Arts·Cut to the Feeling

The Black Friday anti-playlist: the songs that haunt our retail memories

From Macy Gray to Michael Bublé, these songs instantly transport us back to working at the mall during the holidays.

From Macy Gray to Michael Bublé, these songs instantly transport us back to holiday season at the mall

Sculpture of Santa playing a saxophone in a mall.
Customers walk past a Santa Claus sculpture while shopping around at a mall before the New Year celebrations in Ankara on December 30, 2022. (Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)

Cut to the Feeling is a monthly column by Anne T. Donahue about the art and pop culture that sparks joy, grief, nostalgia, and everything in between.

It was holiday season 2007, and I'd lost all concept of time. Unsure whether it was November 23 or sometime on December 17, I was hours into my shift — perhaps days — and the minutes bled together in a montage of gift receipts, gift cards, and the ire of customers furious that we'd run out of gift boxes.

I was an American Eagle cashier at my hometown mall in Cambridge, and I knew that after this season, my life would never be the same.

I was correct. Retail and/or customer service shapes a person. It's a long, hard look into the soul of humanity that simultaneously forces you to acknowledge your own contributions to the consumerist cause. At the time, American Eagle at Christmas was pure chaos. I was a keyholder-slash-cashier (the best damn one that ever was), and my existence was defined by opening and closing shifts, hiding lattes next to the register, and above all, the playlist.

Our company assigned seasonal CDs that we played on loop until they sent us new ones. Thus, for the endless hours we spent clocked in, our realities were shaped by a handful of artists whose songs we came to know a little too well. In the 16 years since that fateful holiday (one that came to a head on Boxing Day when, in the midst of food poisoning, I sat on the boxes of unopened clothes and chugged Pepto Bismol directly from the bottle), I have managed to block most of the holiday soundtrack in its entirety with only a few exceptions.

The biggest one: My Chemical Romance's "Welcome to the Black Parade."

When I hear the opening notes of that MCR ballad-turned-anthem, I am immediately transported into the body and mind of a 23-year-old cashier-slash-keyholder who had far too much responsibility for $10.35 an hour. I can smell the AE-branded cologne, conjure the talking points of the All-Access Pass, and feel the dread in my stomach that accompanied those seven cursed words: "I want to talk to the manager."

The staff of that now-defunct American Eagle brick-and-mortar (RIP, you luscious vessel) were the leaders of whatever parade MCR was describing. Our tempo and morale matched the song's increased intensity and power, and only Gerard Way's voice could embody the pandemonium of trying to make it to the food court and back in our 15-minute break window before being cornered by a customer asking whether we were Hollister.

I know I'm not alone. Customer service during the holidays is an unmatched, wretched experience. So to revel in the magic — and horror — of Black Friday, I've asked a few of my fellow writers to share their most haunting sonic memories. (Evidently, Paul McCartney has much to answer for.)

Carla Ciccone, author of the upcoming Nowhere Girls:

"Paul McCartney - Wonderful Christmastime. If I so much as hear the bubbly intro of that diabolical song, I immediately want to run to the food court and self-soothe with a large plate of Mexi-Fries from TacoTime. Paul really did us dirty with that one."

Chantal Braganza, editor at Chatelaine and author of the upcoming book, Guardian Flesh:

"This is completely unoriginal, but hearing 'simply having a wonderful Christmastime' will forever send me into an existential spiral. It's my Groundhog Day, my psychological nemesis, the root of a lot of my anxiety about the march of time."

Andrea Warner, journalist and author (most recently, Rise Up and Sing! Protest and Activism in Music):

"I love holiday music so much, but 98 Degrees' 'This Gift' has always been an immediate return-to-sender. I appreciate that it's the sonic precursor to The Lonely Island's 'Dick in a Box,' but not even that can make up for 'The Gift's' bland, banal, sexless Ken Doll of a contribution to the holiday season."

Aba Amuquandoh, comedian and 22 Minutes cast member:

"'Wonderful Christmastime' by Paul McCartney. I detest the song for so many reasons. It's incredibly bleak and sounds like a liminal space. It sounds sarcastic — like it's a satire about the 'joy' of Christmas. The lyrics describe a wonderful Christmas time, but the vibe makes me feel nervous, like it'll be my last Christmas. Feels like you'd hear a warped version of it after hearing poisoned eggnog. I think Paul McCartney had good intentions with the song, but unfortunately Quincy Jones has been proven right yet again."

Emily Austin, author of Everyone in this Room Will Someday Be Dead and the upcoming, Facts About Space:

"I worked as a grocery store janitor for a period of time, and have since blocked Michael Bublé on every social media platform because the store played him incessantly from November to December."

Niko Stratis, writer, podcaster, and columnist:

"From 1998 to 2000 I worked fashion retail in a tiny mall called The Hougen Centre on Main St. in downtown Whitehorse. (It is not lost on me the immense irony of my situation, being a closeted trans woman working at a clothing store that was literally called Men's World.) We were also in direct competition with another men's clothing store further down Main St. called The Main Man, and I was a closeted teen trans woman stuck in a war between different ideas of fashionable men. I was hired because my boss wanted me to help cultivate a vibe of cool, youthful energy, and I guess somewhere along the line of the hiring process I had tricked him."

"I think my boss swiftly tired of me playing Big Shiny Tunes 1 & 2 and the Get Up Kids' 1999 album Something To Write Home About on repeat as 'no one comes in here to be sad.' With the holidays being the big opportunity to drive sales of Point Zero button downs and Mōdrobes pants, my boss — being obsessed with the vibe in the store being 'cool' and 'inviting' — played the 1999 Macy Gray single 'I Try' on an endless loop, despite it not being a holiday song, nor it being a great song to get you in the mood to pay 100% markup on Levis. After all, nothing says holiday cheer like I try to say goodbye and I choke, try to walk away and I stumble on repeat on a portable stereo above your head for eight hours a day while your boss berates you for not being a very good salesperson, not being very cool and not being particularly fashionable. Love that song; never want to hear it again until my bones turn to dirt in the ground."

Jen Sookfong Lee, author of Superfan:

"Mine is 'Mary's Boy Child' by Boney M. Not because it's bad (it's objectively great) but because I worked at a terrible café the winter of 1994/95 and the entire Christmas album by Boney M. was on repeat for weeks and weeks while I made huge lattes and tried to pretend I was as pretty as Rachel from Friends (spoiler: I was not)."

Sarah MacDonald, culture writer:

"When I worked at Chapters from 2003 to 2008, every single Christmas was marked by the absolutely wretched songs we'd have to endure. Without fail, by the end of the season, I'd be exhausted by these songs burned into every single part of my brain. But there was always one that, the very second I heard the intro, my heart fell to the pit of my stomach. Even when we switched over from CDs to a Sirius-like system, there would be one song to rule them all, as it were, in terms of awfulness: 'Wonderful Christmastime' by Paul McCartney."

"Even now, as I type these words, I hear McCartney's voice, the jaunty melody, and I can smell new books, hear angry customers demanding their gifts of choice be available at the store, and feel the texture of stiff wrapping paper we offered as a 'service.' It's a fairly inoffensive song, I guess, but it drives me bonkers, and puts me back into my angsty teenage body. When you hear the same song two to three times every hour for nearly two months of your life, you'd come to hate it, too — even to this day."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.

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