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Starbucks as a cultural filter

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Sunday, Oct 22, 2006

The linkage of coffee and culture is not new. Coffeehouse was a byword for intellectual foment in 18th century England, and beatniks were widely regarded as skulking in coffee shops in their heyday. So It’s not suprising Starbucks wants to be in the culture-distribution business, streamlining and sanitizing the coffee-culture linkage, debeatnikifying it the way it has de-Europeanized the cappuccino and espresso machine. Today’s NYT has a long article about “The Starbucks aesthetic” in the Arts and Leisure section:


the chain is increasingly positioning itself as a purveyor of premium-blend culture. “We’re very excited, because despite how much we’ve grown, these are the early stages for development,” said Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks. “At our core, we’re a coffee company, but the opportunity we have to extend the brand is beyond coffee; it’s entertainment.”


Much like Coca-Cola has proclaimed it is a media company selling brand impressions (as opposed to a beverage company selling sugar syrup, like many of us have naively believed), Starbucks is positioning itself the same way, selling its brand as a cultural filter, selecting highbrow coffee (latte hasn’t replaced limousine in the epithet for self-centered liberals for nothing) and entertainments, to send the proper signal of gentility to the people who pay attention to such things. The coffee has established itself as the upper-class alternative to plebian coffee, and this presumably has a halo effect that hovers over everything sold in one of their branches. The de facto music supervisor for the store in-house music, a former manager named Timothy Jones, says he looks for music that has “a believable sound that isn’t too harsh.” In practical terms, this means the sort of adult contemporary that you’d hear on a station like Philadelphia’s (truly nauseating) WXPN: Sting, Natalie Merchant, Amos Lee—dull and earnest, unlikely to disrupt a conversation or a nap. This is music that connotes authenticity while having all its edges smoothed by precisely the sort of compromises “authenticity” suggests one would reject. It’s a lot like NPR (which connotes liberalism without espousing anything actually leftist), which is mentioned frequently in the article as the cultural touchstone Starbucks shoots for.


People who buy records and, who in the future will buy books, at Starbucks are likely to be fairly conformist in their outlook on culture, seeking to gain no distinction from discovering anything original. Yet they probably don’t see themselves as part of the unwashed masses. They want to be familiar with the right things, and surround themselves with cultural product that will reaffirm their idea of themselves as an open-minded yet tasteful consumers of entertainment—thus everything at Starbucks must connote sophistication and adventursomeness without actually being so. You can feel hip without any of the unpleasantness that actually comes from associating with hipsters: arrogance, greasiness, contempt, envy, fierce competitiveness over personality nuances, etc. Thus the predominance in their music stock of lite world-beat music and elevator folk. Even if the consumer never flaunts his choices from the Starbucks cultural cornucopia, he may rest comfortably in his private enjoyment that he has placed himself squarely within the genteel matrix of the acceptable—it’s an efficient way to consume one’s own class status as a pleasing and satisfying product. Says one satisfied customer quoted in the article: “It’s who I am—baby boomer, upper middle class, a little hippyish, rockish. ...” Wouldn’t you be proud of that pedigree? Wouldn’t you want to be able to enjoy yourself, consume yourself, if that were you? Starbucks culture permits you to express your self-satisfaction through a shopping gesture—the only gestures that matter in consumer culture—and have a souvenir of the triumphant moment. Look, this Akeelah and the Bee soundtrack. It’s who I am, and I’m wholly comfortable with it. The fastest-growing middlebrow chain endorses me and I endorse it.


What Starbucks gains from all this is a more effective way of shopping for the right sort of customers: “The more cultural products with which Starbucks affiliates itself, the more clearly a Starbucks aesthetic comes into view: the image the chain is trying to cultivate and the way it thinks it’s reflecting its consumer.” These affluent customers reinforce the brand image and police it; for those who don’t fit the demographic, the sonic barrage of Madeleine Peyroux serves as repellant, if the disapproving glances of the sort of people who hang out in Starbucks don’t do the trick.


(See copyranter‘s screed on Gawker for a succinct retelling of the article.)

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