Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Long Critique of a Silly Article

The best music critics augment our love of music. They can make you listen to something familiar in a new way or encourage you to buy something new just based on their ability to capture a sound in words. They can be pithy and eviscerating -- think Robert Christgau -- or they can be dense and smart -- think Greil Marcus or, again, when he takes a grander canvas, Christgau. Chuck Klosterman is able to evoke ideas and nods of agreement about music you don't, wouldn't, or never thought you could like.

Fans of anything -- music, sports, movies, books -- tend to read about their passion when not enjoying it. How else to explain the long running success of Rolling Stone or the proliferation of dozens of music magazines with brows from low to high? It is almost hard to imagine a world without Sports Illustrated or People look forward to movie reviews both as a consumer guide but also for themselves -- Pauline Kael made writing about movies itself an art form. And lots of us devour book reviews even if we can never possibly read everything in this week's Times Book Review or New York Review of Books. Indeed book reviewing is its own intellectual world apart that exists tied to but in some ways independent from books themselves. Good book reviews are also about ideas.

I've argued before that we sometimes prefer a well written evisceration to a comparably high-quality endorsement. (See, for example, my letter to Christopher Hitchens from last week.) But the burden on the negative review needs to be high, both because of the responsibility inherent in judging the work to which someone has devoted a long time and because of the responsibility to the reader of the review who expects a fair hearing even if that fair hearing results in a negative verdict.

These were the thoughts that crossed my mind when I read David Hajdu's essay on Starbucks and music in this week's New Republic. I come neither to bury nor to praise Starbucks and its recent forays into music, but rather to address an essay that at too many points seems gratuitously unfair and at points just flat-out wrong. Hajdu has a regular gig as TNR's music critic. He is a facile writer who has never had an opinion or idea stick in my head for much beyond the duration of his articles. His taste in music is neither especially bad nor especially good. He is opinionated, which most pop culture readers appreciate, but not especially witty or insightful. In short, I'll read Hajdu, I just won't go out of my way to do so. He has pretensions to being a highbrow guardian of a fundamentally middlebrow medium, and yet sometimes I think the guy has never left Manhattan, which, as I hope to show, is problematic if you are trying to write for anyone who does not regularly have access to the jazz and rock clubs in the Village.

I want to emphasize a few passages from Hajdu's piece to illustrate what I mean. His words appear in block quotations:

About fifty years ago, when the Soviets who survived Stalin began to accept the gift of his death, the state's cultural overlords started to loosen their choke hold on the country's music. The Communist Party-controlled Composer's Union consented to music other than programmatic works about collective farming, and Pravda acknowledged merit in modernist compositions of Shostakovich that it had previously declaimed as "chaos rather than music." The golden era of musical totalitarianism, a time when the libretto to Tosca could be re-written as The Battle for the Commune, was passing.

Simultaneously in the United States, the postwar atmosphere of sprawling conformity and eight-cylinder conservatism sparked in the offspring of the World War II generation a countervailing interest in all things bohemian. Dark little coffeehouses inspired by European cafés began to open around the country, and their music was part of their appeal. In Cambridge, the prototypal coffeehouse of the era, Tulla's Coffee Grinder, had only a tabletop radio, but the thing was on all day and night, tuned to the Harvard station, which played a lot of bebop. Live jazz (or spirited approximations thereof) flourished in the coffeehouses that followed, the sax and bongo playing sometimes mixed with beat poetry or broken up by a few songs from a folksinger strumming a guitar.

Now maybe I am just an especially wary reader, but from the getgo I saw trouble a brewin'. We start off with a paragraph on the Soviet Union in an article on Starbucks (anyone else see the analogy that is coming about ten steps ahead? So did I.) And then we have what strikes me as a somewhat sepia-toned evocation of an America that probably never was for the purpose, I assumed, of counterpoising it with an America that is not. This portentous beginning has all of the hallmarks of good music criticism -- cogent analogies, a disjunctive starting point, an unexpected parallelism. Yet I had a sense that things were bound to go awry.

A couple of paragraphs later (from here on out I will use ellipses to indicate that I have skipped text):

About fifty years later, there are dozens of coffeehouses in every major city in the United States--more than eight thousand in this country now, plus more than three thousand elsewhere around the world. They are all called Starbucks. That is to say, there is a single coffeehouse duplicated some eleven thousand times. The replicant spawn of Tulla's Coffee Grinder, mutated through savvy marketing, Starbucks exploits the egalitarian, outré cool of the postwar coffeehouses in a low-key empire of flawless, impermeable elitism and conformity.

This is a clever conceit, albeit not the most original one -- we are seeing the Wal Marticization of coffee shops, a sort of Starbucksification of the country (and some might say the world, though apparently having not left New York, Hajdu might not know that one can find Starbucks in Hong Kong and England and many points in between). And no one can doubt that Starbucks has done a hell of a job of becoming ubiquitous in American cities. Though one also has to wonder about the peculiar jolt in coffee consumption that has arisen concomitant with the rise of Starbucks. Has Starbucks in fact fueled demand? And many of us live nowhere near New York. In fact, for all of New York's size, most of us don't live there, and so the question becomes, has Starbucks replaced little Mom and Pop coffee shops all over the country, or has it merely brought coffee shops to places where, in the Starbucks cafe format, they simply never existed? I cannot help but wonder if Starbucks has not in many places created demand rather than destroy a subculture. Not that Hajdu asks such questions -- such curiousity would not much help his burgeoning thesis.

(. . .)

Starbucks is a state for our day, a commercial society organized within psychographic, rather than geographic, borders--parameters that are now more meaningful than the old rivers, mountain ranges, roads, and lines of longitude and latitude that cable TV, the Internet, and cell phones render moot. For its citizens, Starbucks serves as an all-in-one marketplace/social center/hideaway, a corporeal version of the Internet, where they can meet and make friends, date, write notes, pay bills, conduct business meetings, even find solitude in the cocoon of iPod earplugs. While they are in their new habitat, they also purchase some four million drinks per day.

The Starbucks habitués are united in part by age (under thirty, or so they generally appear), race (more Anglo than otherwise, it seems in outlets outside ethnic neighborhoods), and class (middle and above, presumably), though what most unites them is the aspiration to belong to the young, white, moneyed community that we all perceive Starbucks to be. The company does not post its demographic statistics--wisely, for to do so would be to relinquish its allure. The whole point of paying $4.90 for a frappuccino is not to spend twice the reasonable price for a glass of chilled fat and sugar, but to do so as if such an outrageous act comes naturally, as if money means nothing and the word "frappuccino" means something. It is not in conventional measures of value, but in their absence, that Starbucks's customers find worth, particularly self-worth.

These are the sorts of evidenceless generalizations that give sociologists erections. (See? I can do it too!) It sounds so clever: "Starbucks is a state for our day" pseudoprofundity that is about as useless as teats on a bull; and about as astute -- note the generalizations about Starbucks' consumer demographic. (Outside of ethnic neighborhoods, of course, an exception that one would think makes a difference.) But also recognize that these demographic assertions are contained within the covers of The New Republic, which doesn't exactly draw its readership from the hood and among the po' and disenfranchised. I wonder if Hajdu gets the irony of parsing demographics in this way.

As the company's chairman, Howard Schultz, explained the expansion of Starbucks's music business, "Our customers have given us permission to extend the experience." How did they do that, I wonder. Did they sign a slip? Or has Schultz conflated acquiescence with will, as autocrats in coffee, music, or politics are inclined to do?

The "experience" to which Schultz refers is that of the consumption of taste, be it in coffee, creamy fruit drinks, pastries, or CDs. Indeed, he is leading his company to become an official arbiter of taste in the arts as well as in foodstuffs, an institution interested less in satisfying the tastes of its customers than in instilling them. In the realm of its first business, drinks and snacks, Starbucks displayed a belief in the malleability of judgment that approached contempt for the individual's will. Why call a small drink its opposite, "tall"? Why trademark a word for a size, such as "venti"? Why insist on referring to your salespeople by the Italian term "baristas," with its evocation of both legal counsel and guerrilla warfare? Why, if not to press your authority to the limits of irrationality and to test the boundaries of your targets' passivity?

We'll blame the editors for allowing the juvenile "permission slip" joke to pass through rather than chalk it up to humorless writing. But as long as we are asking "why" questions, I'll have a go: Why do we (by "we" I mean "David Hajdu") not recognize that just about every corporate brand establishes its own neologisms? Why are we discussing the "contempt of an individual's will"? (Are New Yorkers forced to march in lockstep into their local Starbucks? I have not been to the city in a couple of years, so maybe things have changed. It's a voluntary association, as far as I know, here in Texas.) Why is he posing nonsense questions and silly answers in the last sentence of the paragraph?

Starbucks produces and markets several lines of CDs, one of which, the Opus Collection, picks up the company's principles of linguistic obfuscation and tactical packaging and carries them into music. The series title appropriates the classical-music term for a collection of concert pieces, in order to conjure gravitas, while meaning, essentially, the Collection Collection. Small matter. The greater problem with the series is its manner of reducing musicians with complex bodies of work to simple images to which young consumers of venti frappuccinos can relate. The Opus Collection takes important artists from jazz and popular music--Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Nat "King" Cole, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Sly Stone, Jackie Wilson, and others--and makes them brands.

Here is the beginning of the actual music criticism from TNR's music critic. Basically what I am getting is that he thinks that collections of pop music -- which antedate Starbucks by, oh, about four decades or so -- reduce complex bodies of work. While undeniably true, it's a picayune truism. He also says that doing so "makes them brands," which is a pretty meaningless phrase, if you think about it. Music has always been to a large degree about marketing. And part of that marketing is, if we must use the business school terminology, about "branding," which is why artists frown upon bootleg cds and bootleg t-shirts. So again, if this "branding" argument is true, and its truth is hardly a profundity, it predates Starbucks by decades. That Rolling Stones tongue icon, for example, is nothing if not "branding."

A great many of the CDs in the Collection focus solely or largely on the musicians' early work, with cover photos that show them young and sexy. (Even when albums include work from late in the artists' careers, as in the Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald CDs, the covers usually present the artists' youthful selves; a notable exception is the Louis Armstrong release, which has a charming photo of a grandfatherly Armstrong mopping his brow.) The Elvis CD, titled Boy from Tupelo, draws from his primordial sessions for Sun Records in Memphis and his earliest recordings for RCA in New York, the second batch made while he still had the Sun sound in his bones. The music is ragged and kinetic, irresistible no matter how many times one may have heard it. The Etta James album, much the same, captures the singer in her early twenties, recording her sultry gospel-blues for Chess Records in Chicago. (The final track on the CD, a rocking version of Randy Newman's "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield," comes from a later session for another label.) The Miles Davis record presents the trumpeter fairly early (though not straight out of Juilliard) in pieces of muted beauty recorded for Columbia between 1954 and 1959.

But wait a second, do these cds reduce "musicians with complex bodies of work to simple images to which young consumers of venti frappuccinos can relate," as you just said in the last paragraph, or does it try to capture them at particular times and places, a la the early incarnations of Elvis and Etta James and Miles Davis in this paragraph. I realize the old saying about foolish consistency and hobgoblins and little minds, but Hajdu has just presented two completely opposed criticisms. It is almost as if he starts off with an essence of an idea -- Starbucks = bad -- and thus will marshal any evidence, however useful to him, to prove that case. But there is more of this nonsense:
The music is fine, the CDs vexing for the way in which they package every artist as an overly simplified cliché: Elvis the wild country boy, Etta the oversexed blues babe, Miles the sensual mysterioso. Youth comes across as an exalted state. But what of the various other Elvises--the sad zombie of all those interchangeable movies, the aging master of "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto," the tragic self-caricature of his final years? They are in many ways as fascinating as the Sun-era Elvis, yet they have no place in the Opus Collection. And Miles Davis--he just started to get wiggy and baffling in the early 1960s, with all his experiments in funk and electronics and even hip-hop to come. Marvin Gaye? We get only the boyish Motown wizard, none of the mad satyr who later wanted to name an album Sanctified Pussy.

So, again, Starbucks is not reducing artists to any essence, but rather seems to be tracing artists back to an early stage of their careers and focusing on that period. And I wonder if Hajdu notices that while Marvin Gaye may have wanted to name his album Sanctified Pussy, he in fact did not. Or his label would not. This is not Starbucks' fault. But more to the point, much of the music the "mad satyr" produced in the 1970s was unlistenable nonsense. Some of it was stunningly misogynistic. In this case Starbucks has made a decision to emphasize some of Gaye's better music. Hardly objectionable.

These CDs make no claim to be encyclopedic, though the very idea of the Opus Collection clearly suggests an intent to be definitive. And therein lies their tyranny.

See that? The cds make no such claim but in the title of the collection Hajdu divines the claim anyway, and thus "tyranny." Tyranny! (Remember that Soviet reference?) Starbucks sells coffee and music that Hajdu sort of likes but would like to see in a different configuration, and so logically he believes this to be equivalent to tyranny. And let me tell you, folks, once you've been in a Starbucks gulag, you know you've been in a fucking gulag.

According to the promotional text on some of its CDs, Starbucks is "dedicated to helping people discover great music." But discovery is precisely what these discs discourage. There is nothing to discover in a predictable collection of highlights from the glory days of a canonical artist. On the Starbucks CDs, the listener escapes discovery, and is insulated against the challenge and the thrill of listening with open ears to artists of all sorts trying--possibly struggling, perhaps failing--to break free of the golden prison of what they do best and what their audiences expect of them. I have no doubt that Howard Schultz would claim that the Opus Collection CDs should serve as a starting point for listeners, and so they should. But I suspect that they rarely will. The CDs do their job too well. In their limited definitiveness, they are likely to be the end of the Elvis or Miles experience, not the beginning.

If that seems an odd criticism, I can amplify it with a brief story. Having copies of all the tracks on the Ella Fitzgerald Opus Collection from their original releases, I gave the Starbucks CD to a neighbor of mine who is a young rock singer. About a week later, I saw her in the lobby of our building, and she said that she enjoyed the album, a solid anthology of standards including "Lullaby of Birdland," "Miss Otis Regrets," and "Don't Be That Way." I brought up the fact that Ella Fitzgerald loved to experiment and stay up-to-date, and that she even did some rock recordings, including a killer version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." I asked her if she would like to hear it. "God, no!" she said. "Don't burst my bubble." In music as in blender drinks, Starbucks is in the bubble business.

Let's ignore the absolutely incoherent last sentence for a moment. "There is nothing to discover in a predictable collection of highlights from the glory days of a canonical artist." Yet the only concrete examples Hajdu has given are of artists in the earlier phases of their careers and he does not prove how this is "predictable" at all. But here is the kicker -- what evidence does he use to validate the "discouragement of discovery" argument? His "young rock singer" neighbor who clearly has no business in the music industry. She had never previously heard Ella Fitzgerald? After hearing it and liking it, she did not want to hear more? So not only is Starbucks responsible for trends that existed for decades before it made its first latte (eg -- "branding,"), it is also responsible for the fact that David Hajdu hangs around with douchebags? Basically, Hajdu uses one anecdote to determine a presumably factual assertion -- that Starbucks' music cds discourages further discovery of the artists it features -- and then blames Starbucks for the passivity of its consumers. Breathtaking.

Enacting a twist on the notion of branding popular musicians, Starbucks also markets a series of CDs called Artist's Choice, in which big-name performers present favorite songs recorded by others. The idea is to show the stars as fans, sharing mix tapes with fans of their own. Predictably, some of the choices seem obligatory or designed to impress. Willie Nelson included Django Reinhardt's "Nuages"; Tony Bennett chose the Juilliard String Quartet's recording of Ravel's String Quartet in F Major, II and the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir singing "I Want to Ride That Glory Train." Then, too, a few mild revelations popped up. Sheryl Crow admitted loving Elton John's saccharine "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones included Brian Wilson's delicate "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." Unfortunately (though predictably, again), none of the Artist's Choice CDs I have heard manages to hang together as a set.

Note the condescension here. David Hajdu, a music critic for The New Republic thinks that Willie Nelson and Tony Bennett have chosen to try to impress with their musical taste rather than believe that these long-respected professional musicians actually have wide ranging tastes. Keep in mind that in the previous sentence he utilized the taste of some nimrod lead singer who had never heard Ella Fitzgerald to try to prove his point about Starbucks discouraging people from further exploration. Yet this second category consists of discs that aim to encourage exploration and now he dismisses them as either "trying to impress" (Willie Nelson, I would surmise, could not give a shit about impressing David Hajdu) or as simply "not hanging together" even though his previous criticism was that the artist collections hung together too well. Sigh.

(. . .)

Starbucks's only new album of significance, Bob Dylan: Live at the Gaslight 1962, is new only as a commercial release. Bootlegs of rough, unedited versions of the recorded performance have been sold on Bleecker Street for years. The CD captures Dylan during a tentative period between his eponymous first album, an earnest recording of traditional songs about death (along with two Guthrie-inspired originals), and its stunningly mature follow-up, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, released one year later. At twenty-one, on Live at the Gaslight, Dylan is just beginning to come into bloom as a songwriter. He has delivered one of his first major pieces, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and he is nearly done polishing "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." His set is still filled with traditionals such as "The Cuckoo," "Handsome Molly," and "Barbara Allen," though he sings and plays them with such quirky fire that they seem his own.

The performance on this CD is so dynamic that it is a bit hard to believe that Dylan dreaded playing the Gaslight, as his old friend, the late Dave Van Ronk, relished saying. The titular Mayor of MacDougal Street and host of the popular hootenannies at the Gaslight, Van Ronk used to say that Dylan never liked any of the coffeehouses. In fact, Van Ronk said, Dylan didn't even like coffee.

This last sentence is supposed to provide an ironic tweak. But first, keep in mind that Dylan's contribution to the Starbucks ouevre is the only "new album of significance" in the Starbucks musical stable. (Yet even this is a backhanded compliment -- for resourceful listeners can get copies of snippets of the cd as rough bootlegs. If you happen to be on Bleecker Street. And shame on you, Starbucks, for pulling this music all together into a listenable format.). But back to that incisive last sentence: One hopes that David Hadju knows that Bob Dylan has an unassailably great radio hour on XM, in which he picks a theme for the hour and then plays all sorts of music and spins periodic Dylanesque yarns based on that theme. Three weeks ago? His theme was "coffee." Dylan more than implied that he drinks the stuff. Take that, vague but supposedly damning closing sentence.

At the beginning I pointed out that I write neither to damn nor to praise Starbucks. The company has opened the door to coffee houses for people who otherwise might not have had that option. I think its selection of music is neither brilliant nor noxious nor pithily categorizable. If I want background music, I may even flip over the XM channel 75, Hear Music, which is basically the Starbucks channel. But usually I won't. Either way, that is not the point here. The point is that Hajdu makes a few nonsense sociological observations with almost no evidence, that his arguments fall apart of their own weight, and that where he is not irredeemably petty he is undeniably silly. This is risible cultural criticism that tells us nothing of the culture; musical criticism that leaves us no smarter about music. It is a Venti serving of self-important sludge.


Anonymous said...

Also, Opus doesn't mean "collection." Sheesh, the guy's a music critic?

dcat said...


David Haglund said...

Had the same thought about "opus," which is actually "A creative work, especially a musical composition numbered to designate the order of a composer's works."

Also, on the question of whether Starbucks has "replaced little Mom and Pop coffee shops all over the country" or "merely brought coffee shops to places where, in the Starbucks cafe format, they simply never existed," James Surwiecki has written in the New Yorker that the latter is mostly the case. "During the nineties," he writes, "the number of coffee drinkers rose by almost forty million. More than seven thousand new coffeehouses have opened since 1996."

"Silly" is definitely the right word for Hajdu's article.

dcat said...

David --
Thanks for reading. As I said in my piece, it seems as if Hajdu had a critique in mind and he shoehorned whatever he felt that he had into pressing his indictment. Throughout, he looks for the most nefarious angle (his dubious use of "Opus," his assertion about the way Starbucks homogenized something that in fact may have never existed, etc.)
Oh well -- my guess is that Hajdu will never see this piece, nor will his superiors at TNR. I missed my chance at fame, I tell ya!