Music Critic & Author Ben Ratliff

Jazz and pop music critic for The New York Times, shares his new book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways To Listen in An Age of Musical Plenty.

Ben Ratliff, a jazz and pop critic for The New York Times since 1996, has just released his fourth book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways To Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, a field guide to listening in an age of overwhelming musical abundance. By revealing the essential similarities between wildly different kinds of music, Ratliff breaks from traditional music criticism focusing on the musician’s intent and instead illustrates the listener’s experience. His previous books include, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (2008);  Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (2007); and Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings (2002).


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Tavis: Ben Ratliff is an author in jazz and pop critic for The New York Times, and a good one at that. His latest book is a series of essays about different things to listen for in music. The book is called “Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty”. Ben Ratliff, good to have you back on this program.

Ben Ratliff: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Actually, the timeliness is propitious. I literally just got a new phone the other day. I should have had one months ago. It had a cracked face and the phone was acting crazy. So I hadn’t had a new phone in a while.

I get the phone, I turn it on and I get invited to join this music club, and I was stunned. I had to look twice at the number. By joining this this music club for $9 a month, $9.99 a month, I get access to over 30 million songs.

Ratliff: Right.

Tavis: I had to look at that number twice. 30 million songs I could have access to on my phone and, of course, at the same time, I’m going through your book about this age of musical plenty. So it makes perfect sense to have you on tonight. I want to start with just three or four quotes from your book that I think explain what this book is and why I love it so and why it’s so unique.

“Nobody can love everything, of course. The urgent thing, now that we have so much catching up to do, seems to be how to access a strategy of openness, a spirit of recognition.” How we listen to music could be, for perhaps the first time in centuries, every bit as important to its history and evolution as what the composer intends when writing it.”

You go on. “We have suddenly switched from being a species that needed to recognize only a few kinds of songs because only a few kinds are readily available to us, to a species with direct and instant access to hundreds of kinds, thousands of kinds, across culture and region and history.”

And then finally, “Infinite access, unused or misused, can lead to an atrophy of the desire to seek out new songs ourselves and a hardening of taste, such that all you want to do is confirm what you already know.”

I think all those quotes put together kind of explain what the book is. Why the need for you to want to help us understand this process?

Ratliff: Well, this is the charged moment right now. I mean, it has been for the last–Spotify is 10 years old, you know. Well, we haven’t had it for that long in this country, but the idea of infinite access, easy access, streaming, is now, and it’s a big change.

I think that because streaming services know what we listen to, know what we search for, and are setting up sort of listener profiles for us, this is our moment to sort of push back and say, well, actually, no. We’ve got the power right now.

I mean, this is a first for us, being able to have immediate access to anything. So maybe we can build new strategies for listening widely and to access, you know, the incredible range of things that are out there.

So for me, it’s just very exciting to–as a critic, I like to make connections and I like to go against genre lines. So for me, it’s exciting to make connections based in the experience of listening. So, for instance, there’s a chapter in there about listening to repetition in which I write about Steve Reich, the minimalist composer, and also James Brown and also Chic and on and on.

And in the chapter on slow music, I write about Shostakovich and Sarah Vaughan and DJ Screw. And in my mind, you know, this is how we can do it. This is how we can become our own recommendation engines to really take advantage of the unbelievable abundance that’s available to us.

Tavis: If you were a creature from another planet or a Tavis Smiley, for that matter, and turned on your new phone and you have access now to 30 million songs–I’m a music lover, so I have some sense of how to do this for myself, but just go with the bit here.

How would you advise someone where to begin to start this journey of understanding, appreciating, embracing and moving beyond your own musical taste and musical comfort zones, if I can put it that way?

Ratliff: This is going to be a frustrating answer, but I wouldn’t depend on the platform to do the work for us. They’re doing lots of other work for us. Instead…

Tavis: Like playlists and stuff.

Ratliff: Yeah, and they’re brilliant work. I mean, sometimes they just get you. They know something about you and it’s eerie. I think we need to be talking to each other about recommendations and I also think that we ought to be depending a little more on dumb luck to help us expose ourselves to new music.

We’re surrounded by music all the time, you know, as we walk through life in stores, listening to the radio, at station breaks, you know, waiting on hold.

Tavis: Yeah, sure.

Ratliff: And I think that we often tell ourselves, yeah, that music’s not for me. But now is the moment when we can say actually that music is about me too and I can connect it to something that I already know.

Tavis: But I wonder, Ben, if we’re being–trying to find the right word here–over-burdened by music. I think of Linda Ronstadt, great artist who sat in that chair a couple of times. I think the last time she was here or maybe a prior occasion, she used a phrase I’ve never forgotten. She called some of what we hear today that you referenced on hold, elevator music, music everywhere we go.

Ronstadt called it ear pollution, not air pollution, but ear pollution. I wonder whether or not our ears are being polluted by so much stuff because all music–I think Quincy Jones once said, “There’s only good music and bad music.”

Ratliff: Yeah. I don’t worry about ear pollution. It’s just the way things are.

Tavis: You don’t worry about it?

Ratliff: No. No, not at all. It’s just the way things are. It’s the current condition. Also, when we were talking about, you know, dumb luck, also going into a neighborhood that you’re not familiar with where a different kind of music than what you know is heard out in the street. You know, I mean, that’s another–or another country. That’s another way.

No, I don’t really believe in pollution. We all know how to take in vast amounts of information right now. That’s been the big change. We’re all comfortable with it and we just have to do our best.

Tavis: So you don’t think there’s too much?

Ratliff: No.

Tavis: Okay. Let me ask this question another way, a nuanced question, which is, if you don’t think there’s too much, maybe on the eve of the Grammies–and this is not bashing the Grammies because there are other awards programs. They’re the daddy of the music awards, obviously.

But I wonder whether or not, if there’s not too much, whether we are honoring the wrong stuff, giving the wrong stuff air play, giving the wrong stuff all the awards? Because that stuff does tend to be pretty–there’s a sameness, I think, in what we honor and what gets air play these days.

Ratliff: Well, I guess I could answer that question in two ways. One, I have genre. I think that there’s a difference between tradition in music and genre.

Tradition, I feel very positive about. I think it enrichens it and livens, and intrinsic to the idea of tradition is, you know, it happens over a long period of time. Genre is static and fixed and it’s about selling really. So I am trying to get past the idea of genre for our new moment.

But as far as the Grammies are concerned, that’s just a whole logic of its own about what is rewarded. It doesn’t necessarily reflect popular taste. It doesn’t necessarily reflect critical taste. The logic of the Grammy voters is a thing of its own. I have some ideas about who might win. I think that all I can see is Kendrick Lamar basically.

Tavis: He’s got the most nominations.

Ratliff: He’s got the most nominations.

Tavis: That doesn’t always mean you win the most.

Ratliff: No, but he made a record that’s like a colossus. It’s a huge statement and, even if you’re not engaged with it and if you don’t buy it, you probably know what it is and that it exists, and that it has, you know, presidential approval. And the Grammy voters seem to be very sympathetic to, you know, album artists and that is an album.

Tavis: To Kendrick’s credit, though, he’s also, whether one agrees or not with his message, he to me is saying something. And I wonder whether or not you think that too much of what we hear isn’t really saying anything to us. It’s one thing to have a good beat, and I love a good beat, but I wonder whether music, even if it has to say something to us in this moment, to use your phrase?

Ratliff: Well, I feel like music carries a lot of information just as music without words. But then, with words, there’s another level. I think that even music that doesn’t appear to have a direct agenda carries a lot of information and it actually kind of is saying something. That’s what I believe.

You know, if music is directly engaged in social or political ideas, that’s another thing. But I come at music first through sound and then, after that, through message.

Tavis: Do you buy the notion that’s being promulgated, for example, that Beyoncé’s new song, “Formation”, is it really saying something to us? Is it really about social protest or is this about Beyoncé having her moment where she wants us to take her more seriously? Those are two different things, are they not?

Ratliff: Perhaps both.

Tavis: Yeah, it could be.

Ratliff: But I do think it’s as protest, as political statement. It’s really powerful. And as a video, it’s a poem. It’s quite amazing. As a song, well. As music, purely as music, maybe not her best song ever. But as a video, incredible.

Tavis: The New York Times music critic, Ben Ratliff, has a new book out. It’s called “Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty”. Ben Ratliff, good to have you back on. All the best to you.

Ratliff: Thank you.

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Last modified: February 19, 2016 at 6:37 pm