Survey says ...

Give the people what they want.


Sarah Vowell
December 12, 1997 5:57PM (UTC)

-->What could be more beautiful than math? More reassuring than the perfection
of circles, the unity of statistics, the logic of numbers? Art, on the other hand, isn't pretty. It's a mess. The joy it gives some people, in mathematical terms, is often directly proportional to the pain it inflicts on others. Democracy is equidistant from art and math.
Think of all the art (the brush strokes, the shades of gray, the poetry) that
influences one citizen's vote. But once the marks are made or the holes are
punched, that vote instantly changes from theater into data. And for a few
decisive hours, that data will be compiled into a decision, into an
answer.

In this country, we're addicted to that moment of math, that periodic
instant when the body politic's results are in. We're addicted to elections --
not to the process, the art, but to the reassuring beauty of outcome.
People are always calling up "Entertainment Tonight" to vote yea or nay on
crucial sitcom dilemmas or responding to surveys about banking services or
buying toothpaste that four out of five dentists recommend.

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Not that there aren't a few people out there complaining. The biggest bellyachers about the focus-group phenomenon are film directors. Their movies go on trial at test screenings in which audiences force them into unwanted happy endings. "But it's art!" they crow in interviews. And art, as everyone knows, is made by dictators.

Well, who better to sit, doubled over laughing, in the center of the crooked line between American art and democracy than a couple of Soviet imigris? Russian artists Komar and Melamid want to give the people what they want. In 1994, they hired a market research firm to ask the citizens of various countries (including the U.S., Russia and France) about what they
did and didn't prefer in terms of style, color, subject and size -- questions such as, "Do you like a painting to be busy and contain a lot of people or objects, or do you like it to be as simple as possible?" When they had the results, they painted a picture that reflected the data for each country and called the series "The People's Choice." America's, for instance, is a "dishwasher-size" landscape with mountains and a river and George Washington and a couple of super cute deer. (France's "TV-size" picture was pretty much the same, sans George Washington.)

Komar and Melamid have now turned their attention to music. Their current project, a CD called "The People's Music: The Most Wanted Song, The Most Unwanted Song," has been produced in collaboration with composer David Soldier through New York's Dia Center for the Arts. As Dia director Michael Goven writes, "In an age where opinion polls and market research invade almost every aspect of our 'democratic/consumer' society (with the
notable exception of art), Komar and Melamid's project poses relevant
questions that an art-interested public, and society in general, often fail to
ask: What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of
people? Or conversely: What kind of culture is produced by a society that
lives and governs itself by opinion polls?"

The music survey imitates the template of the painting survey, but with one
unsettling difference: The first one was conducted by professional marketing consultants in a scientific fashion, while the musical survey was conducted through Dia's Web site. I hate to make assumptions about the kind of people who frequent their virtual gallery, but isn't the crown glory of Dia's collection an installation consisting of a roomful of dirt? So when presented with the following information, keep in mind that it might be skewed to the insights of Walter de Maria-loving minimalists.

The list of most popular instruments includes guitar, piano,
bass and drums, the most wanted singing styles are rock and blues/R&B, the
favored ensemble size is small (three to 10 performers) and the most wanted subject
matter is a love story; as a result, the five-minute-long love ballad that is "The Most
Wanted Song" sounds not unlike most of the stuff you can hear on the radio. In fact, I had to listen to it at least 12 times to hear the whole thing because my mind kept
wandering. It goes, "Baby can't you see!/You're my fantasy!" at just the sort of mid-tempo speed preferred by 57 percent of respondents. And it's a Celine Dionesque bore that 100 percent of the occupants of my one-person household usually tune out.

It's not like "The Most Wanted Song" exactly bothered me. It's just that
I'd rather be bothered. Is the musical audience a two-party system divided
between those listeners who pay attention and those who don't? The "Most Wanted Song" data seems to reflect this. As Dave Soldier points out in his notes, "The only feature in
lyric subjects that occurs in both most wanted and unwanted categories is
'intellectual stimulation.'" The only instrument that appears on both wanted and unwanted lists, by the way, is the synthesizer, which goes a long way
toward explaining all those heated arguments concerning the Pet Shop Boys.

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As you might imagine, "The Most Unwanted Song" is a real crackup. Even though
those surveyed hate opera and hip-hop, wild volume variations, the subjects
of cowboys or holidays, accordions and bagpipes (not to mention the vocal
stylings of children), this squeezebox-backed rap of screaming kids with an over-the-top soprano singing home-for-the-holidays-on-the-range lyrics is a hilarious
mess. Survey says politics and religion are to be avoided as well, which explains why the soprano's soliloquies about saddling up the fellas and Wittgenstein are interrupted by a kids chorus yelling, "Yom Kippur! Yom Kippur! Self-reflection and atonement!" I don't want to be seen as a flaming contrarian apologist against the tyranny of the majority by liking "The Most Unwanted Song" better; but I will concede that I am 97 percent certain that bagpipes really do sort of suck.


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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