The People’s Choice Music: How do we develop our tastes?

Words by Morgan Kenning

As a musician, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what people like and what they don’t. Judging by the number of downloads I usually get, I’m doing a pretty dismal job of it; but would surveying people on what they like and don’t like about music help me? Well, in 1996, artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid did just that. Komar and Melamid had a project called The People’s Choice, where they polled people from various countries about what elements of paintings they like and dislike and from that, created what should, in theory, be the most popular and least popular paintings in those countries. The US' Most Wanted was a landscape of a lake, featuring George Washington, children playing and some deer. The Most Unwanted, as with the majority of the world, was an abstract geometric pattern. 2 years after the first paintings, they decided to adapt their methodology to the world of music. I talked to composer Dave Soldier to find out a bit more.

“I met Komar and Melamid through another artist named Mark Kostabi who was a friend of theirs. They gave me the cover for my album Smut in 1992, and we started planning out projects, including the opera Naked Revolution, which we finally released after 20 years”. Soldier drew up a poll, asking about elements such as genre, duration, instruments and lyrical content. I asked who wrote the questions and why they chose what they did, to which he replied: “I wrote them, and look at them carefully, some were kind of written to get particular answers that I would like”. If you read the survey, you can see that almost every element of music you’d expect a non-musician to have an opinion on. They didn’t ask about any technical things like chords, but other questions about emotion managed to get the same information across.

So, what were the results? 2 songs: one, an R&B/Rock song of exactly 5 minutes in duration, featuring one singer/songwriter that sounds like Bruce Springsteen and another that sounds like Whitney Houston. It’s a love song, and if someone presented it to me and told me it was #1 for 6 weeks in the summer of 1996, I wouldn’t question it. According to the creators, this would be unavoidably liked by 72% (plus or minus 12%) of listeners. It’s an utterly inoffensive song and would have no problem getting played on the radio at the time. But it’s just that- inoffensive. But how about a song that would be genuinely liked by less than 200 people out of the world’s population? For that, you need the logical opposite of the Most Wanted song. The Most Unwanted Music is 22 minutes of terror, featuring a large orchestra with a harmonica, a harp, a banjo, a tuba, a soprano rapper, a children’s choir, bagpipes, a flute and some non-musical drilling noises amongst other things. It opens with a country theme, and cycles through genres such as hip hop, experimental atonal music, a political protest rant, elevator music and advertising jingles. It basically serves as the world’s longest and most painful advert for Walmart. Seriously, listen to it. It’s indescribable. Every single section feels like the worst thing imaginable until the next one starts. It also has the accolade of being the only score I’ve ever read with the word 'PAINFUL' on it.

This song is like a 22-minute concerto of nails on a blackboard- and for some reason, I love it. Anyone could put together a cacophonous mess and call it the worst song ever, but this is a more refined approach. 22 minutes of atonal nonsense is relatively easy to listen to because you tune it out after a while unless it’s your kind of thing- but with The Most Unwanted Music, it makes sure you can never tune it out. You will listen to the first cowboy theme, and think 'well this isn’t so bad', until the rap starts. Then the rap ends, and the children come in. Then the bagpipes. Every section twists the knife in a little bit more. Just when you start getting used to it and accepting your fate, the cowboy theme returns at half the speed. There’s no way to escape this if it’s present in the same room as you. But then a couple of days later, after your friends have all listened to it and you’ve grown weary of their grimacing faces as they re-evaluate why they hang around with you in the first place, you put it back on again. The same in a few days more. So that’s what I’m trying to find out- why do I like this song?

One reason is its uniqueness. I’ve never listened to a song quite as bizarre as this, it’s in a league of its own amongst all the songs ever written. It breaks through the realms of genre and style to bring a totally new flavour. Even if that flavour is horrendous, it’s new. This song blends instruments which have absolutely no business being anywhere near each other, there’s no other song in the world as far as I’m aware that has a tuba as a bassline to a hip-hop beat, or a soprano singer with drills in the background, or slams that ‘interfere with the soloist’. This does point to the obvious fact that it is fundamentally a novelty song, which generates a lot more interest. If any of these elements were incorporated into a standard, non-novelty song, it wouldn’t get popular and it wouldn’t be appreciated, but because it’s all these elements in one song it stands out from the crowd.

Another reason is contrary to what almost every article on this song says- it wasn’t designed to be the ‘worst song ever’. Nothing about the construction of melodies, chords or anything like that is bad, it’s designed to be unwanted, and it fits that profile exactly. The thing that makes it unwanted is aesthetics. Apart from what can be written down on sheet music, how it actually sounds. The instruments used, the vocalists and lyrical content, the sudden, jarring stylistic shifts all make it unwanted. Anyone could create 20 minutes of cacophonous noise with a nonsensical vocal line sung over the top and call it the worst song ever, but the approach The Most Unwanted Music took was a lot more subtle than that. Making a bad song is easy, we both know you don’t have to go too deep into the internet to find one. But making a song that has nothing objectively wrong with it still create such a reaction is a real skill. This shows something deeper about how we develop musical taste, though. Aesthetics are key to us liking or not liking a song. If the Beatles wrote and performed the same songs with John being a soprano, Paul on tuba, George on banjo and Ringo on tambourine, I don’t think they would have the same place in music history they currently have. Just look at the anthem of every group of drunk students in the UK at least, Mr. Brightside. The melody is one-note, almost all the way through. The thing people like about it is how it sounds, the production, the instrumentation, all that extra-musical flavouring goes a long way.

Of course, the internet is pretty much the one and only reason it’s had a recent spike in popularity. For some reason, the Youtube algorithm selected it for prominence which is why this article is in front of you today. General trends in internet memes recently lean more towards absurd surrealism rather than constructing any traditional jokes. This song fits in with this culture and becomes very shareable and funny as a result, in the same way, I get a message from a friend at 2 am with a totally nonsensical video they’ve been crying laughing at for the past 3 hours. Other gems of surreal weird novelty music Youtube decided is perfect for me include ‘I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones’ and ‘I’m My Own Grandpa’. They know me so well. It’s funny not only as a surreal thing that seems to exist for no reason but on a meta-level where people will share these things to laugh at the algorithm itself.

The Most Wanted music, on the other hand, doesn’t feature any uniqueness, novelty, or surreal humour value. I noticed that more people liked the Most Unwanted music from its sheer hilarity than the Most Wanted music. Dave Soldier puts this down to ‘lack of an intensive sense of humour, they are both pretty cool’, and to an extent, I agree, but they’re funny for different reasons. The Most Wanted music is a reflection of popular music at the time, but it’s a parody that’s so close to the thing it’s parodying as to be indistinguishable from the real thing if you don’t know any better. In a way, this is the most effective parody, like when you see a post online spouting a bizarre political opinion or conspiracy theory only to find people unironically believing it in the comments, but it also lacks the direct 'punch in the face' that the Most Wanted music has.

So what does this say about our tastes? For one, it shows differences in how we respond to visual art and music. The musical version definitely gets a more visceral reaction than the visual version. I asked the composer about this, he disagreed with the sentiment, saying ‘Not sure that’s true, I think people like both and react to both’. For me, it comes down to differences in how we consume these art forms. Visual art is less intrusive, it’s possible to look away and look at something else, whereas audio fills a room. Without headphones or earplugs, the only way to not hear something is to move away from it. There’s also the fact that our ears are quicker to be offended than our eyes, and as far as consuming information goes, they are our primary sensory organ. Radio was popular because it’s easy to digest information by hearing it, whereas silent TVs never existed and would not have caught on. Silent movies worked because of the pianist helping to bring the scenes to life in the same way incidental music does today. Similarly, the advice to new Youtubers, especially in the days before 1080p and 4k phone cameras, was to invest in the microphone first. People can deal with 144p video as long as there’s a vague idea of what’s happening, and the audio is clear.

Secondly, it shows that we don’t know what we want. The way we find new music is not by listening to things that are exactly like all the other stuff we listen to, in fact, today it’s primarily through Spotify playlists and the like. My favourite artists today are ones I discovered through recommendations either by an algorithm or by friends. Nobody is interested in songs that don’t rock the boat at all, that’s why pop music tends to change so quickly. The early 2010s were all about R&B and EDM, then Funk became quite a big influence around 2016 and Latin music seems to be a big factor nowadays. We know what we like, but what we want is usually totally unexpected.

As humans, we’re good at sticking to habits and getting ourselves in a rut. We crave something new always, and it’s clear to see how different our tastes are now compared to 24 years ago. In 1996, rap was an unwanted vocal style and cowboys were an unwanted lyrical theme, so they made it into the Most Unwanted Music. As of 2020, a hip-hop song about being a cowboy is the longest-running #1 in Billboard’s history. We have certainly come a long way. Whether that’s for better or for worse is in the eye of the beholder.