Nothing Not New: I'm No Critic But I'm Also Not a Fan. I'm a Listener

They say everyone's a critic. That doesn't include me, apparently.

Even though I am paid to write about music — thanks to my role as a blogger responsible for writing about one new CD a day at www.NothingNotNew.com, an ostentatious yearlong project that has me listening to nothing not released in 2010 during the year 2010.

Yes, I put my published observations out there to be slammed, ripped, and thrashed by you, the music fan, in a public forum. That's okay, because you're a fan. It's what you do. And you wouldn't be a good fan if you didn't possess an irrational need to defend the artists' work to which you feel such strong connections. Critics are used to that sort of thing. But I've never felt less like a critic.

I have vigorously consumed music as a fan for most of my adult life. I've also actively created it through a string of local bands running through the cities I've lived in as an adult. Those roles — fan and creator — were comfortable for me. "Critic" isn't.

A critic is someone who believes he is infallible in ascribing opinion. A critic, whether he is correct in an assumption, feels his taste is impeccable. By that definition, a critic is always right — even when he, in a fan's opinion, is horribly wrong. I've now written enough blog posts about new music this year (35 and counting) to know I'm not comfortable calling myself infallible or my taste impeccable.

No, I'm simply a listener. A listener is all I can be if there's going to be any hope for me as I tread into the quickly deepening waters of middle age. That's why I took on this Nothing Not New project — to stave off the stiffening effects of prolonged fandom.

Music editor Martin Cizmar called it "aesthetic atrophy" in this space a month or two ago, defining it as "a wasting away of the ability to appreciate new, different, or avant-garde music . . . An unavoidable consequence of aging, though the process can be slowed through therapeutic episodes of forced exposure to various stimuli."

Nothing Not New is that therapeutic episode. Or, rather, an unending yearlong stretch of therapeutic episodes.

With any luck, my shunning of fandom will help us all become better music listeners. With any luck.

Who knew that listening to so much new music — and nothing but — could be so damn difficult?

It's all I've done since January 1 of this year, and it's all I will be doing until December 31, exactly one year since I last popped in a CD of something I wanted to listen to. Something like AC/DC's Let There Be Rock, Wilco's Being There, The Who's Sell Out, Turbonegro's Apocalypse Dudes, James Brown's Roots of a Revolution, Devo's Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, Luna's Penthouse, or any of the 900 or so beloved CDs or LPs that reside in my collection. Believe me when I say it's been difficult.

They tell me it's a "groundbreaking experiment." It's probably the only experiment worth conducting on a relatively healthy 40-year-old self-proclaimed aficionado of popular music who works as a copy editor at an alternative weekly in Phoenix, Arizona.

Cizmar told me that, as in tens of millions of other music lovers, aesthetic atrophy creeps in even on people who consider themselves the most open-minded of music fans. It can happen at any age, but at a certain time in our life (usually our mid- to late 20s), our sensibilities, depending how you look at it, are either fully developed or cut off at the knees. Basically, at that point, we "like what we like" and we, with ever-increasing frequency, given free rein, will choose our musical "comfort food" over anything else.

How many of you have had the same damn 10 CDs in your car for the past month? How many of you have an iPod playlist of your favorite 200 songs that rarely gets updated? How many of you have a friend who has burned for you a CD by a new or lesser-known artist and said, "I think you'd really like this," (because your friends are supposed to understand you, right?) only for you to listen to three songs before you go back to that beat-up copy of your favorite CD from your senior year in college? How many of you pretty much stopped remaining current when you became immersed in your career or got married or had kids or simply found yourself with less time to devote to music?

Don't feel bad. It happens to everyone, and it will happen to you — if it already hasn't.

Thirty-five. That's the number of brand-new releases I've listened to, and on which I've documented my observations, in 2010. That number easily represents more new releases than I'd listened to in the past three years — shit, maybe longer — combined. Like I said, it's been difficult. Fun, but difficult. It's like traveling abroad for two weeks but really missing American junk food after day 10, or dining out so much that you've forgotten the simple joy of preparing and eating a home-cooked meal. In regard to this project, I'm happy I've been exposed to The Soft Pack and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but I'm really craving Rocket from the Crypt and Holly Golightly right about now.

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robert c
robert c

I feel sorry for Jay Bennett here, being persuaded to participate in a project with a seriously flawed premise.

The concept of "aesthetic atrophy" as defined by Martin Cizmar is very tunnel-visioned. Avoiding this kind of "atrophy" has everything to do with how life, art, music, literature is approached...and pretty much nothing to do with only listening to new music. Is it "good" simply because it's new. Naah.

I think "aesthetic atrophy" is avoided by an open-minded approach to all things experienced and not-yet-experienced. "New" can also mean, say, music I've never heard before. That's new to me. Listening only to music that's new can be just just as atrophying as someone who's addicted to the classic rock of various decades. It's about limiting your vision.

I listened to plenty of crap in my 20s and 30s, much of it I'll never listen to again, and no loss. Real art keeps up a continuing dialogue with the listener over time, and so do musicians who are artists. What's pathetic is someone -- no matter the age -- who's focused mainly on what's hip/hot etc etc. That's what I call pathetic. I know quite a few people slip-sliding into middle-age (or firmly in it), who are way more open to a variety of music than they ever were as 20-somethings...but thumbs up to open-minded listeners of all ages.

So...I think the task that Martin Cizmar has put Jay Bennett to is a very limiting one, as likely to induce atrophy as any Classic Rock Hot 100 list. Jay -- throw off those chains, free yourself and listen to and review anything you damn well please...

Jay Bennett
Jay Bennett

I agree that Surfer Blood is one of the better CDs I've heard this year.

Of course this project's pretentious. It's high-concept, so it can't avoid some pretension.

Eric
Eric

Doing something and then saying you're not doing it just makes you even more of a pretentious a-hole with no real talent.

Surfer Blood is the best thing released this year. I'll take being called a critic in saying that.

 

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