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.
New Times music feature
Read "Nothing Not New" every single weekday of 2010 at www.NothingNotNew.com.
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.
But in the name of combating the scourge of aesthetic atrophy, I'm obligated to traverse this course of deprivation. I'm hoping you're along for the ride and that you, too, reassess your own musical diet and, more important, your musical appetite.
What have I learned six weeks into Nothing Not New? In broad terms, I don't always need what I can get. And I'm guessing you don't, either. Recently, I noticed The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet beckoning me from my CD collection. But I know that record backward and forward. So, what could I possibly get out of it at this point?
In discussing the project with a younger friend recently, he told me his 50-year-old dad is always willing to listen to the new music his son gives him, but, invariably, Dad says, "It's okay . . . But it's not as good as ____, who did it better in 1978." Aesthetic atrophy has seemingly doomed the dude's dad.
You still may be a couple of decades away from 50, yet you've probably said something similar. Fine. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.
Just because you think there will never be another Beatles or Beach Boys or Ramones or R.E.M. or Joan Jett or Jimi Hendrix doesn't mean the current artists influenced by those greats are any less, um . . . good. (You, a fan, are no more qualified to make that judgment than I, a listener, am.)
This is my lesson, six weeks in: All we can do is continue to absorb new music in a concerted effort to reflect on what it is we appreciate and don't appreciate. To reflect on our taste, or lack thereof.
It's intellectually dishonest to disavow the music created by new artists. But I do it and you do it. Hopefully, with Nothing Not New, I do it a lot less. But I've re-learned that music I can appreciate (no, like) is being created as you read this, and released every single Tuesday of the year. Are you willing to accept that fact, too? You almost have to accept it, as discomfiting as it may seem to those of us with the same 200 songs shuffling around on our iPod.
So, my challenge to you: Fight the imminent onset of aesthetic atrophy. You don't have to listen to 260 new releases this year. I'll do that for you. Instead, take those 10 tired CDs out of your car or create a new playlist on your iPod or ask your hipster friend to burn some new discs for you. I and other New Times readers want to hear what you have to say about the music you'd probably never listen to otherwise. Seriously, it's for your own good.
As they say, everyone's a critic. So don't be a critic. And you know what? Don't be a fan, either.
Just be a listener.
Adjusting the Curve
I've been grading new releases based on what I've heard this year, not on what I've adored for the past 20-plus years (because what can compete with The Stooges' Fun House, the Elvis Presley Sun sessions, or The Beatles' Revolver?). Here's how the 2010 releases stack up. You can read about each of them at www.nothingnotnew.com):
The Soft Pack: The Soft Pack (A)
Charlotte Gainsbourg: IRM (A-)
Pierced Arrows: Descending Shadows (A-)
Los Campesinos!: Romance Is Boring (B+)
Surfer Blood: Astro Coast (B+)
Eels: End Times (B+)
Priestess: Prior to the Fire (B+)
Hot Chip: One Life Stand (B+)
Juliana Hatfield: Peace & Love (B+)
Scanners: Submarine (B)
Spoon: Transference (B)
Laura Veirs: July Flame (B)
Allison Moorer: Crows (B)
You Say Party! We Say Die!: XXXX (B)
The Hot Rats: Turn Ons (B)
The Magnetic Fields: Realism (B)
Cold War Kids: Behave Yourself EP (B-)
Polysics: Absolute Polysics (C+)
Texas Tornados: Está Bueno (C+)
Joe Pug: Messengers (C)
The Brunettes: Paper Dolls (C)
Beach House: Teen Dream (C)
OK Go: Of the Colour of the Blue Sky (C)
The Watson Twins: Talking to You, Talking to Me (C)
Basia Bulat: Heart of My Own (C)
Massive Attack: Heligoland (C-)
Delphic: Acolyte (C-)
Yeasayer: Odd Blood (C-)
Vampire Weekend: Contra (D+)
Four Tet: There Is Love in You (D)
Editors: In This Light and On This Evening (D)
Midlake: The Courage of Others (F)
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