’t ever budge an inch from their basic political assumptions and social proclivities. They’re not going to take that risk. They’re not interested in shaking you up or overturning your expectations; that’s bad for business. They market their product — themselves — to a niche audience that comes to have its specific worldview reinforced.

That’s why you can read scores of articles on Pitchfork by dozens of different writers, and find unnerving ideological uniformity. Never will you choke on an offensive position or a tasteless phrase. No one will ever surprise you with an opinion that does not conform to the dominant Eastern collegiate perspective. It’s no high-minded commitment to progressivism. It’s the market niche in which the corporate overseers have settled the publication — the slice of the ideological pie chart they’ve decided that suits their audience. As is true for any fast casual operation, success means giving the consumer the same slice no matter how many times she comes. What looks like tonal consistency on the site is actually a white flag: it’s a concession that what you’re encountering isn’t criticism, it’s a lifestyle brand.

In an environment like that, nobody is going to go out on a limb for Morgan Wallen, or for any other artist who makes songs or projects an image that clashes with the company’s transnational profile. Within a corporate structure, contrary behavior is career suicide.  Clout within media hierarchies comes instead from accruing social media followers, which means that it’s always going to be safer to rehearse a widely accepted position in emphatic language than it is to throw the dice on something that might get you ridiculed on Twitter.  Writers who used to call themselves critics are now competing to beat each other to the most popular position.  No one in corporate media is thinking, or listening, for himself — they’re thinking about what their peers think.  They’re worried that their associates in the industry won’t give them enough likes and hearts on their takes. They want to say the same thing everybody else is going to say, only faster, tighter, and punchier than the competition can.  That’s great if you’re an ad man, but it’s worthless if you’re a critic. It’s also insulting to the readership, who are expecting you to give them a fair valuation of the music you’re writing about even if it puts you at odds with your friends. Maybe your congresswoman, too.

I put in my time. I wrote for the same mammoth company that owns Condé Nast. It was a fun trip, and I’m glad to have had the experience, but since I stopped, there’s not a single day I’ve missed it.  There are many mistakes and omissions I made while I was there that I regret, many things I wrote that I wish I didn’t, and many things I didn’t that I wish I did.  But I’m happy to say I was never a good corporate citizen. I proceeded then as I did when I was an independent, and as I do now that I’ve taken the saner step of covering my community: I didn’t give a fuck about how my opinions and evaluations look. I don’t do this to build a personal brand or help an employer reach a target demographic, and I’m not going to shed many tears for writers and editors who do. I’m here to describe my personal experience with records and assess them, one at a time, on their artistic merits. I’m going to tell it like it is. This, my friends, is how it is:  

  1. Morgan Wallen — “Last Night”
  2. The Streets — “Each Day Gives”
  3. Olivia Rodrigo — “Vampire”
  4. Lana Del Rey — “A&W”
  5. Belle & Sebastian — “I Don’t Know What You See In Me”
  6. Wednesday — “Chosen To Deserve”
  7. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — “Easy Now”
  8. Drake & J. Cole — “First Person Shooter”
  9. Blur — “The Narcissist”
  10. Peso Pluma & Eladio Carrion — “77”
  11. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Shadow”
  12. Mon Laferte — “Metamorfosis”
  13. Jenny Lewis — “Psychos”
  14. Nation Of Language — “Sightseer”
  15. Hot Mulligan — “Gans Media Retro Games”
  16. Olivia Rodrigo — “Bad Idea, Right?”
  17. Morgan Wallen — “Thinkin’ Bout Me”
  18. Beabadoobee & Laufey — “A Night To Remember”
  19. Doja Cat — “Paint The Town Red”
  20. Sparks — “The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte”