On Sunday afternoon, the last day of the Pitchfork Music Festival, it is 94 degrees outside and me and Jim DeRogatis are sitting on a bench, under a tree, in the dugout of a baseball field behind one of the main festival stages and talking about Jim DeRogatis’ highly coveted and super rare Pitchfork Music Festival ELITE VIP badge. I just took this picture of Jim DeRogatis wearing his ELITE VIP badge and you can see the baseball field’s backstop in the background with a small mountain of orange Gatorades wrapped in plastic behind it:
So at the Pitchfork Music Festival there are a few kinds of passes that people are wearing in the VIP area: performers wear Artist badges, the crew wears Crew badges, festival organizers wear All Access badges, and regular VIPs (including Pitchfork staffers) wear VIP badges. And then three people that I’ve seen here are wearing pink ELITE VIP badges that are new this year and you can see someone wearing one from 50 feet away because they’re so bright. Jim DeRogatis is wearing one because [there’s a compelling argument that] Jim DeRogatis is the most famous rock critic alive.
Like when he was a senior in high school he interviewed maybe the most famous rock critic ever, Lester Bangs, and then Lester Bangs died almost immediately after that, and if this strikes you as a torch-passing moment in the vein of Bob Dylan kneeling at Woody Guthrie’s deathbed, or Charles Bukowski kneeling at John Fante’s deathbed, I guess Jim DeRogatis is lucky to have such strong legend-casting wind in his sails. It makes me think, like, if Jim DeRogatis happens to shuffle off this mortal coil while we’re sitting here on this bench right now, maybe he’ll be passing me a torch. That would be so sad but cool.
Jim DeRogatis takes a sip of that Gatorade he’s holding in the picture and tells me about another thing that happened to Jim DeRogatis to make him a famous rock critic, which is that he was working at Rolling Stone in 1994 and he gave a Hootie & The Blowfish record a bad review, and then Jann Wenner, the founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, pulled the review, and then Jim DeRogatis did an interview with the New York Observer where he talked about Jann Wenner pulling the review, and then Jann Wenner fired him for public insubordination, and Jim DeRogatis talked even more about it, which honestly seems like a pretty punk thing to do.
As Jim DeRogatis is telling me the story of talking to The Observer about Jann Wenner, I feel a yawn coming on, but not because I’m bored with the story, but because I didn’t sleep much last night, so I turn my head away from him and clamp my jaw down to conceal and minimize the yawn, which is a little rude in itself but less rude than yawning in someone’s face, and then I turn back to him and my eyes water a little from the yawn but I don’t think he notices because he is really into his story.
He continues talking and says, “When I was at Rolling Stone, there was a sign up in the office that said ‘[giving a record] three and a half stars means never having to say you’re sorry.’” Jim DeRogatis says he sometimes tells Ryan Schreiber he’s the Jann Wenner of the 21st century and Ryan doesn’t like it.
I tell him that I don’t think Pitchfork has a “7.0 means never having to say you’re sorry” sign up at the office and he shrugs, and then he takes a ziplock bag out of his shoulder bag, takes a dry washcloth out of that, towels his face off, puts the washcloth back in the ziplock bag, and puts the ziplock bag back into his shoulder bag. This level of meticulous preparation is not so punk.
Anyway, a picture of Jim DeRogatis wearing an ELITE VIP badge at the Pitchfork Music Festival is complicated because Jim DeRogatis hates Pitchfork, constantly writes openly derisive things about it on his blog, and has been promoting a protest against Odd Future (re: their lyrics about raping women and hating gay people) at this festival for months. Odd Future goes on in an hour and that’s when the protest roughly starts and I think it will be the highlight of Jim DeRogatis’ weekend. I’m trying to sort out my feelings about it. But despite the protest and always writing nasty stuff about Pitchfork, Jim DeRogatis gets the ELITE VIP pass because he’s still Jim DeRogatis, I guess like how if you are married and you don’t like your wife’s parents, you still have to keep inviting them to Thanksgiving.
Before Pitchfork came to prominence, Jim DeRogatis was maybe the most famous living rock critic (as I mentioned before), and then Pitchfork sprung up in Chicago, Jim DeRogatis’ hometown, and didn’t include him. And now 30,000,000 people read Pitchfork every month and Jim DeRogatis blogs for a local radio station’s website, and Jim DeRogatis is still maybe the most famous living rock critic but that doesn’t mean what it used to, and so I can understand why he hates Pitchfork.
And so now I am thinking that Jim DeRogatis’ position on Odd Future, a group that Pitchfork reps harder than they rep almost anyone else, is an outgrowth of hating Pitchfork, but then he says, pretty tenderly, “There will be people here (watching Odd Future) who’ve had experiences with sexual violence…” which is tragic and true and a valid reason for not wanting Odd Future to be here, but it’s hard to not think that maybe Jim DeRogatis is manipulating groups that fight violence against women and gays to mobilize against Odd Future (and delegitimize the Pitchfork Festival) because he really just hates Pitchfork for stealing his primacy as a rock critic. Jim DeRogatis seems like a complicated guy so there’s probably some of both motivations at work here.
Jim DeRogatis points to the three holes (featuring little plates with forks and knives on them) on his ELITE VIP badge that entitle him to three free meals at the Festival, and points out how they’re not punched out, and says, “I’m not here to eat their food,” which means he doesn’t endorse this festival.
And then he says, “And I don’t feel like a VIP,” which means that people here aren’t being sufficiently reverent of Jim DeRogatis, and then he looks over at Chris Kaskie, the president of Pitchfork, who is sitting on the opposite dugout’s bench about 100 feet from us, and he points at Chris Kaskie and says, “That’s Chris Kaskie, the president [of Pitchfork].” Jim DeRogatis thinks for a second. “He’s the money guy.” It’s hard to capture what he’s saying with those words, and I don’t want to twist what he’s saying, but, like, if you swap in, “That’s Chris Kaskie, he’s the ART PURITY CONTAMINATOR,” what he means comes through even clearer.
A few minutes later, Chris Kaskie walks past us and Jim DeRogatis tells me that Chris Kaskie has walked past him “seventeen times” and “hasn’t even said hi.” Now the band Yuck is playing, whose festival set Jim DeRogatis will later post a lightly positive review of on his blog even though we spend their whole set on this bench behind the stage, and Jim DeRogatis is chainsmoking Dunhill Internationals, like my Dad used to smoke in the Army, and showing me his tattoos. Here is the top of his Creem Magazine (the magazine that Lester Bangs was the editor of) tattoo and some of my grubby little fingers:
The last tattoo Jim DeRogatis shows me, and the first thing he reveals that endears him to me I think, but I don’t take a picture of it because I feel like I reached my socially appropriate limit at two pictures (maybe one? maybe zero actually…), is something that looks like a lampshade on his calf, and he tells me that it’s the symbol for the Vorticism movement, an early-20th century school of philosophy that dictated, according to Jim DeRogatis, “you should live your whole life with the vigor of a teenager.”
And then it dawns on me that Jim DeRogatis’ objection to Pitchfork is based on something deeper than the fact that they’ve almost put him out of business: it’s that he’s committed to thinking about music, and acting, like a 17-year-old, with his heart on his sleeve complaining about his boss to a newspaper, bitching to me about not feeling like a VIP, writing a book about his teenage hero, and generally being an insolent, self-contradictory, spoiled, histrionic, bratty guy.
And if Pitchfork was a guy he would be almost the opposite of that guy, or he would have at least grown out of being anything like that guy. There are no more 0.0s, the writing is professional and well-mannered and sometimes quasi-academic and almost never voicey. Pitchfork grew up and is now engaged in a kind of disembodied, endless taxonomy of pop music, which is astute sometimes and interesting to read when it’s on point, and useful and thoughtful, but you’d be hard-pressed to find people who would describe the writing as passionate. You read it and sometimes learn a lot, and find out about a ton of great music, but it’s really far from Lester Bangs sitting on the floor in his messy living room and raving about records he loves on a typewriter. Pitchfork writing is serious about pop music and Jim DeRogatis is passionate about it, and obviously those overlap sometimes but they come from different places.
And now there are 30 million people reading Pitchfork and roughly 0 million people reading Jim DeRogatis, and his philosophy about writing and thinking about music is currently music writing’s historical loser, and somewhere out there in the crowd right now is music writing’s current historical winner, Nitsuh Abebe, maybe taking notes on his phone, maybe problematizing some arguments, and likely on his way to composing a piece that will make you think, like, “Fuck! That’s so smart.” It won’t metaphorically take you somewhere new, or get you really excited about a record or music, but that’s not what it’s aspiring to do.
Jim DeRogatis tells me, “My biggest problem with Pitchfork is their desire to be monolithic,” and I tell him I don’t think Pitchfork set out to dominate music like it does, and maybe the burden of responsibility in cultural stewardship that’s on Pitchfork can kind of be a drag for a writer/publication who wants to let loose on a record they hate but can’t because 600 mean words can ruin a band’s career. With great power comes lame responsibility. And Pitchfork didn’t like dupe everyone into reading it: it’s just great at what it does, and people who read about music elected it champion by a vote of 30 million to however many people read every other music reviews site combined, which has to be paltry, and so now the overwrought, hyper-emotive music guy, Rob Gordon, is in cultural remission, and his level-headed and mature cousin is the music criticism establishment.
Then Jim DeRogatis tells me that he grew up in New Jersey, and his “brother is a fat racist trucker,” and if it he hadn’t read Lester Bangs in high school and listened to the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones and The Clash, he would have wound up like that too. I think about telling him about feeling almost the same way about Lester Bangs in high school, although I don’t know if fat racist trucker was exactly the path he steered me off of; I could tell Jim DeRogatis about wanting to write like Lester Bangs, about the Lester Bangs anthology that comes from bathroom to bathroom with me every time I move dorms and then apartments, etc. If there are kids who Pitchfork is inspiring to forsake their trucking dreams to write about music, I can’t imagine they are kids like me and Jim DeRogatis, which could bode well for the future of music writing depending on your taste.
But I don’t really know what the point of telling Jim DeRogatis how I feel about Lester Bangs would be, so I thank him for talking to me and shake his hand and get up and walk around the festival looking for Jacob. I can’t find him, and then ten minutes later Odd Future comes on, and I wander around trying to find the protest but I can’t because I don’t think it materialized. The lowlight of Jim DeRogatis’ afternoon. Then I think about how Lester Bangs and maybe Jim DeRogatis are closer to being my writing’s forefathers than Pitchfork is, which makes me another kid in their lineage of music writing historical losers and Rob Gordons. A few days ago I told Kat how I felt about Lester Bangs and she said, “I didn’t know you wanted to be a music critic,” and I told her that in the way every music critic is a failed musician, every music criticism critic is a failed music critic.
And then I spot Jacob, and he’s watching Odd Future, and I ask how it is and he says it’s fine, and then we walk over to a booth where Trident is giving away free fruit-flavored oxygen through tubes that you stick up your nose, which we’re expecting to be mildly consciousness-altering (like how in Fight Club, Ed Norton describes how those oxygen masks drop down in front of you on airplanes to calm you down while the plane is crashing) but then they turn out not to do anything. If Lester Bangs was here he would remark on how even the drugs here, which don’t work, are sponsored by a multibillion dollar corporation, and then maybe something about how it really is hard to stay punk as you get older, and consequently how it is undeniably better for your legacy to pass on a torch and then die young.
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