An Open Letter to Pitchfork Media from the Airborne Toxic Event

Dear Ian,

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

all our best–

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

Here’s the review, from the front page of Pitchfork:

The Airborne Toxic Event: The Airborne Toxic Event

[Majordomo; 2008]
Rating: 1.6

I probably couldn’t get anyone here in Los Angeles to admit it, but the city lacks a flasgship upstart indie band and wants one in the worst way—one both a little fresher than Spin cover stars Beck and Rilo Kiley and with more mainstream potential than the bands from the Smell. The onus would likely fall on the folkier, cuddlier Silver Lake/Los Feliz scene, but over the past three years it feels as if the area’s bands have failed to rise to the occasion.

It’s no surprise that many are betting the house on the Airborne Toxic Event– their debut album is lyrically moody, musically sumptuous, and dramatic. Their name is even a transparent DeLillo reference, and every one of the 10 tracks sounds like it can be preceded with radio chatter. The Airborne Toxic Event have done their homework. But unless you’re a certain French duo, homework rarely results in good pop music, and The Airborne Toxic Event is an album that’s almost insulting in its unoriginality; while the sound most outsiders attribute to Los Angeles has been marginalized to Metal Skool and the average customer at the Sunset Boulevard Guitar Center, TATE embodies the Hollywood ideal of paying lip service to the innovations of mavericks while trying to figure out how to reduce it to formula.

Throughout, the Airborne Toxic Event show a surface-level familiarity with early 00s critics lists, but aren’t able to convey what made those much-lauded recods emotionally resonant. Can’t convert unthinkable tragedy into cathartic, absolutely alive music like Arcade Fire? Just steal the drum pattern from “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”? Can’t connect with the listener with the same fourth-wall busting intimacy as Bright Eyes? That’s when you trot out the run-on sentences and get all tremulous when you mean it, man. And that’s just the first song. Not privy to the Strokes’ accidental poetry and concise songwriting? Get a distorted microphone. Want a hit as big as “Mr. Brightside”, but take yourself too seriously to conjure a semblance of juicy melodrama? Grab a half-assed disco beat and boom, you’re now ready to write the limpdicked cuckold behind “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”

And while it’s understandable that a debut should owe such enormous debts, what really rankles is the unrelenting entitlement that assumes cred via sonic proximity– it’s the musical equivalent of showing up to a bar with a bad fake ID and throwing a hissy-fit when you get carded. While lead singer Mikel Jollett can alternately sound like Paul Banks, Win Butler, Conor Oberst, or Matt Berninger, what ties the LP together is quite possibly the most unlikeable lyric book of the year, rife with empty dramatic signifiers, AA/BB simplicity, and casual misogyny. If Social Distortion did Bruce Springsteen instead of callow Johnny Cash fan fic, you might get the lock-limbed anti-rock of “Gasoline”, but my god– “We were only 17/ We were holding back our screams/ Like we tore it from the pages of some lipstick magazine.” Before you can comprehend just how clichéd and yet somehow meaningless that line is, by the next hook he’s replaced “screams” with “dreams” and “lipstick” with “girlie,” before he’s “only 21 [and] not having any fun.” Then something about “bullets from a gun.”

If only that were the low point. It pains me to pan “Sometime Around Midnight” on concept alone because, man, we’ve all been there. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: There’s a club if you’d like to go…except maybe when you go home and cry and want to die, and it reduces you to putting your thoughts on paper in rhyme form. The next morning, you thank god no one’s seen it but you. The Airborne Toxic Event aren’t so private, alas. As the ill-fated narrator sees his ladyfriend in a “white dress” “holding a tonic like a cross” while “a piano plays a melancholy soundtrack to her smile” (what bars do these guys go to?). He imagines holding her naked “like two perfect circles entwined.” After five minutes pass, she leaves with “some man you don’t know” and then your friends look at you “like you’ve seen a ghost.” There’s a possibility this is just a po-mo exercise, writing a song about writing a song about how some girl not wanting to fuck you is some sort of epic human calamity, but judging by the out-of-nowhere string section that opens the thing for the first minute, I doubt these guys are playing. It begins a stunning about-face that finds the band spending the rest of the record trying to be Jimmy Eat World.

In a way, The Airborne Toxic Event is something of a landmark record: This represents a tipping point where you almost wish Funeral or Turn on the Bright Lights or Is This It? never happened as long as it spared you from horrible imitations like this one, often sounding more inspired by market research than actual inspiration. Congrats, Pitchfork reader– the Airborne Toxic Event thinks you’re a demographic.

Ian Cohen, September 17, 2008

22 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Pitchfork Media from the Airborne Toxic Event

  1. Ian Cohen wishes that has half the writing talent that Mikel has; that’s why he’s such a shit! He’s just plain jealous!

  2. Wow – I stumbled upon this today (after wondering when there would be a new Airborne Toxic Event album – I accidentally caught on early). That’s possibly the best reaction to something that harsh I’ve ever seen.

    Well done guys – and come tour the Southeast. It’s no hotter here in the summer than it is in LA!

  3. WOW! I hardly ever have time to read these posts, but after I saw Airborne last Sunday at the Santa Barbara Bowl I needed to come check the website for more California shows. Then I stumbled on this Zine article or whatever the fuck you call them nowadays. Im not a Journalist, or a writer, I dont get paid for criticizing or judging a band’s talent or lack thereof. Im just a simple hardworking, tax paying citizen like most of the country, and with out music my life would be meaningless. This is real music, the Airborne Toxic Event is as real as it gets. I thank these guys and many band like them for sharing their talent with the world. Thank you guys and keep rockin’ hard!!!

  4. damn dude. i’ve never even heard your record, but stumbled across your band’s wikipedia article and then this and the pitchfork review.

    pitchfork is a cancer and a cure at the same time. offers some great new tunes, but does so in such a retarded manner that you can’t respect them as legitimate critics, let alone writers (you are far too kind in saying it’s “clear” that the guy is a “very good writer”)

    anyway, i’ve just gotta say that you’ve absolutely tooled this guy. good work. and i’ll check out your record for sure, now

  5. ian, your pretentious prick side is showing.

    the majority of this band’s reviews belie your tired, jaded rock journalist opinion.

    this band captures feeling and sets it to music: interesting, unique, engaging and moving music.

    i second the motion that TATE should tour the southeastern US soon. i haven’t been to see a band in years, but i would love to see this one.

  6. Demographics? I’m a stay-at-home father, long removed from alt bands. The band has a great sound; I’ll buy the album.

    By the way, is the band name any kind of allusion to Don DeLillo’s book “White Noise”? If so, then I really dig the irony.


  7. I haven’t purchased an album in years but after hearing TATE, I bought their album. It’s a breath of fresh air in an industry plagued by ‘toxicity’. I plan to blow a speaker playing TATE at full volume today.,,,and it’ll be worth it!

  8. I want to get a sex change operation JUST so I can tell Ian Cohen to SUCK MY DICK! I haven’t been so excited about a band in YEARS. Fuck Ian Cohen and his irrelevant opinion. Keep doing EXACTLY what your doing TATE. Your work is brilliant. I intend to buy every CD you ever make, and tickets to every concert tour that passes through my town. Sending love and adoration from Atlanta.

  9. After reading this review I can’t help but wonder if he was even listening to the same music as I was. My wife and I have seen TATE twice, at Disney Hall and at The Troubadour in West Hollywood and loved each show. We already have tickets to see them at the Ford Amphitheater this April.

    Sounds to me like Ian has been at his job a little too long and needs to take a break from listening to music completely, so he can learn to apprciate the really good stuff (like TATE) when he hears it.

  10. ugh this guy sounds so biased on what he expected the album to sound like….. if this guy is listening to all these bands looking for a specific sound they should have, and totally bashing on it because it doesn’t fit his preference, well.. who’s the demographic now?????

  11. I was fortunate enough to come across the recorded account of the preparation and performance at the Disney Music Hall sometime in early May, and I became an instant fan. I was unbelievably impressed with the musical talent of all of the group members, and agree with the group’s response that like most reviews this one revealed more about the reviewer than the band and their music.
    Actually the comments above seem to indicate that the response left the fans even more impressed with this group, who has their stuff(?), together.
    Attended the magical night in June when the group came to Denver, and enthusiastically look forward to when they return.
    I read that when the band was forming that Anna and Noah didn’t come on board immediately, but I am glad that they made the right decision. Steven, you are amazing, and it is hard to imagine the group without you. Daren, you can rest easy that ‘everyone doesn’t recognize the drummer’ is not true, it just might help to always have a pair of drumsticks in your hands.
    Mikel, your songs remind me of some of my adventures, and mistakes, I experienced before I quit drinking over 40 years ago. I am now 70+, and your music invigorates me, keep on truckin, and come back to Denver soon.


  12. pitchfork is fucking retarded. i wouldnt put any stock in what they say. but i guess you are trying to turn bad press into good press. good on you, you must really care about your image.

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