Academic Criticism

As a teenager, i kept a close watch over my response to music. I considered and reconsidered everything about my aesthetic development with Victorian earnestness. I had conflicting aims—to become a writer and to suppress acknowledgment of my sexuality—and so I required careful management.

I am more reckless in middle age. In the past few years I have become a fan—something I never dared in high school. In love with Belle & Sebastian, Ben Kweller, the Decemberists, and Sufjan Stevens, I have visited band websites and subscribed to band listservs. I have bought T-shirts, posters, tour-only EPs, and expensive compilation albums from Spain with only one track I can bear to listen to. I have saved old issues of British music magazines with very limited circulations. I have avidly read essays in praise of my beloveds, no matter how insipid the style or recondite the detail. I have learned about lossless file codecs in order to trade live shows. I have listened to songs recorded by one of my beloveds before he came up with his distinctive sound—before he was any good, in fact—and I have treasured them, because they are, after all, his. I have memorized lyrics. I have found obscure, probably unintentional parallels between the lyrics of one beloved’s songs and those of another. I have wondered about my beloveds’ personal lives and inspected their songs for hints of autobiography. If a love of mine sings a song by another musician, I buy that musician’s album too, and try to like it.

Last year, at the height of my madness, I realized what it resembled: academic literary criticism of a great author. There is the same impulse to collect and the same reluctance to judge. To prove how much you love Moby-Dick, you read Mardi; to prove your love for Colin Meloy, you listen to Tarkio. There is the same fetishistic interest in variant performances and the same concern for the artist’s preservation from commercial interference. The fan becomes proficient in FLAC and BitTorrent; the critic learns about copy-text and the Hinman collator. You follow Sufjan to Denison Witmer, and you follow Melville to Richard Henry Dana Jr. There is the same attenuated alliance, genial but emulous, with fellow lovers. And there is the same tolerance for trivia and banality in criticism, so long as the critic shares in your worship, and especially if he furthers it. In theory this tolerance is mystifying, since its ultimate source is an aesthetic distinction that feels particularly acute. In practice, however, it is not mystifying at all. Anyone who undams his love will end up swimming in it.

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