Ben Ratliff breaks music down into atomic particles in his erudite “Every Song Ever”
All readers of the Knockturnal know the 2009 Miley Cyrus anthem “Party in the U.S.A.” It was the moment Miley gave up her boots for stilettos and seven years later, it still remains her signature song. Ben Ratliff, a longtime jazz and pop critic for The New York Times has a special place for Miley’s hit song in his new book Every Song Ever. “It’s a song about biding time with low expectations—apprehension, doubt, second-guessing,” Ratliff writes, “before entering a physical space of great possibility, and then, once inside the physical space, gaining psychological entry to the music that thrills you.”
Ratliff takes the @mileycyrus and Dr. Luke lyric “nodding my head like yeah” and goes academic with it. Because hearing the Britney Spears and Jay-Z songs provided Miley “psychological entry” to great thrills and the Party in the U.S.A. was on.
Every Song Ever is a book in the “music appreciation” discipline, updated for today’s millennial world of Dr. Luke, Sia, and hip-hop experimenters such as OutKast, Kanye West, and Young Thug. Ratliff challenges readers to go beyond the commercial definitions of genre to think of music as a product of atomic particles and patterns that have similarities to one another despite time and genre. The book has 20 chapters on music properties such as “Speed,” “Virtuosity,” and “Density,” and each chapter links disparate works that exhibit a common musical attribute.
Miley’s party is featured in the chapter on “Audio Space,” which Ratliff describes as both the physical dimensions of the area in which a song is recorded and the relative positioning of instruments that gets accomplished in the mixing of a song. In case of “Party In The U.S.A.,” the space is defined by Dr. Luke’s compression of each instrument that results in a tight dynamic range for every audio signal. His songs masterfully move between soft and loud without jarring the listener. In fact, his sound has come to dominate modern pop. It reminds me of an NPR discussion of his methods in the context of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” which is not mentioned in Ratliff’s book, but uses blank audio spaces of sound, especially in the beginning, which set Swift up to attack in the chorus.
Ratliff’s journey across the wide world of musical concepts gets exhausting at times because most readers do not have his erudite knowledge of classical, world, experimental, and popular music. However, for those looking for an academic attempt to link the millions of songs out there available for consumption, it is a rewarding read when coupled with a streaming service or YouTube.
The biggest fear that Ratliff has is musical “comfort-listening” or “a surrender of agency to algorithms.” Indeed, streaming services make it possible to only listen to Dr. Luke songs and not explore more adventurous neighborhoods of the music world. Every Song Ever has challenged me to go beyond the Billboard rankings, though my bias remains in favor of songs that last less than seven minutes (Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” being my one long song exception). Whether you’re a fan of finding comfort in your music or an adventurer, after reading Every Song Ever you are guaranteed to find new sounds for the music library or the cloud playlist.
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