Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Coolness and Passion Index

"It may be too hard to tell whether an artist is cool, but we have all sorts of ways to tell that an artist is definitely not cool. For instance, if lots of listeners really don’t want people to know that they are listening to a particular artist, then that artist is probably not too cool."
By examining "unwanted scrobbles" data from Last.fm, a blogger tries to make sense of what's uncool in popular music. (What is a scrobble?) The conclusion?
"It is hard to be cool and female."
No two ways about it. Most male music fans don't care to collect music by female performers and bands. The only exceptions might be in genres like Jazz, country and folk.

I know, some of you will be eager to drop the names of Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell at this point, but I can't say I have spent any significant amount of time listening to them.

The Coolness Index.
***

On a similar note, the same blogger looks at a "Passion Index" to understand "which artists generate the most passionate listeners". While the math is clearly not perfect, the Beatles win hands down. (Their former rivals, the Rolling Stones are actually ranked below, get this, Gorillaz.)

But how might "passion" be linked to music sales? Do Gorillaz actually sell more than the Stones? Can Sigur Ros really sell more singles and albums than Led Zeppelin? I doubt it. But it is an interesting bit of insight.

How much longer before even the Beatles and Pink Floyd drop out of this list, just like Elvis? Another fifty years? A hundred years? Or are they destined to forever remain on such an index, like Beethoven and Mozart?

The Passion Index

33 comments:

Rahul Siddharthan said...

You mean Britney isn't cool? No? What about Beyonce?

It's true there are very few women on my pop-rock CD shelf (Joni Mitchell and Carole King are the only ones I can think of). In jazz there are a bunch of vocalists in my collection, at least a dozen from Bessie Smith to Madeleine Peyroux, but not so many instrumentalists (only Regina Carter, I think). But then I can't think of an uncool jazz musician. (Kenny G is not jazz.)

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ps - I'm sure some other commenters will name Susan Tedeschi. I haven't heard her recordings but have heard her live, and she's cool.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

pps - just looked at the list more carefully. I'm pretty sure Amy Winehouse (is their misspelling deliberate?) is on the list because of her behaviour, not because of her music.

km said...

Rahul:

Britney isn't cool for others to know that you listen to her. Kinda like how it was with the Carpenters, when I was younger :)

I would think Amy Winehouse's behavior would make her more cool. Or does the average pop fan no longer like their pop stars rowdy and drugged up?

But yes, Jazz, blues, folk and classical are the "breakout" genres. (And the ones you mentioned are in my collection too.)

??! said...

I'm not convinced of that conclusion. I'd rather see it as people buying into the hype, and then realising that artiste wasn't cool, rather than a generalisation that female artistes aren't.

There are a whole bunch of men up there, and if you include the fact that there are so many boy/men-bands, there are more men than women there.

Also, you can't say male music fans don't collect music by female artistes, because this list is based only on what they delete, not what they keep (have I got it right?).

km said...

??!: Yes, I know that you recently quoted Tracy Chapman and Joan Osborne :)(both of whose works I enjoy - but do not own)

So while his conclusion may not be entirely accurate (I think so too), it still raises the question - why *are* those Last.fm users deleting those scrobbles?

(I would definitely delete my scrobbles if I were listening to, say, Coldplay because I don't want to be *judged* by the InterfrickinNet.)

??! said...

You raise an interesting point - could it be that those deletions are not entirely about people's likes/dislikes, but also partially linked to people building up an 'image' on the Net. Worrying about what others might think of them if they had, say, Babyshambles on their list (one of the most uncool bands of all time). Hmm?

Also, no Chapman? Seriously? Dude.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the usual suspects (Joni, Grace, Janis, etc.) :

Alannis Morisette
Sarah McLachlan
Tori Amos
Tracy Chapman
Indie Arie
Michelle Ndegeocello
(lately) The Indigo Girls

I'm male and most of these artists I was introduced to, by females. Also, I do not own albums by most of these artists, but I think they are very cool. :)

IMHO, and if we can step into the arena of world music, Brazilian pop(?) star Marisa Monte is uber cool. Check her out on the albums "Tribalistas" or "Universo ao Meu Redor" (lots of videos on Youtube) and tell me if you don't agree?

km said...

??!: Exactly - it's not whether I think it's cool. It's whether the *tribe* thinks it's cool. (My guess is, a lot of those "deleters" are in their teens.)

Anonymous: Thanks, I will definitely look up the Brazilian musician you've mentioned. (And I just remembered the awesome Mariam of "Amadou and Mariam", the African duo....).

??! said...

Are not including Regina Spektor? Or is just delightfully eclectic?

Falstaff said...

Chrissie Hynde? Joan Baez?

Also, I can't help thinking this is only true for rock - certainly Jazz and Blues and Classical have a fair number of female stars, as does Pop.

km said...

Falstaff: Yeah, I (and others) did point that out (about those genres.) But the original blogger's point is that some musicians are not thought of as cool by online listeners - even though they are bestselling ones.

Falstaff said...

km: Frankly, that blogger's point argument doesn't really bear scrutiny.

a) The fact that an artist receives a number of unwanted scrobbles doesn't make that artist uncool. At most, it means that the artist has a strongly polarizing effect - some people hate (or want to be perceived as hating) that artist enough to go to the trouble of deleting the relevant scrobble. That doesn't mean there isn't a significant proportion of the population who think the artist is really cruel.

b) As the blogger sort of admits but then doesn't follow through on, there needs to be a control for popularity. The fact that these artists are bestselling isn't surprising, it's the reason they get more unwanted scrobbles. Given their popularity everyone feels compelled to listen to them, just to see what the fuss is about, and those who don't like them then delete the scrobbles. Less popular artists are only listened to by people who are predisposed to like them so they get less unwanted scrobbles

c) It's a fairly bizarre definition of cool anyway. One could argue that really cool artists are those that have a devoted fan following among a select group of cognoscenti and who no one else likes. Is Mozart really 'cool'? Or is, say, Stravinsky cooler?

d) Finally, I'm not sure about the interpretation that the source of the uncoolness is gender. Yes, the people topping the list of the 'uncool' are disproportionately female, but they're also disproportionately pop artists. You could just as easily argue that it's hard to do pop and be cool, or that it's hard to sell a lot of albums and be cool.

arsh said...

punk females can whup the tribe-coolness of any of the other females out there in other genres.

"Oh Bondage, Up Yours!"

km said...

Falstaff: a significant proportion of the population who think the artist is really cruel..

Been listening to Elvis much? :)

And hey, I'm totally with you on all those points. The "my favorite band sells fewer albums than yours and is therefore cooler" syndrome is just as prevalent among music lovers.

But deleted scrobbles do mean people don't want those artists to appear on their Last.fm profiles.

arsh: yeah, true, but would you rather tell people that you are listening to the Clash or to, say, Violent Femmes or L7?

arsh said...

km: actually, web 2.0 aside, its evolved (or devolved?) into more like "I listen to bands that do not exist yet and is therefore cooler". Complete with bumper stickers! :)

yeah, Strummer has the edge.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Mozart and Stravinsky are both cool. It doesn't matter whether their music was popular or unappreciated or caused riots initially. The people who like Stravinsky are not a "select group of cognoscenti". The cognoscenti argument is the lazy artist's version of Woody Allen's "All men are Socrates". "Thelonious Monk was underappreciated, I am underappreciated, therefore I am Thelonious Monk."

km said...

Arsh: Oh, and "Pitchfork" is probably responsible for the sale of half of those bumper stickers ;)

Rahul: I don't know about you, but *I am* definitely Django Reinhardt. Or at least Wes Montgomery :)

Falstaff said...

Rahul: "It doesn't matter whether their music was popular or unappreciated or caused riots initially."

No one said it did. We're talking about today (if that isn't painfully obvious - I mean, really, scrobbles, in Mozart's time?) The point is that coolness is about exclusivity. Everyone with ears likes Mozart, but there's a much smaller proportion of people who are devoted to Stravinsky. Therefore, arguably, Stravinsky is cooler than Mozart. But by the bloggers method you're likely to come to the opposite conclusion. Therefore, the blogger's method is questionable. Clear enough?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Apparently Glenn Gould didn't have ears. (Actually I don't like Mozart either, a few pieces excepted, but that's my deficiency, not Mozart's.) Stravinsky is not cool because he is less popular than Mozart. He is cool because he achieved considerable popularity despite using rather advanced and avant-garde ideas. In no sense is he more cool than Mozart, however. (To me, one of the coolest is Dave Brubeck, for making polytonality, polyrhythm, etc so listenable. Who else could explore all 12 chord roots in 12 bars without making it sound execrably atonal?)

km said...

Rahul:

Brubeck is solidly mainstream and his genius lay in making 12-bar blues sound really funky.

To me, an example of what would be considered cool (as in "show-offy" cool - of course - not musically cool) would be someone like Ornette Coleman or Roland Ehsaan Kirk or Keith Jarrett. Abstract, inaccessible stuff.

Or else it would be like someone admitting that they only listen to "Four Seasons" or "Moonlight Sonata". That's very uncool (to a serious classical music fan)

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - again, I don't think popularity or 'mainstreamness' is related to coolness. The article seemed to define 'uncool' as someone you don't want to claim to be a fan of. So 'cool' would be someone you're proud to be a fan of. To me, one criterion is that they did something interesting, unusual and *worthwhile* with standard tools. Brubeck qualifies. So does Gershwin. Meanwhile, in Bach's time the most popular German composer was Telemann. But Bach is cool while Telemann is boring and formulaic.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ps - just to expand on what I'd like to mean by "cool". The "not uncool" thing above (ie, I'm happy to be called a fan) is only part of it. When does one say "hey, that's cool" in real life? It's generally when you encounter something surprising, unexpected, but elegant and easily appreciated. The Watson & Crick paper on DNA was cool -- it was about a page long and anyone can read and understand it. Wiles' proof of Fermat's last theorem was (I'm told) brilliant, but only about a dozen people in the world could have understood it, so I wouldn't call it "cool". I'd like to apply the same criterion to music, so I guess I'm the polar opposite of falstaff. Brubeck is cool. Somebody less known, like Mulgrew Miller, is cool too: few have heard of him but millions would appreciate him if they heard him. But if only a dozen people can possibly appreciate it, to me it's decidedly uncool, and the attitude that these dozen people are the "cognoscenti" is pretentiousness taken to absurd levels. With the added negative that at least Wiles' proof is verifiable and "correct" in some sense, so that those who can appreciate it truly are the cognoscenti, while there is no such criterion in music and the arts.

km said...

Rahul: No argument there - coolness *should* not be linked to "mainstreamness" or the lack of it. But it often is, which was the point of the original post.

??! said...

I'm with Rahul on this one - coolness is not solely inversely proportional to popularity. It is popular to be popular or mainstream, and be cool too (Brubeck, as KM points out). And not every unregarded artiste is cool.

Also, we're dissing Keith Jarrett now? Next you'll be after Jan Garbarek.

km said...

??!: No, no, I am not dissing Jarrett at all. I am not qualified to so much as raise a micro-fleck of a diss in that man's general direction.

I am not also sure if I am giving the impression that coolness and sales are directly proportional (or inversely). It's simply not true.

Falstaff said...

Sigh. I think you're all missing the point. The point is that 'coolness' is an arbitrary construct that has no clear definition and therefore no analytical validity. Different people find different things cool, and the same person can find different things cool for different reasons. So trying to build an overall theory for what determines coolness is foolish. And as Rahul's comments admirably demonstrate, anyone can come up with his own definition of coolness, and then proceed to build half-baked arguments for why so-and-so artist is cool or not cool. Whether or not coolness is inversely related to popularity is irrelevant (though an interesting, and unanswered, empirical question); whether or not it should be even more so. The blogger's argument makes no sense because he's trying to measure what he can't define (and using a highly questionable measure at that).

And before you let your imaginations run away with you, the limited empirical point I was trying to make about Mozart and Stravinsky was that using the blogger's method you were likely to come to the conclusion that Stravinsky was less cool than Mozart (because the probability that someone listening to the two today - notice, Rahul, TODAY - would remove a Stravinsky scrobble was greater than the probability of removing a Mozart scrobble [1]) and that conclusion would be bogus because plenty of people consider Stravinsky as cool as, or cooler than Mozart.

[1] And that doesn't require 'exclusivity' or 'pretentiousness' either - if, say, 60% of people like Stravinsky and 90% like Mozart, you'd get that result.

km said...

Falstaff: heh, and the best part of all this is that we are all still in agreement :)

But when you say "So trying to build an overall theory for what determines coolness is foolish", I say simply this: if you are comfortable in letting your circle of friends know that you are listening to say, Celine Dion's Greatest Hits (with an Anne Geddes cover photo), then the music is cool. If not, it is uncool.

That's all the scrobble points to (but does not confirm, of course).

Just because something was deleted does not make it uncool. But because it was deleted definitely raises the odds of it being uncool.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

falstaff - so the predicted uncoolness of pop musicians is a consequence of their popularity ("The fact that these artists are bestselling isn't surprising, it's the reason they get more unwanted scrobbles), but if Mozart were on the list he'd be cool (or cooler than Stravinsky) because he's popular? And that's wrong because "one could argue that really cool artists are those that have a devoted fan following among a select group of cognoscenti and who no one else likes", so "one could argue" that Stravinsky should be cooler. But one shouldn't argue that, because it has nothing to do with popularity.

Keep digging, it's fun to watch.

The article doesn't talk about coolness: it talks about uncoolness, reflected in your not wanting to be associated with that name. Some people may hate Stravinsky but few would call him "uncool" or consider it demeaning to link their names with his (unless they think classical music in general is "uncool"). Defining coolness as the opposite of uncoolness is only a partial definition (necessary but not sufficient), but perhaps it is sufficient here.

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Rahul Siddharthan said...

km : you've got spam. Lots of it.

Time to close comments on this thread?

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