5 Things I Learned from Music Critic Ben Ratliff


Ben Ratliff has a dream job. He gets to listen to music all day, go to concerts all night, then get paid to write about it in prestigious publications that everybody reads. 

In my interview with him on the Write About Now podcast, I wanted to know how he went from the sweet and smart kid I knew in high school to one of the most well-known music critics around. And what did he learn on the way to the top? The interview was rich with insider tips and practices. Here are 5 lessons I took away...

1. Be a Journalist not a Shrink

Ben has written hundreds of profiles of famous musicians, trying to get at the heart of what makes them tick. One of the lessons he learned early on at The New York Times is that it's not a journalists responsibility or goal to play mind reader. "You can’t think that you can get inside of the head of someone you’re writing about," he says. "You can’t pretend to think that you know how they think. You have to stay outside their head. You’re an outsider you don’t know what this person thinks. You are making your own conclusions."

2. Write Reviews for the Audience not the Artist

Ben says one of the most common misconceptions of a critic's job is that he/she is trying to tell the artist how they can be better. Wrong! "You’re not giving them pointers about how to be better. I mean that’s insane," he says.  "You’re writing about it (their performance) from the perspective of the person in the audience, and you’re writing it from your experience." I asked him who he writes for. "Me," he said, "and the people I respect."

3. Follow the Pleasure Principle

Not, I'm not referring to Janet Jackson's hit song—although I do suggest you rock out to it during your next workout. I'm quoting my friend Ben, who tells me that's the guiding maxim at the New York Times critics desk. "If we got really excited about some music that we heard, it gave us a feeling of pleasure, we would follow that and try to write about it," he says. That didn't necessarily mean they were going to write a glowing review, it just meant, "There was something there for you that you just want to get inside of."

4. Run Before You Write then Nap

Many writers I talk to have rituals they do before they start the tortuous process of writing. Ben likes to run three to five miles. It enables him to get away from everything and clear the way to "think thoughts that are mine only." Jogging around his upper Manhattan neighborhood, he says he's "getting that very important feeling of motion and the range of things you notice when you’re in motion. It is so rich and complicated and you just start to feel drunk on it.  He also likes to take a nap every day at around 3 pm. "If you eat something a little salty, maybe a little oily for lunch than you’re just ready for a nap," he says. I'm in.

5. Writing Cliches Isn't So Bad

I always say that you should avoid cliches like the plague. Always the contrarian, Ben doesn't entirely agree. In fact, for his next book, he's considering writing about the complicated idea of cliches. He says, "We are always told they (cliches) will weaken your language and lead you to a thought that’s not authentic to you. There is also a a way that they are natural or necessary. It’s all about you using them rather than them using you."