A New Times Writer Fights "Aesthetic Atrophy" by Listening Only to New Music in 2010

Jay Bennett is a "fan" of popular music in the truest and best sense of the word. How else could a 41-year-old copy editor with a house, a wife, and a profound love for Cheap Trick be persuaded to forsake the record collection he's been lovingly curating for a quarter-century to spend an entire year force-feeding himself new music?

And not just listening to new music, either. Jay made himself write about a new album five days a week on our blog, Up On The Sun. That goes beyond just love — that's undeniable devotion. And it's what made his project, Nothing Not New, so special.

It was a marathon of music. The final stat sheet says Jay graded close to 300 albums, very few of which reminded him of the Hüsker Dü and Minutemen records from his formative years. In sheer quantity, that's probably more than any reviewer out there, save Chris Weingarten, the guy who writes gimmicky Twitter reviews of 1,000 albums a year. But he only taps out 140 snarky characters per review; to paraphrase Lou Reed, Jay has weeks that beat Weingarten's year.

But the numbers really don't tell the story. Nothing Not New started as an exploration of one of my pet theories, something I call "aesthetic atrophy." It's even on Wikipedia, defined as "the diminished capacity to appreciate new or unfamiliar music or other sensory stimuli . . . typically accompanied by the sufferer's retreat to familiar and comfortable works."

To test that theory, Jay did an extreme experiment, fully immersing himself in new and unfamiliar music, doing his best to appreciate it. It wasn't about being a critic nearly as much as it was about trying to cheat nature and recapture the fervent love of new music he had in his younger years.

Did it work? Is aesthetic atrophy real? If so, is it unavoidable as we age? Did bingeing on new music, spending a year without the warm comfort of the classics, change Jay's taste? What new stuff did he actually like, anyway?

As the project draws to a close, these are the questions I wanted to ask. So I picked up a six-pack of Bohemia and a couple of caramel-filled churros from a store down the street from New Times' headquarters, and we sat in my office talking about music for nearly two hours, while tape rolled.

Here's a heavily edited and abbreviated version of that conversation:

Martin Cizmar: You graded records throughout the year; now how would you grade yourself? How do you think you did with sticking to the agreed-upon parameters of the Nothing Not New experiment — listening to a new record every weekday and not listening to any of your old music collection so you could focus on new stuff?

Jay Bennett: As far as getting up my reviews, I'd give myself a solid B+. I made it through July 31 without missing a post. I never should have missed that first one of August, because that set the tone for the fall. There were periods after July 31 where I did really well and didn't miss a post for two or three weeks, but there were some fallow periods. As far as not listening to any old music, I'd give myself another B+. During weekdays, I did not listen to anything out of my collection. On weekends, I did once in a while, because I'd have people over and they'd want to listen to something, and it would have been unrealistic to say, "Sorry, guys, we can't play that."

MC: In the end, what album did you listen to the most during 2010?

JB: I would say when I got The Hold Steady record, I listened to that quite a bit. The Screaming Females record, when I got that, I played it in the car all the time. I listened to Surfer Blood a lot. We actually bought the Sharon Jones record because my wife, Laura, was into it. We bought the Budos Band record because Laura was into it. The Deerhunter record, the Soft Pack record — stuff that's all in my top 10. Basically, I just went through my top 10 on iTunes, and the stuff that was played most is the stuff that ended up in my top 10 albums of the year.

MC: What was your favorite song of the year?

JB: A song by the Hold Steady called "Our Whole Lives" is right up there. "Night Work," by Scissor Sisters, is a great song. "Human Rocket" by Devo. "Bad Blood" by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — the whole BRMC record is average, but I love that song. The LCD Soundsystem song "I Can Change" was another one. But I'm not really a big shuffle person — I don't really think that's the way to listen to music. I like to listen to as much of a record as possible, which is why I don't like these hour-and-15-minute records. It's so hard to get through them, and they front-load the record with the best songs, so there's little reason to make it to the end. It's kind of frustrating to me.

MC: Is there a record you now love that you're pretty sure you never would have listened to without the Nothing Not New project?

JB: I would say 90 percent of the stuff I really liked. Because, based on the whole aesthetic atrophy thing, I simply wasn't listening to new music. I used to buy a shitload of new music. It was a thing I used to do — every week, I'd go to the record store and buy one or two, maybe even three new records. But over the past 10 years or so, I stopped doing that, so if I hadn't done Nothing Not New, I probably wouldn't have bought much new stuff at all. If I were in L.A. or something and it was, like, "Let's go to a record store and drop $100," I'd probably buy a lot of reissues or some obscure thing from the '60s that I'd always wanted to hear. But most of the new stuff, while I would be aware it was out — I'd hear the names and read about it — I wouldn't actually ever hear it. In recent years, I've read more about new music than I actually listen to.

MC: What about Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest, your favorite record of the year?

JB: No chance. I would have said, "Deerhunter: Oh, another band with deer in the name." I would not have heard it. No Age is another one I wouldn't have listened to. Even Dead Weather — I wouldn't have even bothered with it. I might listen to one song on YouTube and think, "Oh, that's cool," but I wouldn't go drop $12 on the record, like I used to do.

MC: Is there anything from these bands where you know it's their second or third album — maybe like Deerhunter — that you love and it makes you want to go back and hear their early stuff? If I was in that position and I loved a new record from a band, I would ache to go back and hear their early stuff.

JB: No, not really. I can't say I'm dying to hear anything. Maybe something like Belle & Sebastian, where I liked the new record enough, and I know they have a huge back catalog. I didn't love it, but I liked it, and people say, "Well, you have to hear this record that they put out in 1995." So I guess I'd like to hear the quote-unquote "classic" albums from acts that put out an album in 2010 that I liked, but everyone says, "Oh, you've gotta hear this one."

MC: It seems you and your wife, Laura, ended up disagreeing on a few records, like the Girl Talk album you hated and she liked. Did others like that pop up? What did she think of this whole project?

JB: I didn't hate the Girl Talk record. I listened to it, and I couldn't help but be sucked in. That's its danger. This is a trite analogy, but it's like junk food. I could sit there and eat McRibs all day long and love it but know it's not good for me. Like drinking Bohemia at two in the afternoon on a workday.

But getting back to your question about Laura: Yeah, there were a lot of things where she asked what I listened to today and I was, like, "Hey, I kinda liked this," and more often than not, [from her] it'd be, "Naw, I'm not digging it."

MC: Was her aesthetic atrophy as advanced as yours?

JB: Yeah, if not more so. I think she's even more skeptical than I am — but it's not just her. A lot of people I know, they like what they like, and they don't seem that interested in new bands. They like what they like from that key moment in their lives when music was the most important thing in the whole world to them. After that period in your life, as your life changes, you're stuck at that apex. If it happens to be 1987 and you're a senior in high school and The Smiths is all you care about, then nothing is ever going to be as good as The Smiths.

MC: How did you pick what you were going to listen to throughout the year? What would pique your interest in a record?

JB: The great undefinable quality attached to the word "buzz" would definitely be one thing — buzz from people I know at work and socially and from taste-making websites like Pitchfork or The Onion's AV Club.

MC: Buzz is such a weird thing, and no one really knows where it starts. Everyone wants to write about the bands everyone else is writing about, and no one knows why or how. How is it that a band gets buzz and that people want to listen to it and write about it? It can't all come from Pitchfork.

JB: I think you need one key person to say, "Listen to this," and people will do it. If the right person sees Sleigh Bells at some Brooklyn venue where there are 14 people watching and says, "Sleigh Bells are the next big thing," then they're the next big thing.

MC: Can you think of a band that's doing something old — a style, a genre — better than anyone has ever done it before? Something that's been part of rock 'n' roll for a long time that's now being perfected? That's a thing that I think is a symptom of aesthetic atrophy: When people say, "Well, there's nothing now that's better than what there used to be, so why listen to it?"

JB: Well, that's almost impossible for me to answer because of the aesthetic atrophy. Because I'm so ingrained in my time — let's say 1985 through 1999, the 14 years between when I was 16 and 30 years old, when I was most active as a consumer of music. But the answer to your question would probably be no. There's no act today that's better than the originators — the biggest names in their genres, people like Elvis and the Stones and Ike Turner and Bo Diddley and Wanda Jackson and the Stooges — no one is doing anything today better than those people.

Now, are people today doing stuff better than the second tier of "rock greats"? Yeah, probably. Let's just say there's no record that I've heard this year that I would instantly put into my record collection as one of my favorites. I don't know if that's because of aesthetic atrophy or because that record is not out there.

What about you? Is Band of Horses really among your favorite records? Do you really think you'll be listening to that in 15 years?

MC: Probably.

JB: With Kanye West's new one, no one is going to be listening to it this time next year.

MC: I still listen to his first record, so I think I will. I don't think this record is head and shoulders better than his first records. So when you talk about that 15-year thing, I think that's an interesting way to put it. Will I still listen to Band of Horses? I think so.

JB: That's cool, but you're also just under the age where aesthetic atrophy really hits you.

MC: So you're saying it's hopeless. After age 30, you're never going to hear a new record that will become one of your all-time favorites?

JB: I'd say it's unlikely. It's possible, but you might really have to search. Like the new OFF! record — it's so great. But five years from now? Eh, I might just gravitate back to the old Circle Jerks records. We'll just have to see.

MC: What's the takeaway for people from your generation — people now in their 40s — what would you tell them you learned from this project?

JB: Don't discount modern music just because you think you've already heard everything — because you haven't. Though I will submit that there are no acts that are topping the originators — The Beatles, Chuck Berry, The Who, The Kinks, Jerry Lee Lewis — there are still a lot of very, very good bands out there. And I'm glad I heard them.

MC: But, for the typical person, if it's not going to be as good, why bother? Why get a fast-food breakfast sandwich that isn't a McMuffin? Why eat a fucking Croissan'Wich from Burger King when you can have the original, the best?

JB: That's a good point. If you're reading my column, you're a music fan. If you're even reading our blog, you're more than just a casual music fan who buys one record a year that happens to be Katy Perry or Billy Joel's Greatest Hits. The people who are looking at our blog are people who are truly interested in music. So that's how I look at it when I'm writing — I don't care about Joe Blow who only listens to Toys in the Attic over and over.

MC: But is Joe Blow right when he says, "I listen to Toys in the Attic over and over because there's nothing as good coming out now"?

JB: For Joe Blow and his ilk, maybe, but not for serious music aficionados.

MC: So unless you're a buff, there's no reason to listen to current music?

JB: Yeah, maybe.

MC: That's a profound statement, to me. To say that unless you're a buff, the opportunity cost of seeking out new music isn't worth it. What is it that makes someone a buff?

JB: Well, that goes back to their youth, whether they maybe came from a musical family and their experiences with music. You can't generalize, obviously, because there are so many different kinds of people, but if people stop listening to new music at a certain age, usually it's because they get married or they get a job that forces them to work 50 or 60 hours a week or they find other things that are important to them. You know, their priorities and disposable time and disposable income change. Happens to everybody.

MC: But, at the same time, there's nothing really wrong with that. Unless people are really into music, they don't really need to listen to anything new. Current music is for completists only.

JB: I feel like they do, though I'm admitting they probably won't. It's all about growth. Even though no one's better than The Beatles, you can still gain something from an artist who's doing something a little bit different, within the scope of what's current right now. Do you think people need to listen to new stuff?

MC: Yes, I think there are people who are doing stuff better than anyone else before, but not a lot of them. Girl Talk is a perfect example; there never has been a better Girl Talk than Girl Talk.

JB: You're right, Girl Talk is at the pinnacle of what he does. He seems to have perfected the mash-up genre — which is weird because I thought mash-ups were dead, a bygone novelty.

MC: I don't think of Girl Talk as being a mash-up artist. He's a collage artist. He's the best collage artist in the history of popular music — there's no one that's ever done it better. So to me, I look at it and I say, "You've gotta hear Girl Talk because you've never heard anyone do this better."

But what's the takeaway for the kids? What would you tell music lovers in their 20s?

JB: What I would tell anyone in their 20s: You don't know as much as you think you do. I didn't in my 20s, even though I thought I did. And I would say this to just about anybody: Listen to the originators. It's not all about everything that's brand new.

I'm a big believer in listening to what the artists you like say they listen to — that's how you find the really good music. That's how I found some of the best music in my collection: I found what my current favorite was inspired by. It may wind up being really underground, but it's almost always the stuff that changed everything.

MC: The big and unanswerable question: How does the popular music made today stack up against the music from the golden age of the '60s or '70s?

JB: I will say this, and it may sound contradictory: While acknowledging that there are no bands improving upon the greats from those decades, the overall volume of good-to-great music is comparable. Good? Yes. Lasting? I don't know.

Pop music is disposable anyway, so why not just enjoy it for what it is in the three or four years of its shelf life? Like Scissor Sisters' "Night Work" — no one's going to listen to that in 10 years, but for now, it's a cool song. The stuff from Beach House and Best Coast — no one's going to listen to those records in 10 years, but for right now, they hit the mark.

MC: So what's the first album you plan to listen to in 2011?

JB: I'm going down to Revolver Records, and I'm going to get that new deluxe Exile on Main St. re-issue. I've had my eye on it. Every time I go into the record store, I see it and I think, "I want that in 2011."

MC: Looking back at the first record you wrote about in 2010 — Scanners' Submarine — does anything strike you as different? Do you relate to that record differently after a year in this experiment?

JB: Yeah, I graded it too high. It's very average. It's one of dozens of records that sounded a lot like it this year. It's nothing special.

MC: Are you glad you did Nothing Not New?

JB: Definitely, because it got me back into the habit of actively pursuing and consuming information about music and actually listening to new music. Admittedly, that had waned a bit. I'm into it now. There are some things from this year that I'm definitely going to continue playing next year. And I'm going to continue listening to new stuff in 2011 — maybe not stuff I know I won't like, but a lot of stuff I'd be willing to take a chance on.

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar