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Comments (22) Posted 12.22.07 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Michael Bierut

The Most Hated Holiday Song in the World


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.
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Comments (22)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

I just endured the 21 minutes, 59 seconds.
I'm looking forward to the Broadway rendition. It could be the "Passion Play for the New Millennium."

Merry Happy Whatever to All
Joanne K.
12.22.07 at 05:40

What is wrong with accordians and bagpipes? I *love* accordians and bagpipes.
Xman
12.22.07 at 06:02

I would have to agree with those who find the "Most Unwanted" song mesmerizing and catchy. I find myself humming it, despite myself. (At any rate, it's more memorable than "Most Wanted," which would make an excellent slow-dance at any bar mitzvah.) I've even got it on my iPod, and for my money, it's a better use of 22 minutes than Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" or 1010 WINS.

I was highly fortunate to see Komar & Melamid perform "The Most Unwanted Song" (complete with opera soprano, cowboy twang, and a chorus of delighted, mischievous kids, shouting along for us to enjoy our holiday savings "AT WAL-MART!") at some club on Bleecker Street in 1998, when I was in the process of profiling them for Print. Komar, Melamid and Soldier donned lab coats, and the Russians bashed away at cymbals. I've never seen anything like it, and rarely have I seen any musicians having as much fun onstage. Happy holidays--AT WAL-MART!
Todd Pruzan
12.22.07 at 06:54

Admittedly, I couldn't listen to more than half a minute of the "most wanted", but in the "most unwanted," any operatic cacophany or dissonant clashing is a welcome reprieve to those children's voices, which are truly eye-clawingly, ear-gougingly terrible.

For myself, I can't decide which song, if piped on eternal rotation into my cell, would more quickly cause me to give up my country, name names, betray all my friends and sign on the dotted line.
marian bantjes
12.22.07 at 07:27

This American Life featured this song and these guys in a show they did a few years ago, if anyone's interested.

I had never come across the direct link to their entire song, though, thanks for the post.

(I love accordians and bagpipes too, btw)
Bill
12.22.07 at 09:12

i always crack up when the operatic woman starts rapping

hahaha never fails
devin
12.22.07 at 10:56

Like most artists, I have a dull part-time day job, where I've been forced to listen to mindless music at an excessive volume for the last three weeks.

I would have taken the 21 minutes and 59 seconds in infinite rotation over the utterly mindless crap I've had to listen to lately.

(Um, well, except when they ran "Snoopy and the Red Baron" and the late, great Dan Fogelberg's "Another Old Lang Syne.")
L.M. Cunningham
12.22.07 at 11:11

I had fun with this... I started to play the most unwanted song and my wife insisted that I really needed to listen to it sometime when she wasn't around (... So I haven't actually heard it). My son, on the other hand went off to his room and text messaged me (21+ minutes later) that it was "awesome".

In our conversation we agreed that, "If you ask people what they want and it will be crap, but, if you ask what they don't want, it will at least amusing and occasionally it will be interesting.
Russellm
12.22.07 at 11:50

This is the best song ever. Possibly several of them.
I haven't come across that kind of insanity very often since Nina Hagen's Nunsexmonkrock album, cf. Future is Now.
Su
12.23.07 at 06:07

About twenty-five years ago I got in a conversation about the six or ten favorite musical acts and I realized that most of the top of my list was accordion players. The most unwanted song squeezebox didn't reach its potential for me but the tuba was quite nice. If they'd have thrown in pedal steel, swing fiddles, and a baritone sax, I would have been even happier.

While the most unwanted song wouldn't displace Flaco Jiménez, Jo-El Sonnier, or Clifton Chenier, it is a lot better than the most wanted song (which is, in turn, a lot better than much of the stuff it parodies.)

I used to start each Xmas season with the goal of getting through without hearing "Little Drummer Boy" but only managed once. I'm not sure how the most unwanted song missed "Oh, little town of Benton" as part of the lyrics. George Stephanopoulos and Imelda Marcos, indeed. Merry cowboys to everyone.

Gunnar Swanson
12.23.07 at 08:15

"The Most Unwanted Song" is a wonderful gift -- thanks. Some of the instrumental moments remind me of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks' SMiLE and VDP's Song Cycle. Overall, I'm reminded of BW's SMiLE-era idea of "modular recording."
Michael Leddy
12.23.07 at 12:00

Michael,

Thanks! Happy ho ho!!!

Very Respectfully,
Joe Moran
12.24.07 at 10:03

This is hilarious!

Obviously statistics aren't this easy; cowboys and bagpipes may be bad, but that doesn't necessarily mean cowboys+bagpipes = bad.

But if we were to just go with it, and believe that they made honest statistical representations of popular bad and good taste, it is interesting that even then the best and worst both still fall flat. (Lessons here for campaign advisors?) We've all seen and heard more moving art and music. Would this support that the truly "best" works are not meant for a majority?
I imagine the works that touch the deepest nerves are ones that hit personal, unique places, not popular places. What is so powerful to one is likely to be uninteresting to many.
Mike
12.24.07 at 10:31

Ah, the "Unwanted" one is just far too hilarious to dislike. The "Wanted" one is not only generic, but far more grating. At least the former will keep you entertained the whole way through.
Kevin
12.24.07 at 04:22

That’uns good and all, and unwanted, and everything that goes with that. But the one that me and my dudes, and Gunnar’s gay caballeros sing around the campfire this time of year goes something like this...



Grandma got run over by a reindeer

Walking home from our house Christmas Eve.

You can say there’s no such thing as Santa,

But as for me an' Grandpa, we believe.




May your saddles blaze during these here holidays,
CJ
Cactus Jones
12.24.07 at 04:30

Wow!
Thanks for the link. It's amazing but if you want to try something more commercial and less conceptual, just listen to the Drupa official song. The lyrics are... well, you'll see.


Thierry
12.26.07 at 04:31

I listened to small chunks of the most-wanted song wondering when the stuff I wanted would play. It never did, so I listened to the most unwanted, and bam! there's everything I was looking for. Granted I love bag pipes, and accordions. I really started to chuckle when the rythem beat started playing. That sounds like something I'd find on my old keyboard that you were supposed to play along to.


Yom kapurrr!
ammre
12.26.07 at 11:25

the 3 tenors
singing(?) john & yoko's
CHRISTMAS (WAR IS OVER)
& SLEIGH ('slay'...yes 'slay' ride) RIDE!
oh what fun it is to...torture the audience!

Mark @
'ism' &
'bamm'
BAMm
12.27.07 at 02:32

Irony is dead. Long live irony.
short and to the point
12.27.07 at 07:45

Great article.........LOL
Vectorpedia
12.28.07 at 09:54


Still haven't listened to the Wanted, but the Unwanted one is nice! :)

Oddly enough I find it reminds me of Beakman's World (that show rules), and the old Mario Bros' videogames
g
01.06.08 at 12:35

All things considered, it was better than listening to Fox Friends in the Morning with Steve Ducey and that other guy with the brown hair who's not Steve Ducey...and the one gal who's kinda cute but a little scarey with all those teeth.

I give it a 7 and 1/2 cuz only I can dance to it.
doug l
01.06.08 at 04:15


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Bierut studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati, and has been a partner in the New York office of Pentagram since 1990. Michael is a Senior Critic in Graphic Design at the Yale School of Art.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Michael Bierut

Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design
Princeton Architectural Press, 2007

Looking Closer 5
Allworth Press, 2006

Looking Closer 4
Allworth Press, 2002

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

Looking Closer 1
Allworth Press, 1994

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