Monday, July 19, 2004
Engineered Hit Songs, and The Lone Gunmen 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Truth may be stranger than fiction, and few TV shows got stranger than the ill-fated The Lone Gunmen; and now, University of Chicago undergrad Loren Wilson purports to have developed an algorithm that predicts the "hit factor" of songs, using a database of information gleaned from online reviews. Bear with me while I explain the [tenuous] connection...
Wilson's hardly the first to try to bring a little objectivity to the business of art. Recent Princeton grad Katherine Milkman was featured in the New York Times on June 1 for her own BA project, in which she used computer-driven statistical analysis to look for patterns among the short stories accepted by the New Yorker between 1992 and 2001. (Her conclusions confirmed a few suspicions in the literary community: after a change in the magazine's fiction editorship in 1995, there were more stories set in the New York area, more first-person narratives, and more works by men.)

In the mid-90s, the Russian conceptual-art team of Komar and Melamid made waves by creating "Most Wanted" paintings for 14 different countries, which combined the elements that scored best in national market-research polls. (Denmark's "Most Wanted" is an impressionistic seaside pastoral that includes a pair of pirouetting ballerinas and a man in slacks who's planting the Danish colors like a golf caddy replacing a flagstick.) A follow-up project led to a CD of similarly constructed music-according to Komar and Melamid's Web site, "The Most Unwanted Song" will be enjoyed by "fewer than 200 individuals of the world's total population."

But a Spanish company called Polyphonic HMI has made what's probably the most disturbing attempt to apply market research or statistics to the artistic process. Employing proprietary "Hit Song Science" technology, the service analyzes the potential commercial viability of pop songs for the recording industry-according to Polyphonic's PR, this process identifies the "underlying mathematical patterns in unreleased music and compares them to the patterns in recent hit songs." [read full article, "Rock By Numbers"]
It sounds suspiciously like something I read on The Lone Gunmen website (mysteriously still being hosted, while the X-Files official website went kerplooie back in November 2003)

Your bad taste in music may not be your fault.

If you find yourself ingesting an endless diet of Britney Spears, N'Sync, the Backstreet Boys, or whatever other half-assed corporate amalgamation is out there pretending to be music, it may be due to influences beyond your control. I became suspicious while tuning in to a Christina Aguilera music video, purely by accident, mind you, and an inordinate amount of my attention was focused on the song. My foot was tapping, and I felt good.

My suspicions aroused, I subjected her CD, as well as the rest of these bubble gum noise-makers, to a battery of audio tests, comparing them to classic recordings by Elvis, the Beatles, and Pink Floyd. The results are undeniable. The pop pretenders all showed evidence of ultrasonic sound that have the potential to stimulate the hypothalamus or the pleasure centers of the brain. The high-pitched squeal similar to the tone created by a dog whistle, is practically inaudible except when processed through an ultrasonic interferometer. The tone balances on the edge of the human limits of hearing, and really only affects the younger generations of music listeners, before natural (or other) hearing loss occurs.

The record company moguls hem and haw, claiming this "noise" is a natural byproduct of the digital recording process, but we all know these are lies perpetrated by the partly faithful. A source in the recording industry, a sound engineer who only wanted to be identified as "Yams," claims the intoxicated subliminal pleasure tone is standard nowadays. "No hit record reaches the marketplace without it," Yams stated.

So now what? How do we protect our children from this crap? Honestly, we can't. If they want to listen, they'll listen, no matter how much we try to stop them. But next time you're thinking of telling little Oscar or Sally to turn their music down…wait a moment. A little damage to their eardrums may not be such a bad thing, and before you know it, they'll be dusting off your old copy of Dark Side of the Moon.
Like, totally, man. Seriously, The Lone Gunmen may have been utter crap, but it was oddly prescient: the pilot episode from March 2001 featured a scenario where a commerical airliner was taken over by terrorists who programmed the autopilot to crash it into Manhattan's Twin Towers. Now that's frightening. I wonder if the show's writers got called in for questioning for that one.