When your favorite music starts playing, something inside of you just comes alive. Whether it’s the music itself or the lyrics you can relate to, music never fails to elevate your mind and body. Music can heal you in such ways you can’t even imagine. But many people listen music just for the sake of entertainment without knowing what the makers intended it for and what meaning it carries. And there are plenty of music in the market today intended to spoil your mindset. Therefore, you should know how to choose music wisely.
There’s a distinct possibility that I would never have been able to finish reading “Moby-Dick,” in my early twenties, had it not been for the Guns N’ Roses song “November Rain.” Released in 1991, when I was a teenager open to anything offered by MTV, “November Rain” was one of the many unusually long songs on the Los Angeles rock band’s two-volume “Use Your Illusion.” At the time, I was accustomed to songs that didn’t outstay their welcome, maxing out, typically, at four or five minutes. Thanks in large part to a gloriously overblown video, I found all nine minutes of “November Rain” enthralling. I had no idea what the song’s lyrics meant, or whether its drama really justified its lavish construction. But it was the first song I liked that could soundtrack my entire drive to school, or the time it took to run five laps. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but “November Rain” ended up being the song that primed me for the pleasures of extravagantly long, immersive experiences. Before I could imagine making it through six-hundred-page novels, endurance-test cinema, or hour-long jazz suites, I first loved a power ballad full of internal detours, false endings, and epic solos, and a music video highlighted by a man diving into a wedding cake.
Many of us first come to enjoy art in this way, not as a series of canons or genres to be mastered but as a web of deeply personal associations: affinities and phobias, echoes across time and space that resolve only in the most idiosyncratic spaces of your mind. This is the subject of “Every Song Ever,” the critic Ben Ratliff’s meditation on listening to music “in an age of musical plenty.” Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times for nearly twenty years, and it’s likely that the most radical changes that have come to music during this period have involved not style or taste but rather the way we consume it. Ratliff has championed esoteric sounds during his tenure at the Times, but this book, unlike his previous ones about jazz, concerns a common contemporary anxiety: how do we find our bearings at a time when there’s simply too much out there?
What “Every Song Ever” offers isn’t a set of critical edicts but the spectacle of an active mind processing a world in constant flux. The book is loosely inspired by the idea, popularized by Aaron Copland’s classic “What to Listen for in Music,” that music can be appreciated according to standard metrics of rhythm and tone structure. “The old way of ‘correct’ listening,” Ratliff explains, involved a kind of “preconditioning”: “A certain language of rhythms and harmonies, signposts and cues, became consensual within a culture.” But that past age of music appreciation, besides being no fun, presumed a kind of finitude—it presumed boundaries. Listening to music, then, was a devotional, often self-contained act. At the very least, that old idea assumed that we had the time or the desire to immerse ourselves repeatedly, distraction-free, in a single piece of music. This isn’t the world most of us inhabit anymore. For the cost of a CD (or less), we have access to a near-endless supply of music, in a near-endless array of venues. Music appreciation in 2016 means curating your drive to work or your walk to class, playing a song a hundred times without ever stopping to scrutinize the lyrics.
It’s quite possible that we have an even stronger attachment to music now that it is ubiquitous, woven into every moment of our lives, than we did then. But the age of the infinite playlist has also meant the proliferation of algorithms designed to give us exactly what makes us comfortable. It’s a desire to resist these present-day forces of preconditioning that animates Ratliff’s book. It is divided into twenty ways of processing a song, many of which—“loudness” and “density,” for instance—are open and fairly intuitive. Songs across time and space cluster around these headings, leading Ratliff to insights about, for instance, the altered zones we encounter when we lose ourselves in “repetitive” music, or the ways in which “improvisation” tweaks our sense of the world as it is. There’s a chapter on “virtuosity” that ranges from Sarah Vaughan and Art Tatum to YouTube videos of kids shredding on electric guitars. Another addresses really long songs—far longer than “November Rain”—and how they scramble our sense of what is comprehensible. “The point is a larger array of music than the eye can see on the shelf, than the ear can take in within one cycle of memory,” Ratliff writes. “It doesn’t reduce to a song or an album. It’s a relationship.” One of the book’s most absorbing sections considers how performers use indifference, or a knowing suppression of their talents—that nudge-wink that happens when, for example, a rapper such as Lil Wayne “melt[s] the ends off his own words.” According to Ratliff, such moves provoke “a seemingly impossible thought: that the artist doesn’t even need an audience, or that he has been put in front of it by random circumstances.”
The state of digital infinitude that we now largely take for granted has placed a special burden on music writing. It’s been a while since I read a piece of music criticism to learn if a new album or artist was good or not. It’s easy enough to drop the (now decidedly proverbial) needle and find out for myself. I’m far more interested in reading about how a critic hears: what they listen for, their desires and idiosyncrasies, the world that comes into focus for them when a record is playing. Some of Ratliff’s most intriguing chapters muse on qualities that have come to seem normal and desirable, but for reasons that aren’t clear. For example: is there a purpose for speed? Not in dance music, but as an approach to performance—in the manic solo of “Salt Peanuts,” say, or the hard-core assault of D.R.I. For Ratliff, speed is a display, a relationship. “It doesn’t inherently increase or enhance the feeling of the notes themselves, or the listener’s physical pleasure,” but it puts the listener in a place: “It represents a tacit contract between the player and the listener: we’re in this together, and it might come to no good.”
Another of his questions: what makes a song sad? Is it the “phantom quality” of knowing where the story of any song ends, after the session is over and everyone goes home? There are blue notes, of course, and there are the songs that become synonymous with the tragedy of their conception. But is heavy metal sad? Maybe, as Ratliff beautifully argues, the brooding aggression of metal obscures a deeper melancholy. “Punk is busking and journalism and dogma and accountability and unity and the humanities. Metal is virtuosity and philosophy and disposition and rumor and misanthropy and science.” It’s these occasional glimpses into Ratliff’s own idiosyncratic responses to music that are the book’s best moments. A chapter on “slowness” begins with him messing around with a computer program that enables users to slow songs down to an ominous ooze. The chapter ranges from the late DJ Screw, famed for remixing hip-hop and R. & B. tracks to a death-defying crawl, to the sludgy “stoner doom” band Sleep. “Slowness in music invites reciprocity: it makes the listener want to fill the spaces with his own content, whether that be associations or movement or emotional response.”
This insight may help to explain how the book itself works. “Sounds are running ahead of our vocabularies for describing them,” Ratliff argues, and that sense of disorientation—“of not knowing what process makes what sounds”—has become an inherent part of listening to pop music. Maybe, in a few years, we will learn better strategies for apprehending all of it at once, making “Every Song Ever” a quaint curio of a bygone era. But this seems to be Ratliff’s point. The book meanders and muses, providing plenty of space for readers to wonder about their own fixations, to remain ambivalent about questions of genre or history and abide by their own deeply personal and far superior classification systems instead. It’s best to think of “Every Song Ever” as a series of moods and provocations rather than a book to be read straight through. Each of the chapters seems to dissolve, to fade out, ending, every time, with a playlist, a fitting way to process the vertigo prompted by abundance. Which is to say: you don’t have to process it all if you don’t want to. You can just chase whatever you like, until you feel like chasing something else.
A version of this article appears on The New Yorker. | Author: Hua Hsu (@huahsu)