Last night I had the welcome and happy opportunity to interview Ben Ratliff, the New York Times music critic and a longtime friend and colleague, for an attentive audience at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. The subject was Ben's new book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, a fascinating, idiosyncratic, and eminently readable new kind of "music appreciation" guide for a time when it seems as if every note and mote ever composed or intoned by humans is available at the click of a mouse.
I won't be reviewing Ben's book officially, and unfortunately I don't have a transcript of the conversation, though I'll recommend that you read this Q&A with Ben conducted by Matthew Guerrieri for the Boston Globe. But what I can share is the script I wrote for myself to introduce Ben last night, which should convey both a strong sense of my esteem and affection for Ben as well as my fascination with his newest book.
I’ve known Ben Ratliff for something close to 20 years now, as a colleague, a friend, a sounding board, and, not least, as a writer whose work regularly constitutes destination reading for me. So many times, followers of my personal blog, my Twitter feed, my Facebook wall, and other pliable surfaces have read these words: “The best Ben Ratliff is the best.” That’s a tag I’ve used every time something that he has written – more often than not for The New York Times – has stopped me dead in my tracks.
As a prose stylist, he crafts lines and paragraphs of lapidary brilliance, then sets them in a context so unpretentious and conversational that even his most high-flown ideas can seem like personal confidences. As a listener, he has almost no rivals that I know of; routinely what Ben writes about music makes me want to hear not just what he’s heard, but with the aural and intellectual apparatus through which he heard it.
Which brings us to here and now and this book, Every Song Ever – a title that’s somehow both fantastical and commonsensical at once. Personally, I’ve found it a hard book to read – not because the thinking is abstract or its rendering esoteric, but because line after line, paragraph after paragraph contains thoughts about music so elegantly conceived, so succinctly stated, and so handsomely described that I want to hear it for myself, then and there, with Ben’s words still echoing in my mind’s ear.
On page after page I encountered lines that jolted me with plainspoken provocation. Here’s one, from page 113, about what happened when the salsa singer Marc Anthony signed to Sony: “Most of his new records no longer had much mystery in them. They had less middle, less tradition to engage with or argue against. Real pop destroys middles and traditions. (That is not a value judgement; that is pop’s job.)”
And onward: “Metal is the fanatical generation of myth – it’s all inverse gospel, and the code for listening to it is as complex as gospel’s.” Or, about the virtuoso performer: “They are the son-et-lumière projected onto the pyramids of Giza, a facsimile of inspirational awe set against slow millennia of learning and understanding.”
Ben connects and contextualizes Mozart and Bob Wills, Coltrane and Robert Johnson, João Gilberto and Morton Feldman, Domenico Scarlatti and Outkast. He does it in a way that feels natural and right and inevitable, never ostentatious or merely absurd. He calls “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus “a song about listening: one of the greatest ever made,” and if you don’t believe him at face value, you trust him enough to examine the possibility, at least.
At its rock-bottom simplest, the core concern of Every Song Ever is this: When faced with what seems like close to the whole of human musical creative history available to be tapped day and night in seemingly endless streams and torrents – I use that latter word advisedly – how can we start to make sense of it all?
And when computer algorithms are in place to learn our tastes in order to better predict and commodify them, how can we assert our independence, taking responsibility unto ourselves for what we hear, how we process and relate what we hear, and how we hold onto those processes as something that can and should be intensely personal, even as it has the capacity to also be profoundly communal?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but I do know that there is no one I’d rather have as my guide than Ben Ratliff.