music: the Most Unwanted Song endures

From 1997 but still golden-ly unwanted

Way back in 1977 I read a brief article in Wired magazine about artists Komar & Melamid‘s project to make the most unwanted song (and most wanted song) based on a rigorous consumer preference survey. When I got to “an opera singer rapping cowboy lyrics over tuba and bagpipes” I literally reverse-snorted coffee all over the magazine and fell off my chair. I wasn’t ROTFLMAO, but I couldn’t finish reading it through the tears in my eyes from laughing so hard 🤣. I’ve spent hours trying to find it.

I ordered the CD from a museum gift shop; I later saw Komar & Melamid’s People’s Choice exhibition of the most wanted and most unwanted paintings (they commissioned that survey in a dozen countries, and the USA and China have similar preferences); I went to a pretty incoherent but entertaining art talk by them. They are damn good conceptual artists, and both audio and visual versions of Most Wanted/Unwanted should make you think about the nature and purpose of art. Now that computers can generate visual art and music, their ideas are more relevant than ever.

At the time I use a Macintosh at work, and ripped my CD so a co-worker could listen to it. At the time iTunes would by default share your music library across the local network. Strangers would come find me after finding “spage’s Music Library” on the network containing exactly two songs. “That’s all I need” was my gnomic reply.

Commenters saying “But I like this, it’s more interesting than the pablum from <insert pop tart du jour>” completely misunderstand the point. Komar & Melamid paid for a detailed survey of people’s preferences for song length, instruments, timbres, vocal style, subjects, song structure, tempo changes, etc. Then they, with composer Dave Soldier, made a song following the dictates of the most unwanted of all those consumer preferences: loooonnnng, tuba and accordion, extremely high and low pitches, opera singer and children’s chorus yelling, cowboys and national anthems, protest lyrics and commercial slogans, dead-pony slow then manic, etc. They did not try to make a unlikable or bad song! Besides, it’s easy to like the song for 6 minutes, but at 14 minutes when the opera singer and bratty children’s choir sing the U.S. national anthem, even the coolest of the cool start to sweat, and there’s still 7 more minutes to sit through. I’ve listened to it many times, but probably only thrice from start to finish.

Commenters also ask for an updated song, no doubt hoping it will skewer aspects of today’s music they find awful. But that’s also missing the point. Komar, Melamid, and Soldier would make a different song today because popular music is different today, not because people in the 2020s started digging opera singers and distorted protest monologues. A new survey could add new questions (How much autotune do you like? How far off the grid do you like your beats to drag?), but that’s weirdly specific.

“The Most Wanted Song” is fine. Again the cool music fans say they don’t like it, but you can hear how it’s assembled according to the most wanted of the same song characteristics. And Living Colour’s Vernon Reid plays the guitar solo!

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