Ben Ratliff is a music critic and the author of Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty (2016) and Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007). He is a faculty member at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.


The Song of John Berger

John Berger, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1994

John Berger didn’t want to be called a critic. Where there is formal analysis, his Marxist reasoning implied, there is patrolling and commodifying. He sometimes used formal analysis, but as an opening maneuver, as a means to an end. (The end was often a thought about desire and work and human dignity in relation to profit.) Anyway, no matter what he thought, criticism is wide enough to encompass him. To some degree he made it so: he expanded the practice.

Looking for the Beach Boys

Mike Love, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, reflected in a mirror held by their producer and founder Brian Wilson, circa 1967

Time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Listeners in the Sixties may already have seen the paradox inside the Beach Boys’ music as a whole: the drive to be a man, to know the score, to win in small-stakes battles versus the drive to retreat and regress or live in a world of one’s own invention. A lot of the allure of the Beach Boys may be about not knowing: about us not knowing them, which is pretty common in the relationship between pop stars and their audiences, but also about them—in some way, if only a performed way—not knowing themselves.