In 1995, the Dia Foundation (and if you haven’t yet been to their museum in Beacon, New York, you should drop everything and go there immediately—this article can wait) commissioned an internet project from Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. These artists created a survey in which they asked participants from various countries what they like most and least in art. The duo then created paintings to these specifications, the Most Wanted and the Most Unwanted paintings for fourteen countries. The results are available online. An additional Komar and Melamid survey about music led to the creation of a Most Wanted and Most Unwanted song by David Soldier, which you can hear at Ubuweb.
In creating music directly and specifically catering to (or denying) audience tastes, Soldier promises that 72% (with a 12% standard deviation) of listeners will uncontrollably enjoy the Most Wanted Song, while no more than 200 people worldwide will take pleasure in the Most Unwanted Song. When one reads the survey results, the wanted elements are striking: a moderately sized ensemble playing music at a moderate tempo for a moderate duration at a moderate volume in a moderate pitch range, designed to be heard at home. The audience requested lyrics about love sung in an R&B style. In short, the Most Wanted Song needs to be very carefully designed to sound exactly like everything else on the radio. Any features that distinguish it from other music risk alienating a portion of the audience.
In contrast, the Most Unwanted Song is all about extremes. It needs to be of great length, alternating between loud and soft, fast and slow, performed by a large ensemble featuring accordion, bagpipes, and an operatic soprano who raps and sings atonal music. Just when you start to relax into the cowboy song affect, a sudden shift moves you into the rapping soprano or some other incongruous sound world. In short, unwanted music is music that remains scattered throughout, never allowing the listener to relax into a single aesthetic groove.
I’ve played the recordings of these songs for several classes at Peabody, and the results are remarkably predictable. I have yet to find anyone who enjoys the Most Wanted Song (which may say more about my circle of acquaintances than about the song itself), while most students are absolutely delighted by the first few minutes of the Most Unwanted Song. However, the extreme length remains an integral aspect of the Unwanted Song and, true to its intent, I have yet to encounter anyone who claims to have endured the entire 25 minutes in one sitting.
At the moment, there is a movement within the cognitive sciences to attempt to explain our experience of beauty and what makes people enjoy specific works of art. Personally, I find this mode of inquiry to be quite fascinating, and I rather enjoy perusing the results. But these explanations always break down in the impossibility of accounting for personal taste. If there was the possibility of scientifically determining what music people might uncontrollably enjoy, then surely producers at the large record labels would have seized on this method and inundated our ears with the results. Instead, creating art that will garner a predictably favorable response remains beyond our current means. Attempts to satisfy the greatest number of listeners invariably devolve into music that blends into the background and remains without defining characteristics—the musical equivalent of hotel art (the sort of paintings that saturate the walls of hotel rooms). The opposite effect, evoking a sense of distaste and displeasure, appears to be an achievable goal, simply through focusing on such a diversity of styles at such great length that it’s bound to annoy nearly every possible listener.
The Most Wanted and Most Unwanted Song experiment reveals the limits of attempts to create art specifically designed to appeal to the greatest possible number of listeners. By extension, this raises additional questions, and should force us to remain skeptical of the traditional definitions of artistic success. If audience appeal truly derives from moderation and exposure to similar elements in previous music, then definitions of beauty based on appeal to large audiences even through evocation of the notion of staying power—that music must be great because it appeals across extended periods of time—should come into question. And if audience appeal is truly unpredictable, then evolutionary and cognitive approaches to the question of beauty also cannot stand on their own.
Next week: one solution to this conundrum.