The Most Wanted and Unwanted Songs

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.

4 thoughts on “The Most Wanted and Unwanted Songs

  1. Thomas Johanson

    I am proud to say I have slogged through The Most Unwanted Song, from start to finish, on numerous occasions. I have even forced my mother and a few friends to sit through it, as well. Remarkably, they still speak to me.

    While it’s true that differences in personal taste will always throw a monkey wrench into any study aiming to find some perfect formula for art, I’m convinced that record companies can and do rely on such studies to maximize profits. Consider the boy-band phenomenon of the late ’90s, or how there’s always some new teen pop-idol on the horizon. The labels calculate what type of music will bring in the greatest returns, then saturate our ears with it.

    This leads to another factor not taken into account in your post: after being inundated with this formulaic music for a time, public opinion gradually sours, leaving the record labels looking for the Next Big Thing. It’s like how our perception of a piece – say, Pachelbel’s Canon or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – can change due to repeated listenings. What once seemed fresh, interesting, and beautiful soon grows tepid, mediocre, and boring. Thus, not only do differences in personal taste negate the possibility of a “magic bullet,” so too does the fickle nature of the fatigued listener.

    Reply
    1. smooke

      Thomas -

      I’m simultaneously tickled and unsurprised that a reader of this column would be among the 200. As for the record companies, they certainly attempt to turn taste into a science, but it remains guesswork for them. They can copy trends (boy bands), but predicting taste, even within these general genres is rather inexact. And, while an individual might eventually tire of an old stale song, entire industries mint money on the bet that people want to hear the same music over and over again. That’s exactly the basis behind the formulation of Top 40 radio and also Classic Rock as a genre.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      - David

      Reply
  2. Dave Soldier

    hi David,

    Thanks for the analysis. One point I disagree with however,

    “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.”

    I think that annoying music fans with diversity is only ONE way to annoy nearly every possible listener.

    I have taken this as a challenge. I believe I have now used the scientific method, mathematics, and the art of deduction to discover additional creative approaches to annoy nearly every possible listener.

    For example, a Fourier transformation of even your favorite recording will drive nearly every possible listener to distraction, and almost no one is capable of listening to the entire piece (actually, defining the duration of the piece is one of the relevant issues for this approach to Universally Annoying Music, but takes some effort to define).

    I have posted a new radio for WFMU on this topic, with the math of the derivations and examples at

    http://davesoldier.com/experimental.html#Mathmusic

    the best, Dave

    Reply

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