Correlation/Causation and The People’s List

OK, I guess we need to talk about The People’s List. I guess we can’t avoid it any longer.

As with most things Pitchfork does, The People’s List has pissed off a lot of Internet folk. There have been complaints that the list doesn’t include enough women or non-whites, that the list is too predictable, and that THE PEOPLE are kind of morons. Or no wait, The People’s List is the hallmark of a revolution!

I think that The People’s List suffers from the same flaws that nearly all online lists and polls have, and therein lies the great disappointment.

Because Pitchfork readers — and by extension, indie music fans — are supposed to be different. They’re supposed to be better.

Unfortunately, the list exposes indie fans to be no different than the classic rock fans who will forever vote “Stairway to Heaven” to the top of any radio station’s best song poll.

Consumers of a publication tend to parrot back the tastes of that publication, whether it’s Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice or MTV’s Total Request Live (timely reference, no?).

The question is: are these lists always so unsurprising because people with similar tastes congregate around media outlets that cover their favorite artists, or is it because people are so used to seeing Radiohead albums get 10.0 ratings that they assume they must be infallible? Truthfully, I’m not sure, and I’m guessing the answer is a little of both.

Indie fans have proven themselves no different, no more thoughtful, no more interesting, no more unique, than any dude in a wife beater who turns out that classic rock station and jams out to The Guess Who or something. The People’s List is essentially a circle jerk, a chance for Pitchfork and all its readers to reassure each other and themselves how smart and great they are.

That being said, I certainly don’t find the list as problematic as its harshest critics.

Let’s dismiss the sexism charge out of hand, shall we? Jody Rosen at Slate found it unsettling that only 23 female artists appeared on THE PEOPLE’S top 200 albums. But popular music, even precious, gentle indie music, has always been a male-dominated field (like many other fields). On eMusic’s charts right now, only 16 of the top 100 most downloaded albums are by female artists. On iTunes’ albums chart, it’s again 16 out of 100. So perhaps The People’s List includes slightly less than a representative sample of women, but it’s not a mathematical atrocity or anything.

Moreover, it doesn’t particularly bother me that Radiohead has 3 albums in the top 6 and 4 in the top 20 — that’s what happens when large groups of similarly minded people vote on things. It’s unlikely that many individual ballots contained all four of those albums in their own personal top 20s, but when you compile large numbers of them, the frequency with which that band was mentioned at all will win out.

The list does, however, suffer from a severe recency bias. Memories are short and flawed, and albums from the last five years tended to carry the day over efforts from earlier in Pitchfork’s run, particularly further down the list.

Music For Kids Who Can’t Read Good suggested 20 albums that got snubbed by THE PEOPLE, and they couldn’t be more right about their number one choice — The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday. I mean, come on THE PEOPLE, what more could you want? It’s a concept album, it’s by an indie/Pitchfork darling, and it was released before the masses caught on to them. Too many guitars and drums, maybe?

I would like to state for the record, though, that Bon Iver does not have the 13th best album of the last 15 years. Nor does Fleet Foxes have the 18th best. So much chilling out with these people!

Also, if I had to guess, I would bet half the people who voted for Madvillainy have never actually heard it all the way through.

This guy voted for all the Grizzly Bear albums

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Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

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