For a while now, I've been trying to decide what anecdote about my music-obsessed youth would best set up the project that I'm commencing tomorrow. I could write about listening to my Dad's Beatles records with my brother when we were kids, each of us taking turns singing lead as we read the words off the lyric sheet. Or the proto-hipster cousin who introduced me to R.E.M. and Rolling Stone the summer before 9th grade. Or the high school English teacher who taped his Neil Young, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen albums for me. Or the day my brother discovered MTV on our grandparents' cable TV. Or how a few years later he came back from college with cassette tapes full of The Smiths and Hüsker Dü. Or the 3-ring binder I kept throughout high school, in which I filed loose-leaf paper containing full-page reviews of all my albums, including track-by-track ratings. Or the way I stole money from my first job so that I could go to Nashville's cooler record stores and buy the records I was hearing on the Vanderbilt radio station. Or what happened after I moved to Athens, GA to go to college, and blew a supplemental scholarship check on the complete Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth discographies. Or the first record review I wrote "professionally," for the UGA student paper. (It was Robyn Hitchcock's Eye, and I got paid five bucks.) Or the time just after college when a friend of mine confessed he'd given up on listening to new music and instead was spending all his time collecting Uncle Tupelo bootlegs
which made me shake my head sadly.
For a good chunk of my life, it's been vitally important to me to know the pop music canon and to do my part to advocate for new additions. It's a job I've done with relish, and conscientiously, even if it meant listening repeatedly to well-reviewed albums that I didn't much like, just to figure out if the problem was on my end, or if the critical consensus was out of whack. I've diligently given at least a courtesy listen to every CD ever sent to me, letting the memory of happy discoveries like Life Without Buildings, Reigning Sound, Field Music, Midlake and, yes, Uncle Tupelo sustain me through hundreds of generic singer-songwriters and turgid post-rock instrumentalists.
But no more. My pleasure in listening to new music and writing about it has diminished substantially since I turned 35–either because I've been getting more cruddy promo CDs than ever, or because I just can't figure out a new way to describe the sound of an electric guitar. I'm also a little weary of the fray surrounding music criticism–both among my colleagues and our readers–which strikes me as increasingly trivial the older I get. I've seen too many "bands to watch" and "albums of the year" disappear into obscurity to take the cycles of hype and backlash as seriously as some.
So I'm spending 2008–or at least the first 10 months of it–taking stock. I want to look back through my collection and try to figure out what I've learned about popular music over the past 17 years as a professional critic, and try to figure out how the varied pieces of music I've picked up over the years fit together–or if they do.
Here are the parameters of the experiment:
From January 1st through October 31st, I'm not going to buy any new music from record stores, on-line retailers, or iTunes, and I'm not going to listen to any promo CDs that come in the mail (including those I received and filed away unopened months ago). I'm not watching any new music videos or late-night TV performances by bands with new product to tout, and I'm not going to do more than a cursory scan of any reviews in any on-line or print publications. I've cancelled all my music blog RSS feeds, as well as my membership in a cherished music-nerd e-mail discussion group. I'm making only two slight exceptions to the no-new-music rule: I'm keeping my eMusic subscription, and will continue to get my 90 downloads a month, though I'll keep them in a separate file on my computer, and won't listen to them for the first 10 months of the year. And if a hot new bootleg pops up at The Big O, I'm going to download it, since those are only available for a limited time. But again, I won't play it.
During those 10 months, I'm going to revisit all the music I've loaded onto my external hard drive. I'll be working alphabetically–or at least the iTunes version of alphabetically, which goes by first name for solo artists–and listening for songs I can get rid of as well as musicians I've been unfairly neglecting. Then, beginning November 1st, I'm going to step out of my semi-soundproof chamber and start listening to new music again, checking out the best-reviewed records of the year as determined by Metacritic and our own stable of A.V. Club writers (and readers).
The purpose of this experiment is to place all musical eras and styles–at least those in my collection– on a common plane, to try and hear past the old hype and find out if these songs and bands have some essential quality worth lauding. And I'll be blogging about the results right here, every Monday morning. (With some leeway for days when I'm out of town or on assignment.)
The posts are going to be divided into three sections. First, "The Experiment," in which I'll write about my withdrawal symptoms and deal with some music-related blog topics that have been sitting in my to-do pile. (Sample subject, coming up in early January: Is originality overrated?) Second, "Pieces Of The Puzzle," in which I'll pick a few acts from my alphabetical tour and write about where I think they fit into the pop canon, if at all. (This won't be an exhaustive list; it'll depend each week on which musicians spark a thought worth exploring.) And lastly, "Stray Tracks," in which I'll share some streaming audio of noteworthy odds and ends from my collection, and ask for reader input about whether the songs are worth keeping or not.
When I first mentioned this project in a blog post a month ago, one of our readers wrote, "Sounds like this is going to be more about you than the music," and to some extent that's true. I'm going to be talking about how these bands came into my life, what they meant to me once, and whether they'll ever mean that much again. But I'm hoping that a lot of my experiences will be familiar to other longtime music obsessives, and I hope we'll have a lively discussion in the comments each week. I'm not coming at this like Moses on the mountain, making pronouncements. I'm sharing what I think I've learned, and I'm hoping you'll share back.
Last I checked I had around 30,000 MP3s on my hard drive, which means that by the end of October, I'll need to have listened to roughly 100 songs a day. A lot of my friends think I'm nuts to rid myself of the burden of writing about new music only to replace it with the burden of writing even more about old music. But at the end of the year, with your help, I'm hoping I'll be able to hear with fresh ears again.
Next week: From ABBA to American Music Club, plus a few words on the art of the album.