In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Marcy Playground’s “Sex And Candy,” which spent 15 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Track in 1997.
Nothing exemplifies the weirdness of ’90s music like Marcy Playground’s “Sex And Candy.” The song was so ubiquitous on modern rock radio in 1997 that most people in their mid-30s should be able to effortlessly karaoke along to it even if the name of the group has since faded into a cultural haze. Written by the band’s frontman John Wozniak, its lyrics were so seemingly nonsensical that listeners dug deep to find the metaphoric meaning behind phrases like “disco lemonade” and “double cherry pie.” Spoiler alert: Maybe you dug too deep.
Wozniak revealed the song title’s origins in an interview:
I was dating a girl and she was going to Bryn Mawr College… We were in her dorm room, and her roommate came in and she saw us there, and she was like, “Oh, it smells like sex and candy in here.” And I always remembered that… Then when I was writing the song and I was coming up with all these weird disco-era references that I was making up, “platform double suede” and all that business, I was like, hey, let’s just throw in that phrase that’s been sticking in my head for the last five years or whatever.
Even if the imagery behind the song consists of random remnants from Wozniak’s youthful subconscious, there was still something undeniably catchy (and yes, sexy) about Marcy Playground’s sole smash hit. “Sex And Candy” takes the low-key grunge that Nirvana and Pearl Jam displayed in their MTV Unplugged performances and tones it down enough for stoners and jam band enthusiasts to enjoy, then builds it around an innately infectious chorus. There is something powerful in the simplicity and straight-forwardness of the song (Wozniak says it took less than an hour to write). What’s maybe even more refreshing is the fact that “Sex And Candy” even had a chance to be a hit.
In the ’90s, getting signed wasn’t about years of killing yourself on the road, spending half your day on social media, and constantly promoting yourself. If a label exec thought your songs had potential, it was possible to get a major-label deal and a budget to help get those tracks onto radio and MTV—both of which were basically playing the same block of music over and over again. Alternative music took off during this era: When you turned on the radio, you were just as likely to hear Better Than Ezra or Collective Soul as you were to hear Rage Against The Machine or Alice In Chains.
Marcy Playground got a deal largely on the strength of songs written by Wozniak, but this may not be the best vetting for a career artist. Despite the strength of “Sex And Candy” (which knocked Everclear’s “Everything To Everyone” off the top of the Billboard Modern Rock Charts), Marcy Playground was never able to recapture the success of “Sex And Candy.” The group has never broken up, but Wozniak is likely far more sick of playing this song than any of us are of listening to it.
Still, the song’s chorus still sounds as captivating and strangely sensual as it did years ago. Even if nobody, including the songwriter, really knows what it’s about.