Pitchfork, as it functions as both a website and a music festival, serves as a specifically interesting case in the creation of a functional mainstream[i] for its comparatively large readership and its manifestation in the physical place of Union Park in Chicago every summer. The Asian American YouTube movement is in some ways comparable to Pitchfork. The coalition creates sources of recommendations by starring in each other’s videos and create a place of physical manifestation in the conventions that they hold. Pitchfork differs from the Asian American YouTube movement for its separation of review from production, the writers of Pitchfork not being musicians themselves, and its unity underneath “good music” as opposed to the unity of being outside of a conceived mainstream that the Asian American artists of the YouTube movement feel that their race places them. The contrast of these two systems of cultural gatekeeping thus calls into question the consideration that Pitchfork gives to Asian American musicians and whether they may be attaining the goals set out by Asian American YouTube.
Pitchfork as an institution favors the straight white man. Of the hundreds of albums that Pitchfork reviews a year, three of the musicians prominently featured are Asian American women, Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast, and Mitski. Coincidentally, these three women went on tour together in the summer of 2016, Japanese Breakfast titling them “the Chicks Who Wok.” Jay Som, the moniker for Melina Duterte, among these two musicians, holds the distinct position of being introduced to many audience members by this tour.
Her rise and Pitchfork’s detailing of her narrative thus become an interesting case study in the way that Pitchfork creates an Asian American star, revealing the burgeoning acceptance of the Asian American female body in white male mainstream media. Mitski and Japanese Breakfast played an integral role in the rise of Jay Som, using their cultural capital to bring attention to her music, likely leading to her pickup by PolyVinyl and the consequential rerelease of Turn Into and release of her first official album Everybody Works. Jay Som’s coverage is different than these two artists because both created themselves before being considered by Pitchfork. Mitski was first reviewed by the website for her third album Bury Me At Makeout Creek and Japanese Breakfast’s band leader Michelle Zauner had a different band before starting Japanese Breakfast. Jay Som’s first release is described as not necessarily being an album, but more a collection of songs, and it was immediately reviewed and assigned an 8.2.[ii]
Besides numerical praise, Pitchfork also interviewed her for a feature on their website, revealing the way that the site forms her narrative, comparable to the narratives established by the Asian American YouTube movement. The interview begins by posing the idyllic situation that Duterte finds herself in now versus the dark times she had to go through to get there, an oft used narrative for struggling musicians that witness a big break like Duterte has. This narrative format is different than Asian American YouTubers who are still seeking that break. Though many YouTubers can monetize their channels and find big audiences they are craft themselves within everyday real life. Jay Som’s big break is comparable to that everyday life for the way that is coded as Asian America. The article’s associates her introduction to the music world with her tour with the other Chicks Who Wok. The article quotes Duterte as saying, “We’re all Asian-American women in indie music, which is mostly white-male dominated… For me, it felt like we had a mission.” The mission that Jay Som feels was inspired by the many fans that would come up to Japanese Breakfast and Mitski to express the way that their music helped them emotionally. The fact of their Asian American womanhood is tied to their mission, making their music a receptacle for their many different fans’ emotional catharsis. The emotional energy that she felt on tour with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast is attributed for fueling the recording of her next album. She draws inspiration from elsewhere, too, naming other musicians such as Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie and Carly Rae Jepsen, but also how she used to play the trumpet and how she sang karaoke with her family. The interviewer asks her about singing karaoke growing up, and though Duterte recognizes that everyone does karaoke, she also marks it as a “Filipino thing.” She goes on to say, “My mom taught me how to sing. My dad was a DJ in the ’70s and ’80s, too—like really cheesy-ass disco… I still have the tapes of all the mixes he did. He just had a lot of records around the house and would play them.” Duterte’s upbringing is marked not solely for being Filipino, but also as growing up among music, a relatively common format for musicians reviewed by Pitchfork. Jay Som’s story contrasts with the many Asian American YouTubers who had to break it to their parents that they were pursuing music as more than a hobby, a point of privilege for her. However, Jay Som is different to the Asian American YouTubers who wish to be recognized simply for their talent with her offhand comment about her own ethnicity. Duterte extends briefly on how she learned how to sing dramatically from her mother before changing her vocal technique to more of a whisper shaped after influences such as My Bloody Valentine. The little Filipino culture that Duterte does bring up in her interview functions as something that she has grown apart from, altering the dramatic singing style of her mother to the whispered hushes of the emo music that she grew to love. Jay Som’s change in style is not coded as angsty rebellion, but as simply a fact of her music style changing, allowing her to recognize her ethnic roots while also forming herself apart from them. Jay Som’s representation walks a precarious line, the distinct unforced recognition of her ethnicity and the way it binds her to other artists is brought up, but not overtly exploited by Pitchfork, her narrative often falling into similar avenues of other artists featured on the website likely to maintain the overall brand of the website. She seems to achieve two goals of Asian American YouTube, to unite with other Asian Americans and to be seen outside of it. Pitchfork’s attention to Jay Som makes sense for the ways that she fits the narratives that she establishes for other bands, but is radical in the way that it considers her ethnicity. [iii]
The construction of a narrative is not simple. There are many other aspects of Jay Som’s music to be considered in tandem with other musicians from a variety of backgrounds. But Pitchfork seems to either be noting that its public is demanding similar music or beginning to accept that musical form within itself. Mitski will be playing at the Pitchfork Music Festival in the summer of 2017, the first time an Asian American female musician of her caliber will be featured on their lineup.[iv]
[i] The way that music is listened to and found has changed vastly in the past few years with the advent of streaming services such as Tidal, Apple Music, and Spotify. The domination of streaming services has begun to dismantle the idea of mainstream pop music as more music becomes available at a cheaper price, opening up debate in the music community over the weight of times a song is streamed versus how many times that song was purchased. These debates have begun to call into question the accuracy of the charts ability to measure what the public is listening to. Whereas what was played on the radio used to be a marker of what was in the mainstream within a certain area, that is no longer the case because many young people have stopped listening to the radio, turning to streaming services for their suggestions to what to listen to next, Spotify and Apple Music even having ways you can create a radio out of a song or artist. Amid this destabilization of the music mainstream, a new importance is placed upon music media outlets like Stereogum and Pitchfork, which declares itself “The Most Trusted Voice in Music,” to create a “music mainstream” for its readership. I put music mainstream in quotes because the difficulty of defining it due to its specificity to any given community (i.e. the way that Yiken by Priceless Da Roc is a part of the music mainstream of Las Vegas high schools, but evades any sort of recognition in the Midwest).
[ii] Quinn Moreland, “Turn Into,” last modified December 23, 2016, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/22532-turn-into/.
Pitchfork use of a number system is meant to create a seemingly objective standpoint by having all writers use a common evaluation system, although a quick glance at each reviewers’ other reviews reveals each’s own preferences. The numerical ratings that Pitchfork gave to these three Asian American musicians reveal not only the reviewers’ preferences but also the general altering tides of who can make certain kinds of music. Pitchfork reviews tend to not only focus on musicality but also judge the context of creation, how well the album fits into and can be evaluated within other music trends. Turn Into received a startling 8.2 (out of 10). The “objective” 8.2 is startling because of admitted looseness of its structure and questioning of the songs polish by Duterte herself, as compared to the more polished albums that were reviewed by Pitchfork from Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, which received a 7.7 and 7.9 respectively (for Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Psychopomp). Jay Som’s official first album Everybody Works then went on to earn an 8.6, better than the 8.5 that Mitski would get on her album Puberty 2, which later ranked high on many music news outlets best of 2016 lists. In the context of praise for Mitski, reviewers are more able to praise Duterte on the sight that historically has not given “Best New Music” to female artists or Asian American artists. This aid seems to indirectly reflect the format of Asian American YouTube’s system of support that occurs when YouTube personas star in each other’s videos. (Articles Referenced: http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/22982-everybody-works/, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/19990-mitski-bury-me-at-makeout-creek/, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/21970-puberty-2/, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/21629-psychopomp/)
[iii] Jenn Pelly, “Jay Som’s Hard Working Dream-Pop,” Pitchfork, last modified February 2, 2017, http://pitchfork.com/features/rising/10017-jay-soms-hard-working-dream-pop/. (I reference this article throughout the paragraph)
[iv] Pitchfork, “Pitchfork Music Festival Announces Full 2017 Lineup,” Pitchfork, last modified 10 March 10, 2017, http://pitchfork.com/news/71935-pitchfork-music-festival-announces-full-2017-lineup/.