Cover artwork by Clarrie Maguire
What do you want to hear?
That’s the question that few of us ever ask outside of road trips and wedding playlists. Can you think of any time you’ve asked that very question? I can’t. Literally CAN NOT! That’s part of the reason that ‘The Most Wanted Song’ and ‘The Most Unwanted Song’ are both so fascinating!
Now, artists are weird. You know that, right? Two Russian-born artists — Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid — were conceptualist artists, coming together in the late 60s. They are famous for coming up with Sots Art, which is kinda Soviet-styled contemporary art with a conceptualist bent. They were kinda cool, but about 1991, they started looking in a different direction.
The idea that art has been moving away from the people has been around for decades. It was Dada that might have started that one, though I guess there’s always been art that has been seen as moving away from mass acceptance. Komar and Melamid saw this, and decided to try their hand at creating art that people actually wanted to see… or at least thought they wanted to see. They also asked about the least wanted art as well, and set out to create a survey that would allow them to create both.
As all artists of the 90s, they set out to make the sciences — in this case mathematics and polling — and applied them to the artistic process. They would set out to figure out exactly what a country wanted to see as far as a painting. The results were a series of paintings for various countries that expressed the supposed desires of that nation. The results are interesting, and not only because of the content, but the context. The Most Wanted Paintings almost all looked the same for most of the countries, with a couple of changes. Melamid said that a big part of the project as to expose the idea of free will as fruitless and predestination and groupthink as the reality of good art.
The Least Wanted Paintings, on the other hand, were all quite different.
While all the Most Wanted Paintings are realist in nature, the Least Wanted work in various abstract modes, largely minimalist in nature. The USA’s least wanted is very much a straight abstraction, kinda in the style of Hans Hoffmann or Paul Klee. The one for Germany is absolutely my favorite, as it reminds me of Mondrian meets Sean Scully meets glitch art. I love it and would 100% hang it in a meeting room! It’s kinda dizzying and wonderful.
So, when they were doing an exhibition of the paintings, the owner of the gallery recommended they maybe create a musical version.
And thus, ‘The Most Wanted Song’ and ‘The Least Wanted Song’.
So, the survey was pretty complex, which was partly the point. Looking it over, you can see that this was kinda pointed. 500 Americans. The questions were:
- Please indicate your three favorite musical instruments:
- My most favorite of all musical instruments is:
- My least favorite musical instrument is ___ and I also don’t like ___.
- My favorite duration for a musical composition is: ___.
- I prefer listening to music at a volume most people consider: ___.
- I most dislike listening to music at a volume that most people consider: ___.
- I most prefer music played at a speed that is: ___.
- My favorite music tends to be performed by ___.
- When I listen to music, the primary response I usually seek is: ___.
- The response least important for me in listening to music is usually: ___.
- The most important attribute for me in a composition is that it: ___.
- My favorite song subject is about: ___.
- I most hate hearing songs about: ___.
- I most like listening to music: ___.
- I most hate listening to music: ___.
- I most like hearing singing by: ___.
- I most like hearing singing by a female voice in what register: ___.
- I most hate hearing singing by: ___.
- My most favorite singer sings in a musical style best described as: ___.
- My least favorite singer sings in a musical style best described as: ___.
The first thing to note that they were working towards a song, so not a symphony or the like. An interesting note. This means that there will be a bias. I’m not 100% certain, but I believe that they provided a list of potential answers for each question. They are also limiting in the idea of vocals and instruments. In essence, this is a pointed questionnaire, designed to give an idea of what the answer “should” be.
Maybe that’s what Malemid was saying: that this wasn’t really a sampling of the things that people wanted, but instead a crafted work of art, with the medium of creation being a framework determined by the artists. This would mean that they knew what they would get, which I guess makes a lot of sense, because there’s a long of history of what makes music popular.
The song, by the way, is genius.
After they compiled the data, they sorted it. Basically, things that had been important to the surveyed, like guitars, low-voiced male voices, three to five minutes in duration, rock and R&B styles, were incorporated by the great David Solder and Nina Mankin into the actual song. Apparently, Solder also helped to craft the survey itself, which makes sense. The song they came up with is… contemporary radio. Literally, when I first heard it, I was shocked that it wasn’t a regular song. It’s smooth, lovely singing by Mankin, and there’s guitar, played by Vernon Reid, the guitarist of the thrash band Living Colour. It’s a solid and non-showy performance, nothing like the blistering fret-work Reid was known for in his solos on songs like “Cult of Personality”. That’s not to say it’s all serious, there’s a great verse:
As she filled the ketchup jars/She looked at him like a rising sun
Shining down on his dark star/Shining for the love you want
It’s a smooth jazz R&B classic. It seems kinda bland, but it’s utterly listenable.
And then, there’s the Least Wanted Song.
Now, the instruments that polled the worst — the accordion and the bagpipe — were to be highlighted. Things like opera singers, screaming children, and a LONG run-time. Solder and Mankin created a bizarre mash-up of themes, that range from cowboy and rap motifs, mixed with silly novelty rock. It’s like They Might Be Giants decided to create an album solely by taking a dozen of disparate song lyrics and making them into a slightly-connected version of “Fingertips”. It’s a starkly political song, with themes of anti-consumerism and religious dominance over Western civilization.
And it’s marvelous!
Now, as the host of the Ubuweb podcast has said, it’s not that Least Wanted. There’s almost no dissonance in it, it’s almost completely tonal. I could think of a dozen composers, notably folks like John Zorn, or Weber, or any of a dozen folks working within the electronic classical realm. It’s certainly not what people want to hear on the radio, but while the math says that only 200 people in the world would actually enjoy it, I really like it. It’s fun, thoughtful, and moves. I also kinda like cowboy songs.
What do these songs actually tell us?
First, that public opinion is pretty easily manipulated. It’s obvious from the questionnaire that they knew at least roughly what they were going to get. In the questionnaire for Most Wanted Painting it’s far more obvious, but there’s a set of limitations that the prevalence of music in everyday life defines for a large swath of respondents. That’s going to bias any sort of survey, and I am 100% certain that they knew this and were TRYING to get this result, at least with the Most Wanted Song.
Least Wanted might be about giving Sodler and Mankin such a large canvas. They killed it, as far as I’m concerned. They made something amazing, even if it could certainly be seen as unwanted for general consumption. One of the better criticisms I’ve read is that just having the presence of a particular instrument won’t necessarily destroy a song, and in fact can give it a specific flavor. I can point to the film The Third Man as an example. I hate nothing more than the zither, and The Third Man features so much of it. It’s still an amazing film, I look at it as an awful stone set in an amazing setting. That’s what’s happening here.
You should listen to these songs, which can be found online. It’s also the site where I realized that Charles Simonyi is the executive producer, which makes sense, as he’s all about data, having created one of the first WYSIWYG word processors. He’s also a musician: and not a very good one, from what I understand.