The Coolness Index

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:

notcoolKudos 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:

Lady GaGa
Britney Spears
Katy Perry
Rihanna
Paramore
Coldplay
Taylor Swift
Beyoncé
Avril Lavigne
Marc Seales, composer. New Stories. Ernie Watts, saxophone
Alexander Rybak
Black Eyed Peas
Kings of Leon
Muse
My Chemical Romance
Linkin Park
Korn
Miley Cyrus
Jason Mraz
Metro Station
Leona Lewis
Green Day
Evanescence
Amy Whinehouse
Oasis
Nelly Furtado

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:

Katy Perry
Ashlee Simpson
Spice Girls
Lindsay Lohan
Mandy Moore
Jessica Simpson
Backstreet Boys
Hilary Duff
Metro Station
Britney Spears
Justin Timberlake
Taylor Swift
Rihanna
The Pussycat Dolls
Kelly Clarkson
Christina Aguilera
Fall Out Boy
Take That
Avril Lavigne
Ricky Martin
Girls Aloud
Fergie
Neil Diamond
McFly
Robyn
The Veronicas
Ace of Base
ABBA
Cline Dion
Chris Brown
All Time Low
Kanye West
Gwen Stefani
Good Charlotte
P!nk
Usher
blink-182
R. Kelly
Nelly Furtado
The Get Up Kids
Madonna
Timbaland
Beyonce
New Found Glory
Natasha Bedingfield
Akon
Jem
Ciara
Robbie Williams
Paramore
The Wallflowers
Michelle Branch
Taking Back Sunday
Creed
Savage Garden
The All-American Rejects
Simple Plan
Shania Twain
Sugababes
Tegan and Sara
Everclear
Sugarcult
The Starting Line
Brand New
Destiny’s Child
Cyndi Lauper
Mariah Carey
Westlife
Maroon 5
Melanie C
Jennifer Lopez
Michael Jackson
Kelis
Tears for Fears
Alkaline Trio
Dashboard Confessional
Vanessa Carlton
Lily Allen
Bowling for Soup
Jet
50 Cent
Trivium
Cher
Eve 6
Sean Paul
Kylie Minogue
Howie Day
Sophie Ellis-Bextor
My Chemical Romance
Third Eye Blind
Saves the Day
Bryan Adams
Blondie
Boston
John Mellencamp
Simply Red
Whitney Houston
The Corrs
The Calling
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 …

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  1. #1 by Jeremy Reed on July 2, 2009 - 12:20 am

    Hmm, I’m interested in what happens with nerd-rock bands like Weezer, The Flaming Lips, and Ben Folds. Do they ever transition from cool to uncool? Or is it cool to be uncool?

    • #2 by Doctorate Upholder on July 3, 2009 - 1:01 pm

      Weezer=borderline uncool
      Flaming Lips=cool for legend reasons (however they have gotten into fights with Arcade Fire)
      Ben Folds=uncool

  2. #3 by Klaas on July 2, 2009 - 4:16 am

    Interesting post, Paul. One of the reasons why we didn’t normalize the unwanted scrobbles chart is because it needs some popularity bias in order to be interesting. Otherwise you just end up with misspellings, The Author – The Title, and Marc Seales.

  3. #4 by Pete on July 2, 2009 - 5:31 am

    Judging by the tracks themselves, ‘Most Unwanted Scrobbles’ seems to be a measure of which songs have been played on the radio or TV so often that people don’t want to listen to them anymore. Does this really relate to uncoolness? For all her sins, surely Britney Spears is still cooler than, say, Foghat?

    • #5 by Paul D. on July 2, 2009 - 11:16 am

      I would rather listen to a day’s worth of Foghat, then a minute of Spears. Besides that is a apple to orange comparison, yeah they are both fruit but are totally different. If you were to compare Spears to Jacko then yeah that would be a more even comparison.

    • #6 by Doctorate Upholder on July 3, 2009 - 1:02 pm

      Britney Spears is so understood to not be cool, that I feel extremely cliche even saying this.

  4. #7 by Stefan on July 2, 2009 - 7:12 am

    I think last.fm has a special bias on its own.
    The all-time top artist are bands like Radiohead or Muse.
    It’s easy to conclude that someone listening to Radiohead will consider Britney Spears uncool, but the same might be true the other way round.
    So to measure coolness one would always need a reference or starting point to measure against.
    It might then be a very subtle thing: Which of the similar artists is cooler than the others? which “not so similar”-artist is cool because of being different?

    • #8 by Doctorate Upholder on July 3, 2009 - 1:04 pm

      But actual cool can only be achieved by one demographic. The demographic that enjoys Britney Spears can only label their artists as very marketable or danceable or catchy but NOT cool. It’s simply a definition thing

  5. #9 by Stuart on July 2, 2009 - 12:36 pm

    However, overall an informative and as usual, great post.

  6. #10 by Stuart on July 2, 2009 - 12:43 pm

    Oops, deleted the first part of my post.
    Here it is.

    This data doesn’t necessarily show that women are less able to be cool, simply that this niche of the music industry, based largely on the model of sex selling, is more readily broken into by women who have more universal sexual appeal than men. Contemporary pop is dominated by females, so when that genre is most frequently deleted, it doesn’t follow that women are less cool as artists, simply that the tail where pop resides is fleeting and happens to have more women within it.

    There are plenty of female artists who are cooler than any of those listed above, simply on the default that they exist outside of this part of the music industry. I’m sure those not falling into this narrow category have similar play/delete ratios to male artists existing outside of top 40. I would like to see data though if you could chop off the tail where the most deleted tracks/artists reside and see the distribution of males/females along the rest of a curve. Anyways, always a good read.

    Stuart

    • #11 by Doctorate Upholder on July 3, 2009 - 1:05 pm

      very true. female artists such as yeah yeah yeahs and dirty projectors (sort of female) are certainly very cool right now

  7. #12 by Brian on July 2, 2009 - 2:09 pm

    Good article, hadn’t seen that feature from last.fm before, but it could be useful for analyzing music listening trends.

    What about cross referencing data from social network sites as a third source? Taking the artists and songs from the most unwanted scrobbles and finding tweets about those artists could provide more context as to whether people are just tired of the song, or whether it’s a guilty pleasure. And you’d get a broader perspective, not just the Radiohead/Muse listeners on Last.fm

  8. #13 by Anna on July 2, 2009 - 2:29 pm

    Uh… Muse and Kings of Leon are NOT uncool. Two of the best bands in the last 10 years. Hello people!

    • #14 by Doctorate Upholder on July 3, 2009 - 1:07 pm

      They are certainly uncool. Kings of Leon used to be borderline cool, but now are definitely uncool. Certainly not as uncool as the rest of the list though. Muse has pretty much always been uncool though.

      • #15 by Stuart on July 6, 2009 - 2:30 pm

        Kings of Leon’s slight marginalization of their garage sound resulted in HUGE airplay gains (if that’s how you gauge success). “Aha Shake Heartbreak” had several good tracks but they are doomed to now be forgotten based on their recent successes and compromises.

  9. #16 by WWP on July 2, 2009 - 3:59 pm

    Are there really adults that truly give a rat’s ass about what others may think of their music choices? I mean, I can see it happening in High School, sure. But aren’t you supposed to leave that whole peer-pressure behind when you become an adult? I mean at a certain point, it’s not like you won’t get invited to the prom is you listen to the crap churned out by Lilly Allen. And if you DO worry about these things, your music choices are really the least of your problems.

  10. #17 by thedocsniper on July 2, 2009 - 6:58 pm

    The thing to remember when judging top artists on last.fm like Radiohead, Muse or the Beatles is that it naturally tends to favour artist with a large catalogue of work.

  11. #18 by Kia on July 2, 2009 - 10:02 pm

    I listen to and love T.A.T.U. Possibly the most embarrassing “artists” to admit to being a fan of. Lol!

  12. #19 by dylan on July 2, 2009 - 11:01 pm

    I walked in on my little sister listening to Miley Cyrus when I was visiting my parents and figured it was about time for an intervention. She’s already 11 and her tastes run as deep as John Mayer! no joke!

    I sat her down and explained the reasons why artists like Eno, Chopin, Reich and Glass aren’t just subjectively better, but OBJECTIVELY (as in the actual notes they use are of a higher quality.) “Willow,” I said, “listen to the intricate timbres, the key changes and subtle–yet vivid–use of of counterpoint and tell me what this Miley has that they don’t.”

    “Uh, for one she has lyrics.” she said, looking up from her fluidly texting thumbs only long enough for me to see how bored she was. “and Why are you sweating so much? You look like Dad when he’s done with the weedwhacker”

    “Look willow,” I said “I just graduated from this little place you might’ve heard of that goes by the name of The University of Nevada Reno and up there we didn’t listen to Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus or lady gogo. we’re cultured. We have culture–especially in Dorm 2A along the east wing.”

    Her thumbs only wriggled more furiously.

    “Sure,” I admitted, “”Toxic” was a hit and I remember freaking a couple girls to it at the under 18 club, and it was “a blast” as some might say, but do you think I listened to that drivel on my ipod when I studied for Anthro 304!? As if! It would have clogged my thought processes with trite sexual innuendos and ring-tone raps.”

    Willow, you’re better than that. you always have been. Remember when you were like 3 and laughed at the Wes Anderson flick dad’s friend brought over after Thanksgiving? Well I do. I was proud of you; proud not of your precocious respect for the set design, but of your exuberant baby-love for the intelligent soundtrack…”

    At this point I had to stop talking–she got blasted by at least 20 IMs and I couldn’t even hear myself over the whine of dad’s weedwhacking. “Chopin,” I muttered as I walked to my dungeon-like bedroom upstairs “I need me a nocturne.”

  13. #21 by Del Bahia on July 3, 2009 - 1:38 am

    How uncool is it to try to measure cool? Talk about clueless.

  14. #22 by Torley on July 3, 2009 - 1:46 am

    I recently wrote about why I hate the useless term “guilty pleasure”. I think bending to “cool” if it’s not honestly what you want shows conformist weakmindedness. Which can be ironic considering how popular ABBA is.

    If a tune is catchy and moves you, indeed as WWP said above, who gives a proverbial rodent’s behind.

    Don’t obfuscate what you find pleasure in. ENJOY.

    • #23 by plamere on July 3, 2009 - 10:58 am

      Hey Torley – thanks for the comment (and I enjoy your vids btw). I do disagree with you about the term ‘guilty pleasure’ – I don’t think its an apology about liking something – I think its more of an acknowledgment that the item in question is recognized to be of lower quality.

      Let’s switch domains for a second. There’s a genre of fiction called the ‘romance novel’. These are extremely formulaic, emotionally manipulative novels that are often written in ‘novel factories’. My understanding is that people who read them recognize that what they are reading is of low quality – but they still enjoy the books – perhaps it is the formulaic nature of them. For me, this is the classic example of the ‘guilty pleasure’ – a preference for an item that one knows is less worthy.

      There are the music equivalents of the romance novel – music that is created in song factories, following formulas that have been created over the years. Just as with the romance novel, these songs can be recognized for what they are – unoriginal, manipulative devices for studios to make money. Still, some of these songs are catchy and fun to listen to – not really surprising since the songs follow such proven formula – so when I find myself liking something that is the equivalent of the romance novel for music I will call that a ‘guilty pleasure’.

  15. #24 by Joe on July 3, 2009 - 2:13 am

    Nice idea, but I think in the end it will do more to refine Pop music than anything.

    • #25 by zazi on July 5, 2009 - 2:07 am

      Yeah, that’s maybe the best summary and comment of this article. It is nearly impossible to define a coolness index, because you can’t define a general coolness definition.
      So we can just collect information about things people MAY don’t like.

      Cheers zazi

  16. #26 by Leah_Daae on July 3, 2009 - 4:51 am

    I will admit proudly to loving ABBA (even if my mum does love them), Evanescence, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake and Shania Twain, but shoot me if I ever listen to Britney Spears.

    Loved this article.

  17. #27 by 1stboybandfan on July 3, 2009 - 12:49 pm

    Miley and boybands, most of the time. Even if they sound awesome suck as people anr therefor as Business not worth your dime or even your penny. The Backstreet Boys, especially there so sad as musicans and business men they have to find out what their doing wrong by a fomer ghost writer and a donut baker. Which is me. I am like 4 years younger than Nick, so you know they must be sad if they got to take advice from a “middle class nobody” as they would say, like me. Just check out my blog, it shows the upside, and downside to writing and the entertianment industry and for consumers too.

    As for other artists, I can see where your going. But “cool” is defined differently for every artist. I love BSB, althrough I am still pretty upset to the point I can’t listen to them. But their are other people, who listen to Prince all the time and think he defines, then you got the little kids that think The Joans Brothers and Miley are cool, even when I think most of their stuff is lame, even for the stuff they do for teenagers and adults my age. Also, the poster above me, you have no idea what your talking about so shut up. Because your clearly someone that never got it and it just reads ignorantly for you and so do the tags at the end.

    • #28 by kelly on July 3, 2009 - 10:27 pm

      1stboybandfan, you seriously have the writing skills of a 12 year old and that might be generous. i felt brain cells evaporating trying to read your post, so calling someone else ignorant or calling out another poster… mm, yeah.

      interesting post finding data of interest… would be interesting trying to tie it into other sources.

  18. #29 by julee on July 7, 2009 - 8:29 am

    Hi, this is a very useful and informative yet very “cool” post!

    The measurement of musical expression is one of my specialities in musicology research, so you might consider that I am into quantitative stuff, by the way.

    I, however, think how one perceives something or someone is cool / uncool is more of a subjective, qualitative and relative matter than of quantitatively measurable aspect. I also hear that LastFM has their own bias.

    Let’s take a few examples. although I am a classical musician myself, I wouldn’t necessarily consider Chopin or Maxwell Davis as cool, but some might! I merely think that Chopin or Maxwell Davis could fit into a recital repertoire or a research topic, but that’s all! Similarly, some might consider Placido Domingo as cool (because of his cross-over works and so on), but would anybody consider Maria Calas as cool? My uncle would say that Sir Cliff is a pretty cool icon, but I wouldn’t. Do you see what I mean?

    anyway, Cheers for a great post and I hope to see more of wonderful ideas here and beyond!

  19. #30 by tourist.tam on July 10, 2009 - 4:53 am

    Oh that’s cool, it’s not like people start to find classical (chopin, dvorak and the like) as uncool, just yet.

  20. #31 by jaycruz on July 18, 2009 - 2:53 pm

    It’s interest to note how the “coolness” factor has shifted in popular music. It’s also ironic because popular music consumption has gravitated to an intellectual pursuit, (sense of “musical taste”, “cultural relevancy”, “musicianship knowledge”) Just like in the classical realm. That explains the Radiohead’s and today’s uncool. In another time Lady Gaga or Britney Spears would be the “coolest” thing. Just like the Beatles in the late 50’s and early 60’s. But today’s “cool” is the intellectual cool. Anything that’s trying to reach your emotional yugular gets discarded, which is silly because Radiohead or Bjork can be equally satisfying emotionally as Britney. :)

  21. #32 by Jennifer Lopez Wallpaper on August 15, 2009 - 6:24 am

    I love Jennifer Lopez. Badly she is not my Girlfriend :).

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