All now song

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty

by Ben Ratliff

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 259 pp., $26.00

Prince performing at a music festival in Rio de Janeiro, 1991


In 1939, the American composer Aaron Copland published his music appreciation guide, What to Listen for in Music. Its presumptions were suggested by its title. “Listening” was an arduous exercise in concentration, best performed in optimal conditions: the concert hall, the quiet parlor. In fact, “listening” was not enough; Copland wanted his readers to “listen for” what he called the “sound stuff” of music: to clear the mind not only of external distractions and mental obstacles, but of all nonessential sonic wadding that surrounded it. Music required targeted attention, the state of mind you might enter when doing a word-find or watching, through binoculars, for a migratory bird.

Copland dismissed the mere “sensual” experience of music, which he associated with daydreaming and escapism. The book’s slightly piqued attitude toward listeners suggested that Copland had much experience of recital halls full of people shifting noisily in their seats, looking furtively at the woman in the next row, spacing out, or simply falling asleep. Any artist in any medium who has been told his work is “relaxing” or “soothing” knows the frustration Copland must have felt. His book has a kind of clenched patience, the patience of a parent who has already had to tell his children something a hundred times.

Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever is a music appreciation guide for our era of free or very cheap music, instantaneously available everywhere and to nearly everyone, delivered from the cloud to tiny, relatively inexpensive devices that deliver loud, clear, and accurate sound. In the checkout line at CVS, for around $25, I can find a Bluetooth speaker that pairs wirelessly with my iPhone and will fill a medium-sized room with music. Subscribe to Spotify or Apple Music or Tidal (the service owned by Jay Z and originally the only place to go to hear Beyoncé’s blockbuster Lemonade if you missed it on HBO), and you can check out music from every era and every spot on the globe, even songs long forgotten or considered lost. If one copy of an LP by Pinhead or the Decentz still exists, somebody will upload it to the cloud, and soon the melody detaches from a dusty object and enters the wide world, where it will be universally and instantly available.

You can listen to bluegrass radio from Antarctica, or reggae from Saint-Tropez. Or instantly find every jazz standards program in the world and choose among them. I just looked up every version of “These Foolish Things” and listened to them in random order, comparing renditions by Rod Stewart, Brian Ferry, and Thelonious Monk. I could record a version myself on ukulele and zither and upload it: it would exist proudly beside Billie Holiday’s and Chet Baker’s.

This is a new world. Cloud streaming represents a bigger revolution than the one brought in by CDs or MP3s, which made music merely cheaper to buy and easier to carry around. Just five years ago, if you wanted to listen legally to a specific song, you bought it (on CD, on MP3), which, assuming finite resources, meant you had to choose which song to buy, which in turn meant you didn’t buy other songs you had considered buying. Then, a person with $10 to spend could have purchased five or six songs, or, if he was an antiquarian, an album. Now, with $10, that same person can subscribe to a streaming service for a month and hear all five or six songs he would have purchased with that money, plus 20 million or so others.

Spotify estimates that fully four million of the songs it carries have never been streamed, not even once. There is a vast musical frontier waiting to be explored, but it is already mapped: using various search methods, you could find every bluegrass song ever written with the word “banana” in it, or every Finnish death metal album, or Billy Bragg and Wilco’s recording of the Woody Guthrie lyric “Walt Whitman’s Niece, ” or a gospel group called Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago, or Whitman himself, reading “America” on an album called 100 Great Poems: Classic Poets and Beatnik Freaks.

Freed from the anguish of choosing, music listeners can discover all kinds of weird, nettlesome, unpleasant, sublime, sweet, or perplexing musical paths. These paths branch off constantly, so that by the end of a night that started with the Specials, you’re listening to Górecki’s Miserere, not by throwing a dart, but by following the quite specific imperatives of each moment’s needs, each instant’s curiosities. It is like an open-format video game, where you make the world by advancing through it.

None of these lines of affinity or innuendo exists until a single person’s mind makes them, and to look back upon the path that any given night at home has taken you (a queue shows you the songs you’ve played; you can back it up and replay those songs in order, if you like) is to learn something about your own intuitions as they reveal themselves musically. Spotify will give you data about what songs or artists you’ve listened to the most. It is always a surprise; in 2015, my top song was “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, ” as sung by Blossom Dearie, my top album was Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and my top artist was Bach. The person who made those choices is not a person I’m conscious of being.

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