Some artists just are not cool – your mom likes ABBA, so there’s no way you are going to listen to them, even if you think Mamma Mia is rather catchy. Likewise you may think High School Musical’s ‘Bop to the top’ is mucho gusto, but you don’t want anyone to know it. Coolness is hard to quantify, ephemeral and transient (and of course, very subjective); some artists like Miles Davis and the Velvet Underground will always be totally cool – while some fade in and out of coolness (Elvis, Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond, Sting), and some artists – well, it is hard to tell if they were ever cool (Miley Cyrus, Creed, and Nickeback come to mind).
Imagine if there was an objective measure for coolness – a number that could be attached to each artist that indicated how ‘cool’ the artist was. We’d be able to do all sorts of interesting things with such a ‘coolness index’. We could make a ‘music makeover’ playlist that would take you from Miley to Miles in 12 songs (consider it a 12-step taste recovery program) or we could create a music rehab playlist that takes you from Amy Winehouse to Kate Nash. But of course, the concept of cool is too hard to nail down. Is Johnny Cash cool? Michael Jackson? Prince? Context, demographics, locale all play a role.
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. Luckily, there’s an interesting source for just this kind of data. Recently, the researchers at Last.fm published a list of the ‘most unwanted scrobbles‘. This is a list of tracks that were most frequently deleted by the Last.fm community from their scrobbles in the last month. These are the tracks that Last.fm listeners didn’t want people to know that the listened to. Here’s the first page of the most unwanted scrobbles:
Kudos to Last.fm for publishing this data. It’s a great source for the uncool. Collecting all the artists from the pages we can build a list of artists that have frequently had their scrobbles deleted:
Marc Seales, composer. New Stories. Ernie Watts, saxophone
Black Eyed Peas
Kings of Leon
My Chemical Romance
This list rings true as set of ‘uncool’ artists (with the exception Marc Seales, who happens to have a piece of music, called ‘Highway Blues’, that can be found in most ‘Sample Music’ folders on most Windows XP computers, and is likely frequently scrobbled because of this). Ideally this list should be normalized for popularity – naturally artists that have more listeners will be scrobbled more and consequently be deleted more too. but there’s not enough data in this list to normalize properly so we’ll make do with an unnormalize list. I find it interesting how many female acts are on the list. Is it not cool to listen to female artists?
Another approach to find the uncool is to look for artists that have been tagged as ‘guilty pleasure’ on sites like Last.fm. For these artists, by applying the ‘guilty pleasure’ tag people are identifying artists that they are embarrassed to be listening to. Here’s a list of the top 100 popular artists that have been frequently tagged with ‘guilty pleasure’ – for this list I’m normalizing the data so popularity doesn’t factor into the list order:
The Pussycat Dolls
Fall Out Boy
Ace of Base
All Time Low
The Get Up Kids
New Found Glory
Taking Back Sunday
The All-American Rejects
Tegan and Sara
The Starting Line
Tears for Fears
Bowling for Soup
My Chemical Romance
Third Eye Blind
Saves the Day
Motion City Soundtrack
There’s overlap between the two lists: Avril, Britney, Katy, Nelly, Taylor, Rihanna, along with the Disney crowd. Again, there seems to be an anti-female coolness bias on the list. It is hard to be cool and female.
The ‘most unwanted scrobbles’ and the ‘guilty+pleasure’ approach to the coolness index only get us so far. They can help us identify music that people are embarrassed to admit that they enjoy. But they only give us one end of the coolness spectrum. We can find what is not cool, but we can’t find out what is cool. We have in effect an ‘Uncoolness Index’. Still, knowing which artists are uncool can be helpful for all sorts of things. If we are building a playlist for that party, we can turn on the uncool filter to make sure that Ricky Martin or Robbie Williams won’t sneak into the mix. Likewise, if we are building a recommender, we can use the Uncoolness index to decide how cool the user is and recommend music that’s slightly less uncool than what they are used to listening to.
Next steps are to figure out how to learn not just what is uncool, but also what is cool, so we can build the true ‘coolness index’ and be able to tell how cool any artist is. I think that is going to be a harder problem, but I have some ideas …