Music Critic Ben Ratliff Explains Why Genres Are Bullshit

We talk about the ways genres—and Spotify—are restricting our enjoyment of music.

Photo by Jake Lewis

"It's like there's this warehouse of music, and we've all just been given the keys for the first time. And we can walk in, and there's just miles of music, heaps of it, going all the way to the back. But there's no map telling you where to go and what to listen to. So how are you going to find all the good stuff that's hidden out back? Or are you just going to spend your time listening to the stuff that's immediately in front of you?"

I'm on the phone with Ben Ratcliffe from his apartment in New York. As the New York Times music critic since 1996, Ratcliffe's spent the best part of two decades watching the music industry change beyond all recognition. We're talking about his book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now, which suggests we should do away with conventional ideas of genres and become more flexible as listeners. Rather than categorizing music as jazz, or minimal, or techno, we should think about concepts that cut paths across genre—like "dense" music, for instance, or "sad" music.

Below is the rest of our chat about why Spotify is creepy and why genres suck.

VICE: You've been a music critic for 20 years. Have you always wanted to write this book?
Ben: The job I've had since the 90s involves listening to all types of music, apart from classical music, which forces you to think really broadly about music. I started thinking about writing this book five years ago—I was inspired by music appreciation books, which were really popular in the first half of the 20th century. Books like What to Listen for in Music, by Aaron Copeland. I started thinking, What would one of those books look like now?

The music industry has changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years, particularly with the advent of streaming services like Spotify. Do you think that abundance of choice has, in a way, made it harder for people to find music they like, because there's so much out there?
I hear that a lot from people—that they feel overwhelmed by choice. But I feel that idea is reinforced by the people who are trying to sell them music. These are the forces that are trying to define and limit our tastes—forces like Apple Music and Spotify. And it's going to be like this for the foreseeable future. So the question is: Are we going to let the three major record companies define us? Because that seems like a problem to me.

What's wrong with just finding all your music through Spotify?
Marketing works on fear. Somebody can sell to you better by making you feel anxious about something. And nowadays, many people find out about new music through recommendation engines, like Spotify's weekly playlist. I find this sort of stuff creepy, because it gets you right to a certain extent, but also doesn't get you right. It's very powerful being told by a sophisticated machine that it knows what you are like.

And you don't want to just end up relying on that machine to define your tastes for the rest of your life.
Yeah, it's easy to just fall down that hole and be comfortable forever, just listening to the music it recommends you. So I think we're at a crossroads now. We can either listen to what these data engines are telling us about our tastes, or we can seek out music with a little more vigor and curiosity. Listening to music is a more creative act than a lot of people think.

Your book suggests a new way of listening to music—rather than splitting sounds up by genre, you say, we should define it by qualities like "loudness" or "virtuosity." Is that not just going to get really confusing?
So when I listen to a piece of music—at home or out in a club, or whatever—I'm always looking for the key. Like, if I can just find the key for this piece of music and stick it in the door, then maybe I can find the essence of what this music is. That's what I set out to do in the book—to help people find that key.

What's your beef with genre?
I suspect that part of the reason we think so much about genre is that we've been trained to think that way by the people selling music to us. But what we should be doing is being more open to music.

Isn't it nice to be able to say you're into Detroit techno, or whatever, and just get really into that? You seem to be rejecting specialism.
Expertise is fantastic, and it's useful to listen to certain people who say, "You think you know about such and such, but let me play you the good stuff." But, I don't know, those people are useful, but are they more useful than casual listeners who just really like something? It's no fun if you have to understand the entire history of post-minimalism to understand where John Luther Adams is coming from. It's much more fun to just feel the shit, you know, and let it act upon you and tell you what it's trying to tell you.

Ben's book, Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music, is available now.

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