True story: When I first heard David Mead’s The Smile of Rachael Ray, I was sure I recognized its “plot” from a short fiction piece by Raymond Carver.I even went so far as to check. As it turned out Mead wasn’t stealing from Carver. He might very well have been channeling him, however.
The Smile of Rachael Ray is one of those songs that feels like a short story — and not just any short story, but the type you might have read in an old Atlantic or New Yorker. It’s not just that it has a narrative; Ode to Billie Joe, One Tin Soldier and a million other songs have narratives. The Smile of Rachael Ray tells its story the way Carver, Cheever or Updike might: by paying attention to the subtle details of our lives that act as metaphors for larger themes.
In Mead’s hands, those details orbit around the holiday edition of the Martha Stewart-esque magazine Every Day With Rachael Ray. Both on its cover and throughout the magazine, the photos of Ray smiling and looking “as perfect as a homecoming queen” dazzle. Juxtaposed are images from the narrator’s own life: delayed flights in an overcrowded airport; a bartender imagining herself without “tired and swollen feet… sunken eyes and dirty shades of gray,” a man realizing just this side of too late that his marriage has been crumbling. Rachael Ray’s manufactured and illusory bliss offers the weary and downtrodden a glimpse of what they imagine they might have been, even as it cuttingly reminds them how lacking they are in comparison. And throughout all of it, Mead uses a string of striking images to tell the largely unspoken narrative we all hear.
There are a lot of Christmas songs out there that tell the story of those who are left out of the season’s merriment. I’m not sure any of them do it as well as David Mead does here.
My guess is that you don’t own this song. You should go buy it now.