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On Music

Those Are Marshmallow Clouds Being Friendly

December 22, 2011 | by

My first shift at the candy store was on the first day of October, my last just before New Year’s, but when I talk about it now, what I say is, “Last Christmas, when I worked at the candy store.”

In the world of candy stores, and this candy store in particular, Christmas is a perpetual condition that just happens to spike at the end of the year. A red-and-green decorating scheme carried throughout the shop—I could not escape it, even when I retreated, as I sometimes did, to the store’s one bathroom, also tinged with red and green, just to shut out the world for a minute or two. On the sales floor, the shelves were heavy with saltwater taffy and boxes of truffles and delightfully analog toys—balsa gliders, pick-up sticks, chunky wooden puzzles. The general effect was that of being buried inside the holiday stocking of a child who’d been very, very good that year—along with the child himself, and a hoard of his less well-mannered friends and their overstressed, oblivious parents.

I took the gig shortly after finding myself laid off from the job I’d had for the last four years as an editor at a music magazine. I felt adrift and thought tending to a candy store, such a bastion of simple pleasures, might anchor me more firmly to the world, and also I thought that money might be a thing I’d might want to have again. But in my vague desperation I had forgotten about humans’ terrific knack for rendering even the most ostensibly pleasant pursuits completely soul crushing, and how that tendency increases as the winter days darken.

My shifts were a sticky whorl of nuts and sugar and ecstasy and misery. Soon it did not matter if the children were screaming out of delight or distress, if the last-minute shoppers were frazzled or friendly, if I had to seal ten bags of gum balls or ten dozen—I was caught in a loop of seasonal and existential despair. Even the free candy did not help me. During this time, my one reliable coping mechanism was to give myself over to the power of our management-mandated holiday-themed satellite radio station. I used to believe stores played incessant Christmas music to anesthetize shoppers. But now I’m inclined to believe it’s for the sake of holiday retail employees—offering a synthetic place for their minds to drift toward, away from the maddening, small realities at hand.

“Hard Candy Christmas,” the great Dolly Parton solo version from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas motion-picture sound track, was in heavy rotation on the station and quickly became the secret, albeit comically literal, anthem of my disoriented underemployment. In the movie, which I’ve never seen, Dolly and her girls sing to mourn the shuttering of their whorehouse, but they could have been narrating my untethered thoughts of the previous three months: “Maybe I’ll sleep real late / Maybe I’ll lose some weight / Maybe I’ll clear my junk / Maybe I’ll just get drunk.” I don’t remember the last time I so deeply related to a song, though I’m sure, whatever it was, it wasn’t about prostitutes.

But “Hard Candy Christmas” was just my wallowing music; a cheerier song became the sound track for my daily work of pecan-tin assembly and shelf restocking. Two versions of “Marshmallow World” populated the store’s holiday satellite-radio playlist, one by Bing Crosby and one by Darlene Love. The lyrics don’t mention the holidays specifically; it’s really just a song about snow. ”It’s a sugar date / What if spring is late?” Crosby shrugs in the song’s first hit version, released in 1950. It’s a distant cousin of “White Christmas,” another Crosby song, one that has long inspired absurdly false nostalgia in the children of Tennessee, where I grew up, and Georgia, where I’ve lived since college, and where the best memories we could manage were of brittle, lightly dusted lawns, more greenish-gray than white.

When it did snow, at least in Tennessee, it was usually in February or March, often after the trees had already started to bud. This must have been why “Marshmallow World” so charmed me: it was a blessedly neutral offering among mass quantities of forced festiveness—and a reminder, too, that something lay beyond Christmas, beyond my time behind that counter, whether it was the beginning of spring or a late-season snowfall or something else entirely.

It’s also a fun song, and unusually pliable. Crosby’s is supremely sentimental; it’s hard not to imagine the scene black and white, him strolling hand in hand with some dame on a Hollywood backlot as production assistants shake fake white powder down on them from hidden scaffolding. (When it comes to seasonal odes to lovers and inclement weather, this one’s a nice alternative to both the played-out sweetness of “Winter Wonderland” and the creeping date-rapeyness of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”)

And then there’s Darlene Love’s cover, recorded in 1963 for Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You. She was twenty-five then, but sounds much younger, like a precocious, big-voiced child. Crosby’s take is all debonair smarm; Love’s is utter exuberance. There’s a floaty string patch at the beginning of the track, then a plucky piano line, then you’re walloped with her bellowing, ecstatic voice and that wall of sound.

Subsequent covers have proved less definitive, but such is my love for the song that I will listen to every one I come across. A 2006 version by the Cheetah Girls, a tween-pop act cranked out of the Disney machine, is notable for its perfect distillation of adolescent apathy into song; you can practically hear the girls rolling their eyes at the, like, weather. There’s a Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra live cut where the two of them can’t stop giggling for some reason.

The most recent take is by London-based singer-songwriter Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler, frontman of the Irish band Ash, whose riff on the Spector production renders the song a cutesy duet and throws in a pointed electric guitar.

But it’s Love’s version that sticks with me. It’s manic and bouncing and urgent, like a pack of kids scrambling at a back door to be let outside to the fresh white drifts. Her delivery of the line “The world is your snowball just for a song / get out and roll it along” is, unlike Crosby’s limpid take, a real commandment, giddily empowering. Love also sings “White Christmas” on A Christmas Gift for You, but that track never did it for me quite like “Marshmallow World.” I suspect that, as a California native who spent much of her life in L.A., Love holds the same false nostalgia for snowy holidays as I do—or that I once did, at least.

Last Christmas, when I worked at the candy store, I took off for a few days in late December to visit my family in Tennessee. I tucked gifts under my parents’ tree—pounds and pounds of pecans, pecans for everyone, bought en masse with my employee discount. On Christmas Eve, I watched the news with my parents like I had so many times before, and like so many times before, the weatherman came on to taunt us with the vague promise of overnight snowfall, and though these hopeful forecasts had never once manifested themselves, on this particular night I fell asleep feeling hopeful. When I woke up, I crept across my old bedroom in the dim morning light, and cracked my blinds, and peered outside: white, white, everything was white.

Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Georgia.

2 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Corinna Kirsch | December 27, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Thanks for the “whorl of nuts and misery.” Anyone who has worked retail at Christmas remembers the details of songs, color, and anything else that person has to stare at for hours on end.

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