Longform

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.