It’s the critic’s job to be discerning, to pasteurize and skim the unfiltered mess spilling out of TV and radio, Best Buy, and the blogosphere. But inside every Radiohead bootlegger, every Sisyphean Ryan Adams discographer, every record-store clerk claiming to have lent Stephen Malkmus his contact-lens solution—anyone who’s ever loved anything wrapped in cellophane—beats the heart of Comic Book Guy, The Simpsons resident nerd, the ultimate fanboy.
Beneath his hardened, mint-condition exterior is a man who wants only a wheelbarrow full of tacos and a Dr. Who marathon. Vulnerable like every sneering rock critic, each of whom can point to one artist, record, or song that ordained their lifelong marriage to music. And the rare occasions when the veneer cracks, when the professional appreciator slips up and lets out a prepubescent squeal of excitement—or a sorrowful pang of lament—are the most significant moments in artistic commentary. Only a critic that submits to fanboyism can match his readers’ earnestness, grasping the pinnacles and depths experienced by us, the fans ditching school to camp out for concert tickets, the people who listen to music for fun.
In the days preceding Radiohead’s newsmaking last record, In Rainbows, Pitchfork was providing daily updates on the release, culminating in a news bite titled, “NEW RADIOHEAD ALBUM AAAAAAAHHH!!!” This, coming from “The House that Snark Built,” is just plain cute. It’s the glimmer of humanity that, in Comic Book Guy, is beholden only to the audience; the knee-high Radioactive Man fans that haunt his shop can never see the man who would give his hand (and virginity) to Xena, Warrior Princess, were she attainable.
By day our shopkeeper is protector of the Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop, a seething dragon lounging on stolen riches that are purportedly for sale, though the gold of the misdirected young shopper is rarely deemed worthy of exchange. But stripped of his muscle suit, the Comic Book Guy becomes merely a comic-book guy, a humble Peter Parker who just wants his most prized possessions, and nothing else. In The Simpsons Movie, when faced with the imminent destruction of all life in Springfield, he assesses his situation: “Life well spent!”
It doesn’t matter that you just discovered your favorite Beatles record is not Sgt. Pepper, but Revolver. You have to cover the new Celine Dion album. But the fanboy doesn’t. This one-dimensional satisfaction is echoed in The A.V. Club’s treatment of the film. The website commemorated the release with an entire week of epic features, including “15 Simpsons Moments That Perfectly Captured Their Eras” and the unadulterated “The Simpsons Vs. Civilization: Why Springfield’s First Family Is Mankind’s Greatest Achievement.” Swapping their reporter’s hats for the branded merchandise of a convention-goer, The A.V. Club staff culls what is essentially a “best of” of conversations repeated by fans a hundred times over. The Simpsons notch victories over democracy, religion, and even sex, and the writers get a chance to drop favorite quotes while creating a retrospective more complete than any ordinary review.
By contrast, there’s The A.V. Club’s formal review of The Simpsons Movie, by head writer Nathan Rabin. Now 31, Rabin was a ripe 13 when the series debuted, sprung from its earlier short form on The Tracey Ullman Show. It’s “a big part of my childhood and adolescence,” he attested in a point-counterpoint defending the show’s late seasons. Maybe that’s why his review is so restrained, acknowledging fan touchstones without mentioning any. “It isn’t the best movie ever,” he writes, “but audiences will probably be too busy laughing to complain about any shortcomings.” It’s like Dad trying to explain to the kids his years of going to Grateful Dead concerts, but without mentioning the pot.
Critics are hampered not only by this weight of objectivity, but also by the burden of producing content. News value, they call it in journalism school. You write about what’s big and new. It doesn’t matter that you just discovered your favorite Beatles record is not Sgt. Pepper, but Revolver. You have to cover the new Celine Dion album. But the fanboy doesn’t.
That’s why Stephen Metcalf, Slate’s “critic at large,” can emerge twice a year to write about whatever music he damn well pleases. And most recently, that was an enthusiastic, anachronistic ode to the genius of Swedish crooner Jens Lekman. Although Metcalf’s cutesy, autobiographical seal of approval followed the release of Lekman’s last album, Night Falls Over Kortedala, it’s mostly a tribute to his earlier work.
For all his fervor, Metcalf mostly avoids critical insight, wrapping his column around a warm anecdote about his four-year-old daughter, who shares the author’s obsession with Lekman. Unlike The A.V. Club’s deconstructionist Simpsons lists, he spends most of the article transcribing the Swede’s finest verses. It’s far from a representative look at his repertoire, but Metcalf is free to hone in on his favorite bits and spend whole paragraphs on each stanza – something more native to Bible scholars than journalists.
Another carrier of fanboyism is Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times, who, as Gawker.com pointed out, has a long-standing music crush on R. Kelly. The critical sin Sanneh commits is that he allows his uncloseted adulation to taint what should be logical analysis. In a column defending Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet DVD, he relentlessly argues that the booty-pining bard is in on the joke, that the saga of ridiculousness is all part of the plan. But the smattering of non-evidence he submits devolves into a fan’s highlight reel of the film, and the question remains unanswered. (Meanwhile a more recent video hints that Kelly is indeed clueless.)
So what is the Third Way? How does the unflappable critic reconcile his fawning inner enthusiast? The answer stems from a very simple adage: Write what you know. Shameless flattery is too sweet, and out-of-hand dismissals (such as Allmusic.com’s Cake hate) are unhelpful genre write-offs. The best critique comes from the disappointed fanboy.
That is, the lifelong devotee who has had their soul crushed by betrayal from their favorite artist. The Police fan who torched his autographed Synchronicity LP when he heard the words The Dream of the Blue Turtles, or the Dylan follower launching boos at his electric performance in Newport. Only they can pinpoint the tragedy, can look back and see the telltale coil of smoke that portended the eventual bonfire.
And for Radiohead’s In Rainbows, that witness was Cokemachineglow.com. In a sea awash with praise, they kept their heads above water with a counterpoint that scored the album a 67 percent, published the same day as another review on the site giving it an 85 percent. But the negative review stands out in contrast to their pants-wetting over 2003’s Hail to the Thief; the site ran two glowing writeups for its release, only to follow up with a third 10 weeks later. (The scores ranged from 88 percent to 95 percent, which mean respectively “exceptional” and “best of year.”)
Coming from a cadre of historic Radiohead lovers, Cokemachineglow’s In Rainbows smackdown is pointed and rare: They call them lazy. The album, authors Chet Betz and Joel Elliott write, is “an easy pill to swallow,” a watery, declawed version of previous highlights from OK Computer and Kid A. Many of the tracks on In Rainbows were written years ago (some as far back as 1998), but since then the band has become the carbon-monoxidized protagonist of its 1997 masterpiece: fitter, happier, content, and sloth. So, Betz and Elliott write, they can release a stripped-down, unadventurous album—and not even charge for it—because the hopeless fanatics, the ones who still can’t smell the smoke, are “gonna cop that shit no matter what.”
And that realization is painful. For music nerds, it’s tough to match the excitement that builds over four years of craving a new studio album, especially from a band dear to your heart, the band that recorded your generation’s Sgt. Pepper, and may even be the reason you listen to music the way you do today. Like thousands of other fans, I was up early on Oct. 10 to collect my In Rainbows download. And like many, I contemplated taking a sick day to lock myself in my room with the latest batch of consciousness from Thom Yorke & Co. Because the epiphany that Radiohead was not an aural messenger from Olympus or some astral phenomenon but rather five human beings in “just another band” indeed could have been soul-crushing, it’s best that it came from a fellow fanatic.
We wouldn’t have it any other way. The professional critic stands on your doorstep out of duty, the faceless army messenger who hands you a letter and leaves. His notice is formal and structured. But when the critical exchange comes from one fanboy to another, it’s the height of artistic discourse. The critic who can insightfully gush and grieve over his favorite band is the oracle of music journalism. In prosperous times his enthusiasm can convert the uninitiated and elevate the highest points of a defining album; but when the wave crashes, he can draw on his history of elation to pinpoint the band’s failure with an honesty that reveres their good times without sparing the indictment they deserve. Because only the most vulnerable of fans has experienced the joys and despairs that will so shake a heart that its owner, the author of so much praise, can scarcely muster three lethal words: “Worst. Episode. Ever.”