All the Songs Are Now Yours

Prince performing at a music festival in Rio de Janeiro, 1991
Miguel Rio Branco/Magnum Photos
Prince performing at a music festival in Rio de Janeiro, 1991

1.

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.

This is one of the most amazing things about streaming music. Not that you can listen to Albanian bluegrass or child yodelers from Maine, but that you can recreate your past with a level of detail never before possible. Or, taking it a step further: you can recover experiences from your past, passions, insights, shames you’d forgotten. I’m forty-four; everything I heard before I was twelve or so forms a kind of musical preconscious that was only occasionally accessible, in flashes and glimpses, before streaming came along. It is as though a box of photographs was discovered of my childhood. Not just the events these photographs capture, but the entire ambient world of the past, its ashtrays and TV trays, the color of the carpet, my mother’s favorite sweater: all of it comes back, foreground and background, when you rediscover the music that was on when you were a child.

The brutal winnowing of the past, selecting perhaps two dozen pop songs a year, a few albums—this vast oversimplification, this canceling of all that the culture deems tangential or unimportant—is now itself a thing of the past. Kids growing up in this environment are having a genuinely new human experience: nothing in the past is lost, which means temporal sequence itself—where the newest things are closest and most vivid, while the oldest things dwell in the dark backward and abysm of time—gets lost. Everything exists on one plane, so it is harder than before to know exactly where we stand in time.

2.

Every Song Ever is a brilliant guide to listening to music in this new environment, where concentration must become aware of itself as its criteria shift abruptly from genre to genre, composer to composer, culture to culture. Ratliff proposes a “language” that will allow such lateral moves between unlike compositions. It is, as he writes, “not specifically musical,” referring, instead, to “generalized human activity”:

Therefore, perhaps not “melody,” “harmony,” “rhythm,” “sonata form,” “oratorio.” Perhaps, instead, repetition, or speed, or slowness, or density, or discrepancy, or stubbornness, or sadness. Intentionally, these are not musical terms per se…. Music and life are inseparable. Music is part of our physical and intellectual formation…. We build an autobiography and a self-image with music, and we know, even as we’re building them, that they’re going to change.

It is part of the astonishment of our current era that a statement that might once have seemed an empty, Music 101 platitude—“music and life are inseparable”—is now an acute observation with important technical ramifications. It is now possible for a person to synchronize the outside world to music, to make the world a manifestation of the music she chooses to hear. A record of those choices, viewed years after the fact, suggests the fine-grained emotional and imaginative lives we live while apparently doing nothing, or nothing of note. Play the songs you heard on February 2, 2013, in the order in which you played them, and you can recreate not just the emotions but the suspense and surprise of emotion as it changes in time.

When I see a movie for the fifth time, I see new things in the movie. When I hear a song for the fiftieth time, I remember the wall color of my studio apartment on Mt. Vernon Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996, and I remember how cold the awful landlady kept it, and I remember her shivering whippet scratching at my door so that he could come in and curl up in the hollows of my giant furry Newfoundland.

Ratliff structures his book around these new musical terms, from “repetition” and “slowness” to “the perfect moment.” A term like “silence” allows him to discuss musical experiences that we cannot keep apart, since they have us in common. It also allows him to yoke persuasively a minuscule musical event and, at the other end of the spectrum, a large claim:

You realize the power of a short silence when you hear it in a song. You realize it in the middle of Metallica’s “All Nightmare Long,” in the tiny break before James Hetfield takes a gulp of air to keep singing, or at the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” after the strings finish rising and before the final chord; and all through Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” where the silences seem to swing because they last a fraction of a second too long, or Erik Satie’s Sarabande no. 1, where the one-beat rests break up the waltz time so often that you might never experience the song as being in three, or in any particular rhythm at all. Silence confounds, enriches, clarifies.

Of course nobody goes to a single piece of music to hear silence, or speed, or discrepancy, or any other of Ratliff’s terms. In Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the song’s speed is one choice made by an artist as a consequence of other choices, which in turn necessitate still more choices. The outcome of all of those choices is the song. But it may make more sense, Ratliff suggests, to move from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” not to “Visions of Johanna,” an exceptionally slow song that has Dylan in common, but to Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)” or Scarlatti’s Sonata in B Minor, both of which lack Dylan but have speed, its risks, its meanings in the body and in the mind. To play another song by Dylan would be one response to hearing “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; Ratliff’s book gives us a palette of other potential responses.

Every Song Ever is made possible by the world it describes. Nobody could have drawn these lines before free, or cheap, streaming; and once you’ve read about them in Ratliff’s book, you can listen (a playlist is appended helpfully to every chapter). If you upload the playlist to Spotify and choose the right settings, the playlist will grow while you sleep, as other users add their own fast, slow, repetitive, loud, or silent songs.

David Bowie died on January 10. When I woke up the next morning and heard the news, I finished this review while playing his Seventies masterpiece, Low. The album isn’t one I know well; I have no important emotional associations with it. Or I didn’t have: now the album will be associated forever in my mind with this morning and these sentences.

But this sentence, which I added later, a week or so after Prince died on April 21, was written while I listened to Purple Rain on an old, damaged CD. Prince, who declared in 2010 that the Internet was “completely over,” isn’t on Spotify, though, like Beyoncé, he is on Jay Z’s Tidal. Some artists, it would appear, are still powerful enough to make it hard for people to hear their music.