By Sophia Polin
Photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski.
Dave Sulzer is a neuroscientist and professor of neurology at Columbia University. He is also the founder of the Thai Elephant Orchestra—which is, indeed, an orchestra of elephants playing musical instruments, some of which were built by Sulzer himself—not to mention a prolific musician and composer.
Dave Soldier, Sulzer’s musician pseudonym, is also the founder of the Soldier String Quartet and the “punk Delta blues group” the Kropotkins. His alter ego is also known for collaborations with week-known musicians from all corners of the industry, including (but extending far beyond) John Cale, Bob Neuwirth, Amina Claudine Meyers, Guided by Voices, Pete Seeger, Richard Hell, Davis Byrne, and Elliot Sharp.
Throughout Sulzer/Soldier’s career, his scientific and musical interests become intertwined. One famous collaboration between Soldier and conceptual artist-duo Komar & Melamid lies at the intersection of art and science. It’s a 1996 project called The People’s Choice Music.
The project is based off of Komar & Melamid’s 1994 parent project, entitled just the People’s Choice series, in which they created paintings based off national polls. The artists polled focus groups from 14 different countries, plus the web, to determine the “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings in each country. Their research showed Americans favor landscapes with greenery and blue skies, depictions of groups of people (especially families), patriotic imagery (a portrait of George Washington, no less), and animals.
As a result, Komar & Melemid’s determination of the America’s “most wanted” painting resembles a watered down version of “Storm on the Rockies” superimposed on a dollar bill. Or at least it has that aura.
There’s minimal deviation from this criteria for “best.” Most of the countries surveyed idealized a classic landscape scattered with some patriotic imagery. Brightly colored, geometric paintings in the vein of Ellsworth Kelly were generally the least wanted.
Soldier’s companion survey with the duo in turn focused the inherent question of Komar & Melemid’s experiment on music—asking Americans what were their most and least desired qualities of a song. Their results confirmed what the duo had scratched the surface of their first People’s Choice project–that Americans reject extremes in music as well as visual art.
On paper, the most wanted song is the tepid equivalent of a green and blue landscape. It’s about four minutes long, moves at medium tempo, and is intended to entertain rather than stimulate or relax the listener. It’s performed by a band of between three and ten performers. It’s much more likely to feature guitar (the most wanted instrument), piano, drums, and bass, rather than say, tuba or accordion.
The most wanted vocalists are men and women with low voices. The least wanted are children. The best circumstance for listening is at home at the listener’s leisure, the worst is to be exposed to music in commercials.
Soldier’s resulting most wanted song is a duet. It tells a very trite love story (narrative songs tend to gauge interest more than others), and features some pretty hokey shredding guitar. Most of the lyrics are fluff, but there are a few great moments:
Joey was a travelin’ man
Long and lean with a face like a baby
And she worked the nightshift
In the bright lights down on Washington
As she filled the ketchup jars
She looked at him like the risen’ sun
Shinin’ down on his dark star
Shinin’ for the lucky one
Since there’s no way to subtly incorporate an homage to George Washington, Soldier chooses to speak to that idealized working-class American dream on par with early ‘90s Bon Jovi. It’s Tom Waits’ “Invitation to the Blues” meets Journey, meets Elton John. It’s a seamless synthesis. And it’s pretty hard to listen to. Who knew that the phrase “ketchup jars” could be so uncomfortable? Nicely done.
In 1996, the year Soldier’s survey was conducted, Billboard’s number 2 and 3 songs (after “Macarena”) were “One Sweet Day”, performed by Mariah Carey and Boys II Men, and Celine Dion’s “Nobody Knows”. The spirit of those times are reflected in Soldier’s song. Yet it’s only the satirical element which makes the song at all listenable.
In the decades since, polls like Soldier’s might have become obsolete. Statistical data, especially concerning culture and media, is available to everyone online. What’s it telling us?
The number 1 song of 2013 was “Thrift Shop” performed by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Sentimental Americana–themed lyrics are out. Big bands are out. Electronic engineering is in. Self-awareness is in (consider mainstream artists like Lana Del Rey and Lorde, who are undeniably self-aware but not necessarily satirical). So in, in fact, that Soldier’s most wanted song might’ve made it today. At least as a fun internet trend. But only with the guarantee that it was made 0 percent in earnest.
The song went viral in close to 24 hours. Everyone loves to hate it. But mostly everyone just hates it, because of its complete lack of self-awareness. The video “manages to capture every bothersome quirk Brooklyn (or at least the more gentrified parts) has to offer,” says Entertainment Weekly. Shaw’s naive homage to her new home–she recently moved from Virginia Beach–is too sincere. Even though it’s rich with indie-folk tropes that are normally popular, the song just isn’t wanted.
Now, compare “Brooklyn Girls” to Soldier’s least wanted song. The 25-minute piece features a soprano rapping about cowboys, a children’s choir screeching holiday-themed Walmart jingles, bagpipes, and a tuba. It frequently and abruptly changes tempo and key.
It’s The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” meets Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. It’s complex.
But it really isn’t bad.
In fact, Solider told Ira Glass in a 1997 interview that the least wanted song was very well received, especially by musicians. Perhaps there are some things that can’t be quantified. “Brooklyn Girls” adds up in every aspect except one, and it fails. The least wanted song doesn’t add up at all, but somehow it works.
In a way, that makes sense. David Soldier’s attempt at something the world would hate was such a carefully curated disaster that it was bound to seem as artful as it was. It’s just that self-aware.