PRINT February 1998


Komar & Melamid

Used to be, Good and Bad were easy. Good was worthy, but a little dull: Little Nell, Jimmy Carter, the Queen Mum. Bad was dangerous but infinitely interesting: Byron, Lucifer, Mae West. But this century’s idea of the banality of evil has shifted the game, making Bad dull, and a turnoff. Komar & Melamid have been making hay out of the categorical confusion.

Understanding that in America, moral or aesthetic judgments (Good, Bad) tend to conflate with statistical ones (most liked, least liked), the two developed a practice of designing paintings through market research. Now they’ve extended their survey into music. Imagine a poll asking people to name their most and least favorite instrument, singing style, tempo, and so on. Imagine that the results are turned over to a songwriting team. With The Most Wanted Song, The Most Unwanted Song, composed by Dave Soldier and Nina Mankin and issued on CD by the Dia Center for the Arts, no more imagining is called for. “The Most Wanted Song,” predictably, wouldn’t have taken much mental striving, as it is somewhat saccharine. “The Most Unwanted Song,” on the other hand, is both unimaginable and deeply Bad. It is also utterly banal. Yet it is simultaneously kind of interesting, not to say a hoot.

Does the poll say that some of the most unwanted styles are opera and rap? Then “The Most Unwanted Song” opens with a burst of soprano: “Yo!” The most hated song subjects are holidays, cowboys, and politics? Intellectual stimulation ranks among music’s least important effects? The lyrics will cite Wittgenstein and George Stephanopoulos, a jolly chorus will advertise festivities from Christmas to Veterans’ Day by way of Ramadan (and don’t forget, “Do all your shopping at Wal-Mart!”), and western themes will recur (“Yo!,” that soprano sings, “I’m ropin’ up my saddle!”). Those loping cowpoke rhythms are played on the tuba, which the poll says we like very little. Also expect interpolations on bagpipes, accordion, and children’s choir.

The joke does pall, especially since the least favorite duration is over 10 minutes long (and the piece clocks in at over 20). Even so, “The Most Unwanted Song” leads Bad out of the cul-de-sac that banality stuck it in. It also recalls my favorite line from Anne Rice: “Tell me how bad I am. It makes me feel so good!”

David Frankel