Taylor Swift's new album, Folklore, was released to universal acclaim from fans, non-fans, and music critics alike. But some parts of Swift's fandom are upset that music critics don't like it enough.
Pitchfork has had a long, hard road towards legitimacy as a music criticism website. I am old enough to remember a time when we clowned on them for being too earnest. Their effusive praise for Radiohead's Kid A is still hard to read without cringing, even 20 years after the fact. Over the years, Pitchfork's reputation has swung the other way, in line with its image as a "hipster" website. Artists like pop musician Halsey have bemoaned getting low scores from the outlet (a 6.5 out of 10, which caused the artist to unknowingly call for One World Trade Center to collapse), and the perception is that their taste is pretentious, generally favoring white, male, guitar-based music over everything else.
Despite all of that, Pitchfork senior editor Jillian Mapes gave Folklore a glowing review. Mapes compares Swift to the likes of Jane Eyre, and says that the album highlights her talent for storytelling in songs.
"You can tell that this is what drives Swift by the way she molds her songs: cramming specific details into curious cadences, bending the lines to her will," Mapes wrote. Even with that praise, Pitchfork and Mapes in particular are now targets of Swift's most ardent stans. You see, she gave the album an 8.0, and fans think that this positive review was not high enough.
Although it's been a few days and the furor has died down, the replies to Pitchfork's tweet about the review are littered with demands that the website either take down the review or re-score it.
"Folklore deserved a 10. Also personally offended by the suggestion she should have 'pruned' seven & hoax. That speaks volumes about the taste of the person writing this review, yikes," one fan wrote.
Not every Taylor Swift fan feels this way, and some stan accounts have tried to call in their fellow fans, saying that harassing a critic is out of line. Unfortunately, the angrier fans have not calmed down, and if you search Mapes' name on Twitter, or if you search "Pitchfork Taylor Swift," you'll still find Swifties tweeting about how unfair her review was. Mapes has confirmed that her address and phone number were doxed and she has been receiving calls from upset fans, as well as death threats on Twitter and via email. Mapes locked her Twitter account right as the review went live and at time of writing has not unlocked it.
For Swifties, part of the issue is that Pitchfork's 8.0 rating lowered Folklore's score on the review aggregator website Metacritic, taking the album from a 90 to an 89. The way that Metacritic calculates their scores is an opaque science. In their FAQ, they say that it's a "weighted average" but don't provide much clarity on what that means and how different scores are weighed. The intense scrutiny of this critical consensus is similar to the fan response towards any criticism of the video game The Last of Us Part II, which saw the game's director and one of its voice actors lay into critics who had issues with the game.
Right now, this subset of Taylor Swift's fandom are acting out the worst behaviors we've come to accept as routine in video game fandom, which also has an unhealthy obsession with Metacritic scores. In their case, video game fans know that sometimes bonuses for developers are tied to Metacritic scores. In 2012, a developer from the acclaimed studio Obsidian revealed that because one of its games did not reach an 85 on Metacritic, the developers who worked on it did not receive royalties. Marketing teams at big game publishers obsess over a game's final Metacritic score. They'll invite people to play big budget games before release and "mock review" them in order to estimate a Metacritic score before release, and make final adjustments in order to increase it.
Taylor Swift's continued success does not rely on a high Metacritic ranking. Swift is already a critically acclaimed, popular artist, and multi-millionaire whose work has dominated the charts every time she releases a new album. She is arguably one of the last standing pop stars in the way we understand the term when it was coined, the last one who can dominate our culture with brand deals and sold out stadium tours in an age where fewer people actually buy music. You don't get to that position on hype alone—Swift is a talented songwriter and singer, and music critics have acknowledged her talent even on albums that don't showcase her best work. Pitchfork gave one of her previous albums a 9.0, writing, "In a counterpoint to the musical wanderlust on display, there’s a newfound patience to Swift’s observations, a knowledge that narratives form out of brokenness and frustrated communication more often than they do out of ease or any emotional clarity." They compare her to Joni Mitchell and Pablo Neruda, describing her work with a deep sense of respect.
The issue with this behavior is less the quality of Taylor's work—which is, again, broadly good—but fans stifling any kind of conversation about art unless it is unbridled praise. We should always condemn harassment and doxing, of course, but even the threat of harassment is enough to make both critics and regular ass people pull their punches instead of being fully honest. One particular criticism of Folklore that fans have taken issue with is Mapes saying that she felt that the songs "hoax" and "seven" were filler. I think "seven" is a great song, but not everyone in the world is going to like every song. Hell, I once went to a party where someone turned off "Ride" by Ciara to put on Arcade Fire, and while I'll never understand that it's not illegal to dislike Ciara.
It's important to remember that fandom is a place of love, a community where people can lift each other up and support each other. It feels good to belong, and tweeting at randoms that Taylor Swift is good, actually, can help melancholy teens find that place of belonging. We also can't pretend that it's only young women who act this way. Toxic sports fans get into physical fights in stadium parking lots over their team, living out fandom rivalries in a violent, dangerous way. It's not hard to understand why people do this, though. Yeah, I do think it was really funny that Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly said "nice swing, bitch," to an Astros player that he almost hit with a ball. The feeling of allegiance with Kelly, who lost to the Astros twice when they were cheating, is intoxicating. But that's also why it's so dangerous. I mean, Kelly is truly just being an asshole. Why should I cheer that on?
Maybe it's inevitable that fans will get overly invested in their fandoms. The moniker stan comes from Eminem's song "Stan," released in 2000, about his own experiences of being the subject of a toxic fandom. Little has changed in 20 years. That said, we should all be more introspective about what this obsession is serving. All I can see is a stifling of creativity, of placing an artist's popularity and commercial success far above the actual work that they do.
That the focus is on the numerical score of Mapes' review and not her thoughtful writing is the most disheartening. Even though Mapes clearly loved Folklore, the number is the only thing the fans can see. These numerical scores breed such toxicity, and have become such a distraction from constructive and interesting criticism, many critics are stepping away from them. Here at VICE Games, for example, we don't put numerical scores on game reviews. The same is true for Kotaku, where I previously wrote reviews. Polygon stopped using numerical scores in 2018, explaining that "focusing on criticism and curation, will better serve our readers than the serviceable but ultimately limited reviews rubric that, for decades, has functioned as a load-bearing pillar of most game publications."
The value of Swift's work will only truly be known once time has passed, when people feel more free to take it seriously and discover its nuances, to highlight her strengths, and yes, to recognize her weaknesses. Stopping that conversation from happening is all but a guarantee that she will only ever be seen as a teenage craze, a flash in the pan, a pop artist with no value.