The most hated holiday song in the world is 21 minutes, 59 seconds long. It features the accordion and bagpipe, an operatic soprano rapping and singing atonal music, and the exhortation of a grating children's chorus: "Christmas time! Christmas time! / Jesus, Mary and the manger / Christmas time, family time / Do all your shopping at Wal-Mart!" Its creators calculate that it will be disliked by all but a few hundred of the world's population.
Music this bad doesn't happen by accident. As it turns out, the most hated song in the world is also the most designed song in the world.
The men behind what they call "The Most Unwanted Song," conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, made their reputations with ironic critiques of the state-imposed ideologies of their native Soviet Union. These included, among other things, deadpan paintings in pitch-perfect Soviet Realist style, each with a perverse twist: Bolshevik soldiers confronting a tiny dinosaur, or Stalin communing with the Muses.
Upon emigrating to the United States in 1978, they searched for an American secular religion on par with Marxism, and found it in the psuedo-science of public opinion polling. In 1994 they undertook a massive and hilarious project to determine the statistical attributes of America's most favorite and least favorite works of art, and painted to suit. The results — a "dishwasher size" bluish landscape with a family, some deer and the figure of George Washington (Americans said they liked historical figures in their art) was contrasted with a nasty "paperback size" bit of angular abstraction. The experiment was expanded globally and the results were published in Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art .
Three years later, the artists extended their research to music, and with musician Dave Soldier, polled 500 people on their preferences on everything from instruments to lyrical content. The result, created with Soldier and lyricist Nina Makin, must be the two most relentlessly designed songs in the history of popular recording.
Interestingly, while in the painting project it is the most favorite painting that inspires macabre fascination, with music the opposite is true. The Most Wanted Song sounds like something by Peabo Bryson you've heard millions of times: fine. The Most Unwanted Song, however, is mesmerizing: over an accompaniment of bagpipe, tuba and accordian (statistically, America's least favorite instruments), an operatic soprano (our least favorite type of singer) raps (ditto) about cowboys (ditto). Their research indicated that the most hated lyrical subject is holidays (disliked by 33%), so the song is suitable not only for Christmas, but Easter, Labor Day, Veterans' Day, and Halloween. These interludes are introduced abruptly by a children's chorus ("Hey everybody, it's Yom Kippur!"), who couple their refrains with cheerful commercial messages. By the end, the subject has shifted to human slavery and genocide. The whole thing, going on for nearly 22 minutes (the least favorite song length), is as impossible to ignore as a car crash.
Although Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid claim that according to their statistics "fewer that 200 individuals of the world's population" are destined to enjoy The Most Unwanted Song, I'm not sure it works out that way. Many pieces of atonal music by the likes of John Cage or Milton Babbit seem to inspire more overt hostility. (And among holiday songs, it fails to displace "Do You Hear What I Hear" on my personal irritation meter: a "tail as big as a kite," indeed.) Instead, most people who for whom I've played the Most Unwanted find it at least funny, at most brilliant, and in some cases downright catchy. If working within limitations is one of the ways designers distinguish themselves from artists, America's Most Unwanted Song is a design achievement of a high order.
So: happy holidays, saddle up, fellas, and do all your shopping at Wal-Mart.