The question this album provokes isn't, “Why Starbucks?” It's, “Why do I care what Catherine Keener’s favorite Sonic Youth song is?”
The photo on the cover looks more Starbucks than Sonic Youth. A young man in a suit sits in a Starbucks store listening to music through white earbuds. His coffee and cell phone sit silently on the table. The city glimmers outside the window beside him. It's a photo taken by a friend of the band, photographer Stefano Giovaninni, whose photos were used for the inner sleeve of the band's 2002 album Murray Street. But it doesn't look like a Sonic Youth cover, even with the city's presence. It looks like a Starbucks advertisement, though it could just as well be one for another commodity: a suit, a cell phone, an iPod, New York City, or about any other lifestyle product, pictured or not. The title, though, seems a potential jab at the target audience: Hits Are for Squares. Since this is more or less a "hits" album, are the Starbucks-visiting music-buyers the squares? Is this a purposely "square" album cover, a contrast to the cool-ness of the rest of their catalogue?
Hits Are for Squares starts off with a series of undeniable “hits,” if having a hit means getting a video on MTV during the ‘90s "alternative rock" era. As I remember, the video for the third track, “Sugar Kane”, off 1992’s Dirty, showed up on MTV only occasionally, late at night, but the first two got a fair share of airplay. Were “Bull in the Heather”, off 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, and “100%”, the first single off Dirty, official MTV “buzz clips”? If not, they might as well have been. The same goes for 1990’s “Kool Thing”, the fourth track here. These are iconic songs, songs that cemented the notion of Sonic Youth as the cooler, older siblings of Nirvana and their contemporaries. Hits Are for Squares begins squarely in this era of Sonic Youth. The fifth track is another one from Goo; the sixth, the band’s cover of the Carpenters’ “Superstar”, released in 1994. It takes until track seven to reach the ‘00s, track eight to reach the ‘80s, the decade where the band began.
There are songs in the second half of the compilation that are just as iconic, just as “hit”-like for followers of the band: “Teenage Riot”, “Expressway to Yr Skull”. But there are also glimpses of the band’s more recent rock albums, a track each from Murray Street and 2004’s Sonic Nurse. And one song from their debut LP Confusion Is Sex. Though it does end with a new, pleasantly vague track called “Slow Revolution” (perhaps a means of keeping the diehard fans interested), the CD plays out like an introduction to Sonic Youth. But it doesn’t try at the futile task of completism. It’s more like a mix CD that your Sonic Youth-loving friend might make to lure you in. Your friend includes the songs you may have heard before as bait, holds off on the strangest songs until you’ve been sucked in, and avoids their most experimental side, for the sake of cohesion and immediacy. Your friend also unfortunately seems to have something against Lee Ranaldo, as none of these songs feature him on lead vocals.
Starbucks as a music label has been associated mostly with Baby Boomers like Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell. Sonic Youth are the odd duck out. Yet as an underground-leaning, art-loving, experimental act working for a mega-corporation, they've held that status since they moved to the major label Geffen in 1990, or at least since Geffen became part of the massive Universal Music Group in 1995. Still, it's no surprise that the responses to the news of this Sonic Youth/Starbucks release mostly ranged from confusion to anger, at least within the instant-alarm-bells world of the Internet music media. Bassist Kim Gordon's response: Starbucks is "less evil than Universal."
The strangest aspect of Hits Are for Squares isn't that it's being sold by Starbucks, not in this day and age where bands get their big break in TV commercials. It's the conceit that each song was picked by a celebrity. Every song except “Slow Revolution” has a celebrity’s name attached to it, with their comments in the liner notes. The celebrities range from musicians (Flaming Lips, Eddie Vedder) to actors (Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener); from people already publicly associated with the band members in some way (Mike Watt, Chloe Sevigny) to people who I wouldn’t necessarily associate with Sonic Youth (Portia de Rossi, Radiohead). The first question this album provoked in me wasn’t “why Starbucks?” It was, “why do I care what Catherine Keener’s favorite Sonic Youth song is?”
That question is at the crux of Hits Are for Squares as a project. “Why do we care what celebrities think?” is one of the central questions driving Sonic Youth’s music, one of those themes the band just keeps coming back to. Certainly someone has written a master’s thesis already on the theme of star attraction that runs through the band’s albums. It could cover everything from their Ciconne Youth album, with a Madonna cover and Kim Gordon singing “Addicted to Love” karaoke-style, through to the original version of Murray Street’s “Plastic Sun”, with its lyric referencing Britney Spears. “Star Power”’s lyrics are but one encapsulation of this awe: “Spinning dreams with angel wings / torn blue jeans a foolish grin / burning down in the night / so cool so right.” Right along with the celebrity endorsements, Hits Are for Squares includes ample commentary on the relationship between “stars” and “people”. There’s “Kool Thing”, a play on a magazine interview Gordon did with LL Cool J; “Superstar”, an extension of the Karen Carpenter interest the band instigated on Dirty; “Expressway to Yr Skull”, the Charles Manson-fixated epic the CD notes remind us was sometimes called either “The Crucifixion of Sean Penn” or “Madonna, Sean and Me”; and “Sugar Kane”, which the liner notes describe as “inspired by the notion of emotional contact we feel for celebrities on the edge and our desire to ‘save’ them." That’s worded simplistically, perhaps, but it’s a theme central to the entire Sonic Youth endeavor.
A quick read through the oddly uncredited biographical liner notes about each song yields an unwieldly flowchart of celebrities. There are the then-unknown stars who appeared in Sonic Youth videos, the legends they wrote songs about, the cult icons whose images they used for artwork. And if the definition of “star” is expanded to include big names in small scenes – underground filmmakers, noise bands, contemporary visual artists – Sonic Youth seem forever obsessed with stars, with what they create, what they represent, and who they are as people. The chain of stars related to Sonic Youth is almost infinite: dead novelists they worship, dead musicians whose biopics they appear in, living superstars they allude to in songs, artwork or interviews. Consider Hits Are for Squares a place where those constellations cross, where the stars meet over Sonic Youth. And consider Starbucks part of our pop-culture-driven world, where brands too are stars, where every one of us is a perpetual stargazer.