This year marks Ben Ratliff’s 20th as a music critic at the New York Times. He is probably best known as a jazz critic (his first three books are about jazz), but his domain is actually the entirety of popular music — and working in the world’s most powerful newsroom has given him unfettered access to it.
These days, however, everyone has unfettered access to music, which if anything makes investigations more difficult and intimidating. Ratliff’s fourth book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty (read an excerpt here), explores not the possibilities of what we hear, but of how we hear it — and how that can open doors to new musical experiences.Ahead of his Feb. 23 appearance at Politics and Prose with Washington Post music critic Chris Richards, Ratliff spoke to Bandwidth about skirting genre, listening as a creative process and beating the music streaming services at their own game.
Bandwidth: You know, Every Song Ever strikes me as a sort of 21st century update of Aaron Copland’s What To Listen For in Music.
Ben Ratliff: Well, you hit it right on the head. I can’t even remember whether I cited that book explicitly, but yes. That was part of the genesis — just thinking about that book and what it was trying to do in its time, and other books like it. There was a whole musical appreciation movement in the first half of the 20th century, of which that was a great example. The idea is, “So you want to enjoy music more. You want to be a reasonably educated listener. What do you need to know? What are the ways in?”
And I thought, boy, if a book like that were to be written now, first of all there would be no assumption that classical music above all was the most important. It would just be one of many different kinds. And then it would have to take into account the fact that we have access to everything. Canons are looking more and more endangered, because of access. Access changes the whole equation. Access is power, it’s knowledge; we’re less powerful in a lot of ways, but we’re more powerful in terms of cultural choice.
So yeah, it’s basically Aaron Copland plus Spotify. [What To Listen For in Music] in an era when you could reach into your phone and find what seems, at least, like every song in the world.
“I think the streaming services would rather you be passive, rather you give them the reins and let them decide what you like, and who you are, and what kind of listener you are.”
Who is your ideal reader? Somebody who just wants help sorting out all of the possibilities that are out there?
Well, I wanted to just suggest the spirit of listening that would go against the idea of genre — that’s part of the goal. And I wanted to write — this is a set of 20 essays exploring different kinds of listening experiences and making connections between seemingly far apart examples of music. And saying, “Look, you’ve been taught otherwise, but late Shostakovich does have something in common with DJ Screw.” That’s what this book is.
But I think underlying it is a sense of, maybe it’s a good idea to start thinking about the possibilities of listening now, while the streaming services are still figuring out ways to get a hold of us. Streaming services seem to be the future of listening; that’s the way it is, and there isn’t anything that someone like me can do to change that. And if I were to change it, I’m not sure what I’d want to change it to. It’s all about efficiency. Listening in an efficient way is authentic — pulling out your phone and listening to a song through a crappy speaker hole is an authentic way to listen in 2016.
But I’m a little worried about the fact that the streaming services might have a lot of say in what new music you might be encountering from here on in. So what I’m doing is, I’m not suggesting a canon — these are the works you ought to know — I’m just suggesting a spirit of listening such that any old listener might feel that they can encounter something new, that they don’t recognize and comes from a tradition they’ve never heard before, and think, “Maybe this isn’t so alien. Maybe this is about me, too. Maybe this is something I can claim, because some aspect of it reminds me of something that I do know.”
I wonder, since you talk about streaming services, if you have a feeling that your book goes against the grain of services like Pandora or Apple Radio — the curated experience, which suggests more of a narrowcasting trend. Do you think your book serves as an antidote to that?
Theoretically, yes. Practically, I have no idea. My understanding, from what I have seen of algorithmic listening — which could mean Pandora feeding you an endless chain of songs somehow related to your favorite artist or Spotify giving you a very sophisticated playlist every week tailored to things you have looked up and to a profile it has built of you — is that in all of these cases, you are being reduced. And you are being reduced by a force that is probably not even human.
As clever as these algorithms can be, I think that listening is really a creative activity, and it’s not just passive. Listening makes you grow; it informs your emotional intelligence, it makes you become a bigger person. Your being able to luck into something you’ve never heard before and figure out what you’re going to do with it, figure out, “What is the way into this piece of music?” in a creative way, I think is crucial. I think the streaming services would rather you be passive, rather you give them the reins and let them decide what you like, and who you are, and what kind of listener you are.
I know that’s efficient; I think their main priority is how quickly they can bring satisfaction to you. From a business standpoint, that makes a lot of sense. But I also think, “Wait a minute. We’re talking about listening here, listening to music. It’s so important. It helps shape our identities.” And I’m concerned about leaving that up to robots.
“A lot of us live within half an hour of a place where you hear a completely different kind of music on the street, and a lot of us block it out. ‘That’s alien to me, I don’t know anything about it; I’m not gonna take it in.'”
Do you have kids?
Do you notice different ways that they find new music, or find new ways to appreciate the music they already know?
I would say that a lot of what they’ve learned about music has come through YouTube, probably more than any other single source. And I think like anybody else, they follow links — maybe less so now, because they’re getting into the higher teenage years — but when they started doing a lot of listening on their own, they followed a trail that YouTube, especially, laid for them.
Now, if you listen to a song on YouTube, you don’t even have to press a button: Another one is going to start in 10 seconds, and it’ll be related in some way to the one you just saw. So there’s very little that you have to do, and we know where to look to encounter new things — we look on the right side of our YouTube screen.
The big question that I’ve been encountering is, Fine. Very well. You’re saying that it’s good to go against reductive ideas about genre and about listener profiles, and to listen across genre and retrain yourself to take in different kinds of music. That’s all very well, but how do you find the stuff? If you decide you like loudness as a listening experience, where do you go? You know what you know; how do you get outside of that? If you’re rooted in metal, how do you get outside of that and find loud music that comes from a completely other tradition than metal?
And really, that’s where listeners are more on their own. And that’s where I’m encouraging them to basically do anything other than be passive around algorithms. To talk to people, ask people questions. To read. To keep their ears open when they’re entering a neighborhood where music other than what they’re familiar with is played. A lot of us live within half an hour of a place where you hear a completely different kind of music on the street, and a lot of us block it out. “That’s alien to me, I don’t know anything about it; I’m not gonna take it in.”
And you know, music is all around us, more and more, with TV and radio and online and movies. And I think there’s a greater and greater possibility of the dumb luck of encountering something we’ve never encountered before, and asking, “What does this have to do with me?”
“I think a lot of music criticism today is done through the eyes. It’s done with reference to a video, or things the artist has been doing on social media recently… there’s less consideration of the music as sound.”
I think that ties into your approach to this book, in that you don’t spend a lot of time on musical or cultural history, or authorial intent — all the tropes we expect an informed music critic to hit.
Especially these days, and especially dealing with popular music. Yeah, that’s absolutely right. That’s partly the conceit of the book, but it’s also partly what I like to do, and what I have found useful.
I feel like I’ve been really lucky to have this job for 20 years, where I can write about anything that isn’t labeled classical music, because there’s a whole bunch of other critics doing that job. So that’s a really, really wide spectrum, and it feels good to be able to review completely different kinds of music on different nights of the week. But I need a way into all of it. And for me that’s with sound. Because I’m dealing with a wide variety of things, I deal with sound first. What is the information in this sound? What is this song attempting to do through music? What is the experience of listening to it all about?
So that’s where I start, and all of the other considerations come later for me. What’s the political angle of this song, what’s the messaging, what’s the coding, what kind of statement is being made here in relation to this artist’s last album, or whatever.
So to that degree, I’m sort of writing an autobiography of how I have come to listen. I guess I am slightly making an argument for hearing music as music — with whatever tools you have. You don’t have to be a composer, you don’t have to have harmonic theory or any of that stuff. You just need ears, and need to use them.
I think a lot of music criticism today is done through the eyes. It’s done with reference to a video, or things the artist has been doing on social media recently. And there’s not so much there’s less consideration of the music as sound. I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing, but I’m just trying to write about music in a way that feels real to me.
Ben Ratliff discusses his book Feb. 23 at Politics & Prose. 7 p.m.