Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.1 (2005) 139-142
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A Starbucks State of Mind
I am prone to credit conspiracy theories. I believe that powerful secret cabals rule the world. I fantasize chainsawing billboards in the deep hush of night. I mistrust corporate messages of any ilk. I must be up front about that.
I sit in the local Starbucks on Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe, California, as 1960s R & B oozes from unobtrusive speakers in the ceiling. The music is the same as the music at the Starbucks in Manhattan or Baton Rouge. At this decibel I couldn't enjoy it unless I numbed myself with a half-pitcher of margaritas. I have a theory: someone, somewhere, doesn't want us to be able to think. Whether or not you like the music, the music isn't the issue. My theory is it's being played—not just in your local Starbucks, but in malls, dentist offices, and while you're on hold for the next available representative—to prevent thought.
Don't think: feel, look, eat, drink, desire, buy. I imagine a man with delicate hands, wearing an Italian suit. He sits in a stark but sun-filled office. Expensive framed prints hang on the walls. His job is to professionally filter and select the corporate playlist according to an arcane set of principles—unknown to any of us—that ensures we will daydream less and spend more. Of course, this Big Brother-ish scenario is nearly status quo nowadays. We nonchalantly succumb to it. However, we do like to believe that even if corporations blatantly manipulate us, we can muster individuality and freedom of thought in spite of them. I think we're kidding ourselves. If the corporate powers can prescribe our aural landscape, if they can make us want to buy things with money we can't afford to spend, they can alienate us from our true natures. I don't know exactly how to define "true nature," but I imagine it as an amalgam of dreams, irrational thoughts, memory (so much of which is shellacked over with advertising lingo and [End Page 139 jingles), and what we love. If we really think about what we love, about what we think worth devoting our lives to—as opposed to what we should buy, or eat, or drink—we are less at the mercy of any for-profit sponsorship of our brains.
The music again. Now it's Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera." I don't know if this is the first sentimental outburst of the approaching holiday season, or if the demographics indicate this song is (a) well-loved, (b) easily ignored, or (c) both. I'm guessing the music Starbucks plays is scrutinized for its ability to promote one of the following two moods: relatively happy or relatively unhappy. Extreme emotions are problematic: it's harder to sell to people who are so happy they need nothing or so unhappy nothing will help them feel better. Starbucks, and indeed most commercial space, is a brightly lit blandscape for the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual middle-of-the-road.
What kind of music is conducive to a consumer state of mind? Diffuse, brim with unarticulated needs, staunchly unreflective. Yes, I've occasionally heard beautiful music while shopping. I once heard my favorite part of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony while waiting on hold for a price quote on an airline ticket from Reno to Phoenix. But mostly the corporate soundtrack of our lives is name brand Muzak. We don't hear Mantovanni or the 1001 Strings. We get the hipper 21st version: '70s-era Elton John or Billy Joel, Celine Dion, Sade, the "Pina Colada Song" for the 99th time. I once heard "Love You Inside Out," while pumping gas in a silvery drizzle at 6:15 in the morning. I didn't like the song when it first came out and I danced to it at Turtle's Disco in achingly tight Jordache jeans and a halter-top. That morning I hated it. I...