The Vacuous Consumption of the Urban Hipster How Starbucks sells the counter-culture as an expression of good taste.

Donte Robinson (center) along with Rashon Nelson discovered the price of waiting to order at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018.

How do particular spaces frame and define the sounds we hear as protest?

On April 12, 2018, Melissa DePino was at a Starbucks in Philadelphia when police were called to arrest two black men for trespassing. Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson had arrived early for a business meeting, and had decided to wait to order until a third member of their party had arrived. At 4:37 PM a Starbucks manager called to report two men “refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Police arrived at the scene around 4:41 PM, backup with a supervisor was requested at 4:45 PM, and by 4:57 PM, the two men had been arrested. DePino recorded the arrest, tweeting “The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing.” The video quickly went viral, and in the weeks that followed, articles emerged that tracked the response of Starbucks, the Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor, and underlined the ubiquity of such events for black Americans in so-called “third spaces.”

Many news reports describe the sounds of the video, transcribing the statements from Robinson and Nelson’s unnamed white colleague and a woman off-camera within a framework of protest. At the start of the video, the white colleague repeats to Robinson and Nelson, “Don’t get into a fight with them, don’t get into a fight with them,” a phrase that simultaneously sits uncomfortably in an assumption that Robinson and Nelson would start a fight, and situates the scene within police shootings of black men (a framing of which Robinson and Nelson were already keenly aware). The white colleague then shifts his attention to the police. “This is ridiculous,” he continues. “I—What did they get called for? Because there were two black guys sitting here meeting me?” A police officer responds sarcastically, “Yes, that’s it.” The white colleague continues, “Well, what did they do? Someone tell me what they did.” A woman off-camera responds, “They didn’t do anything, I saw the entire thing.” Their words have received significant attention, particularly as white people discuss their roles as allies, and indeed, the fact that such a scene is rare among whites. As Radley Balko of The Washington Post has asked, what would have happened if no white people had filmed the incident, if there had been no sounds of white protest?

Amid the scraping of chairs being moved as police led Robinson and Nelson out, the clicking of cuffs, the protestations of the white man and woman, off-camera chatter, and verbal responses by the police, Starbucks’s background music plays on, blithely oblivious to the cafe’s chaotic scene.

But the soundscape of the video caught my attention for an entirely different reason. Amid the scraping of chairs being moved as police led Robinson and Nelson out, the clicking of cuffs, the protestations of the white man and woman, off-camera chatter, and verbal responses by the police, Starbucks’s background music plays on, blithely oblivious to the cafe’s chaotic scene. After the white colleague has advised the pair not to fight, and as he tells a police officer that the scene is ridiculous, a new song begins, as if on cue. The song is “Salt Peanuts,” a well-known bebop tune composed by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke, and popularized by a 1945 recording by Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker. At a tempo of around 300 beats per minute, the complex arrangement of the polyrhythmic “Salt Peanuts” theme served as a vehicle for the virtuosity of the performers both in improvisation and composition. From its beginning bebop has been defined by the musical difficulty it presents to audiences, but that was not what challenged me in this version of “Salt Peanuts.” The dissonance I heard was not in the opening intervals or the harmonies, nor was it in the drummer’s polyrhythms. Rather, the dissonance existed in the disconnect between the sound of two well-known black men, Gillespie and Parker, considered by many to be the founders of the bebop genre, accompanying the arrest of this other pair of black men. “Salt Peanuts” became the soundtrack to their arrest.

The scene initiated a host of questions for me: What was this song doing in this space? What did it mean for “Salt Peanuts” to accompany this scene? What did it signify in that moment? And why was it so uncomfortable? This essay addresses these questions by focusing on Starbucks’s use of music to create a common experience outside the mainstream for its customers, and comparing what bebop means in a typical Starbucks space to what it meant on April 12 in Philadelphia. In doing so, I explore the ways in which musical meaning can define a space and the people in that space, and how physical spaces can transform musical meaning.

Starbucks has long been credited with offering consumers a way to define themselves—in fact, it was a feature of their marketing. That Starbucks had achieved this by the 1990s is evident in the Nora Ephron film You’ve Got Mail (1998). Consider an early scene, in which Joe Fox (played by Tom Hanks) writes to Kathleen Kelly (played by Meg Ryan), “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caff, low-fat, non-fat, etcetera. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are, can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self.” As Fox finishes this brief monologue, the film shows Kelly at a Starbucks, smiling with satisfaction as a barista calls out, “Tall skim caramel macchiato!” Kelly has crafted a drink all her own, and therefore, has become an active agent in the making of her identity, even in a consumerist space.

Starbucks has long been credited with offering consumers a way to define themselves—in fact, it was a feature of their marketing.

In the 2000s it became clear to many that Starbucks’s power to offer consumers aspirational identities was not limited to its beverages, but to the broader culture it put forth. In 2006, then Starbucks chairman Howard Shultz explained, “At our core, we’re a coffee company, but the opportunity we have to extend the brand is beyond coffee; it’s entertainment.” According to New York Times writer Susan Dominus, quoting Schultz in 2006, “customers get a new cultural experience and Starbucks gets a ‘halo’—the associations people have with beloved music, with ‘quality, good will, trust, intelligence.’” Starbucks has long curated its own playlists, whether through compilation CDs, its own record company (Hear Records), a failed partnership with iTunes that would have allowed customers to make “custom” CDs, or the music played in its cafés. Starbucks clearly understood music to not only be part of the Starbucks culture, but to possess added value. As Phil Quartararo, then president of EMI Music Marketing, explained to the New York Times in 2004, “Starbucks is a branding machine. Nobody buys a 40-cent cup of coffee for $4 unless they’re buying a brand.”

The experience associated with the Starbucks brand is meant to place customers just outside the mainstream, and thus offer them a kind of countercultural credibility. Schultz explained in 2004 that “We do not want to be in the Britney Spears business.” As Dominus wrote in 2006, “There’s the faintest whiff of discriminating good taste around everything Starbucks sells, a range of products designed, on some level, to flatter the buyer’s self-regard.” But some have recognized the inherent flaw in marketing outside the mainstream, likening Starbucks’s “experience” to a “faux-alternative” aesthetic. Novelist Jonathan Lethem explained, “It’s the faint affect of a counterculture shackled to the most ordinary, slightly upscale product.”

Herbie Hancock, a musician whose music was sold at Starbucks, recognized the potential for his brand to link with Starbucks’s semi-countercultural approach, saying, “Going to Starbucks, you feel kind of hip. I feel kind of hip when I go to Starbucks; that’s how I know!” For Hancock, aligning his brand with Starbucks by selling albums in their cafés expanded his audience-base. But what did playing jazz, and bebop specifically, as a soundtrack in its cafés do for Starbucks’s brand?

In his book, Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning, ethnomusicologist Mark Laver connects jazz improvisation, individuality, and consumerism, arguing that, “by articulating jazz to commodities and brands, advertisers help us believe that our consumer choices can somehow be a rejection of the ‘mainstream,’ a radical expression of our individuality and our agency.”[1] For Laver, the role of jazz in many marketing and advertising strategies is to “turn a commodity into an anti-commodity.”[2] To do so, companies quite literally bank on music’s potential as a cultural signifier, which allows advertisers to quickly unite cultural meaning and emotional impact; as Laver explains, “the advertising activation of musical significations is contingent on the broader cultural circulation of the music and its meanings.” In other words, advertisers and marketing agents use music and its associated meanings to relate consumers with a common set of cultural and emotional ideas—what Laver refers to as “tropes of meaning.” Advertisers rely on shared conceptions of what a given musical genre means in order to define and appeal to a particular audience.

Herbie Hancock, a musician whose music was sold at Starbucks, recognized the potential for his brand to link with Starbucks’s semi-countercultural approach, saying, “Going to Starbucks, you feel kind of hip. I feel kind of hip when I go to Starbucks; that’s how I know!”

It is not uncommon for individuals to both define themselves and relate to others through their musical choices. In her critique of trumpeter Miles Davis as a problematically misogynist figure, writer Pearl Cleage identified the ways in which she had used Davis’s music to define herself to others:

The Bohemian Woman Phase…For this frantic phase, Miles was perfect. Restrained, but hip. Passionate, but cool. He became a permanent part of the seduction ritual. Chill the wine. Light the candles. Put on a little early Miles. Give the gentleman caller an immediate understanding of what kind of woman he was dealing with. This was not a woman whose listening was confined to the vagaries of the Top 40. This was a woman with the possibility of an interesting past, and the probability of an interesting future.[3]

In essence, Cleage created her own brand around Davis’s cool aesthetic, one that did not necessarily embody reality, but what she, and presumably her gentleman caller, would like to be. Cleage’s conception required that both she and her gentleman caller share a common understanding of Davis’s music: that Davis, and Cleage by extension, existed outside a consumerist sphere. Cleage was not a “Top 40” woman, but was of value, could sustain interest, could be cool.

However, Laver’s “tropes of meaning” concept goes beyond the individual defining themselves to those in their immediate circle, to a corporation identifying and using a shared cultural conception of music to relate to a broad audience. In the case of jazz, Laver identifies improvisation as performing a key role in connecting consumers’ decisions in the marketplace with individuality—in turning the commodity into the anti-commodity. Consider Kathleen Kelly’s Starbucks order in You’ve Got Mail: she has not only constructed an identity in her beverage order, but has improvised it. Therefore, she cannot be a simple cog in the machine of mainstream capitalism. As Laver argues, “By framing material acquisition in the sound and language of jazz performance, the moral of the jazz advertising story reaffirms that consumption itself can be a kind of expressive improvisation: consumer capitalism invites us to select freely and creatively from an infinitely variable panoply of commodity choices in order to express the innermost reality of our identity.”[4] The use of jazz in the commercial sphere essentially mobilizes the creative independence demonstrated by improvising musicians to appeal to discerning consumers who want to demonstrate their own sense of identity through the brands they select.

 

Consider Kathleen Kelly’s Starbucks order in You’ve Got Mail: she has not only constructed an identity in her beverage order, but has improvised it. Therefore, she cannot be a simple cog in the machine of mainstream capitalism.

Laver notes that one of the most prominent myths of jazz is that jazz and commerce are fundamentally opposed, arguing that for many non-jazz audiences, the jazz genre signifies anti-commercialism. In particular, bebop has grown up around a myth of revolution, anticipating musically the protests that would gain more steam in the 1950s and 1960s under the banner of the civil rights movement. Bebop’s myth of protest presents itself in myriad ways: in how musicians dressed (berets and sunglasses that signaled a cool style), how musicians presented their music (not announcing songs or speaking to the audience, demonstrating that their music was not mere entertainment), and in its sounds (the fast tempos and complicated harmonies and rhythms, displayed in virtuosic solo lines). In each case, bebop protests were assumed by critics to be directed toward audiences, which solidified the relationships among jazz, black artists, protest, and anti-commercialism.

Among the first critics to connect jazz with anti-commercialism was French writer Huges Panassié, but the task was quickly taken up by American critics. For example, British critic Leonard Feather wrote in 1949 that “The story of bop, like that of swing before it, like the stories of jazz and ragtime before that, has been one of constant struggle against the restrictions imposed on all progressive thought in an art that has been commercialized to the point of prostitution.” White critic and record producer Ross Russell went further, noting that though bebop was part of an “authentic,” supposedly anti-commercial jazz evolution, it was also a revolution: “Bebop is the music of revolt: revolt against big bands, arrangers, vertical harmonies, soggy rhythms, non-playing orchestra leaders, Tin Pan Alley—against commercialized music in general.” Essentially, the trope of anti-commercialism turned into one of protest. In 1968, Amiri Baraka similarly linked protest and anti-commercialism, writing in Black Music that “Bop also carried with it a distinct element of social protest, not only in the sense that it was music that seemed antagonistically nonconformist, but also that the musicians who played it were loudly outspoken about what they thought they were. ‘If you don’t like it, don’t listen,’ was the attitude.”[5] Even Dizzy Gillespie implicitly noted the presence of protest in musicians’ approach to the music, writing in 1979, “We didn’t go out and make speeches or say, ‘Let’s play eight bars of protest.’ We just played our music and let it go at that. The music proclaimed our identity; it made every statement we truly wanted to make.”

Many jazz scholars have tempered the myth of protest, asserting that jazz musicians, bebop included, were of course part of a commercial system; as Gerald Early writes, “[Beboppers] struggled not for socialist revolution but for their rightful piece of the capitalist pie.”[6] Scott DeVeaux writes in The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History that the very “signs of resistance” that mid-century critics promoted around bebop “defined a place for bop in the marketplace.”[7] For DeVeaux, as well as for scores of jazz scholars after him, bebop’s revolutionary narrative is an oversimplification of its place in the commercial music industry; black bebop musicians’ position outside the musical mainstream was, in essence, a selling feature. Essentially, the myth has been as intractable as it has been useful for bebop. As DeVeaux writes, the myth has remained useful for bebop’s continued privileged status as “a defiant assertion of ethnic consciousness in the face of efforts by a white-controlled culture industry to co-opt and contain its subversive potential.”[8]

The bebop soundscape of the Starbucks incident thus caught my attention: if bebop continues to possess this myth of protest and anti-commercialism, what does it mean in this space? The particular recording of “Salt Peanuts” selected by Starbucks, one that featured a small jazz combo, certainly highlights the role of improvisation in the song to a greater degree than the big band arrangement (which also features Gillespie) would have. If Starbucks was tapping into the improvisatory nature of bebop in order to offer customers a sense of anti-consumerist agency, as Laver argues other companies did, then “Salt Peanuts” may have been meant to act as an extension of the Starbucks brand, furthering their stated values. These highlight the creation of a “culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.” By drawing on this particular bebop recording, a genre associated predominantly with blackness and a song fronted by two black men, Starbucks may have meant to demonstrate musically that their cafés are welcoming to people of color generally, and black patrons specifically. Another stated value is to act with courage, “challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.” With bebop’s myth of protest and revolution, and Gillespie and Parker’s roles as the chief iconoclasts of the movement, “Salt Peanuts” may symbolize the anti-commercial suggestion of “challenging the status quo” valued by Starbucks. Finally, Starbucks also states that it “deliver[s] our very best in all we do,” a statement that potentially resonates with bebop’s association with virtuosity.

Just as music defines the Starbucks space, so too does the space define the music. Essentially, bebop’s understood meaning (that it is a revolutionary music that can speak to consumers asserting non-mainstream identities) clashed with its meaning in that space (that musical acceptance of black culture cannot stand in for actual acceptance of black lives).

On any other day in Starbucks, “Salt Peanuts” contributed to the Starbucks brand by allowing customers to make a purchase that helped them to define to an aspirational identity, improvise their way through a capitalist space, and perhaps offer them a sense of knowledgeable sophistication. But on April 12 in Philadelphia, “Salt Peanuts” accompanied an entirely different scene, serving instead as the soundtrack for, on the one hand, the acceptance and use of black culture, and, on the other hand, the placelessness of black bodies. At first glance, in its mission and values, Starbucks appears to create a vaguely colorblind, possibly progressive space in which diverse communities come together to work and socialize over tailored beverages. Starbucks’s musical choices are part of that definition of space, in which consumers can imagine themselves to be either as colorblind or as racially progressive as they desire. The use of bebop in Starbucks attempts to use black disembodied sounds to create an inclusive space. But the problem is that space, like music, has its own meanings that are created and policed by people within that space. Just as music defines the Starbucks space, so too does the space define the music. Essentially, bebop’s understood meaning (that it is a revolutionary music that can speak to consumers asserting non-mainstream identities) clashed with its meaning in that space (that musical acceptance of black culture cannot stand in for actual acceptance of black lives).

Following Johnson and Nelson’s arrest and release, activists organized protests at the same Starbucks in Philadelphia, occupying space both outside and within. The protests featured a busy sonic space, that included music. But the language of musical protest did not include bebop, but rather songs with nearly 100-year-old legacies. Written in 1931 by Florence Reece, “Which Side Are You On?” initially supported the 1931 miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, and has been repurposed for various protest movements, including the civil rights movement and protests against police violence since Ferguson. Protesters also sang “We Shall Not Be Moved” in harmony, a song that was originally a spiritual, but was used in both labor protests in the 1930s and the civil rights movement. This song lasted for over six minutes, disrupting the lyrical sounds of a John Legend song playing in the background of the Starbucks (another black artist who, like Gillespie and Parker, is often associated with movements for racial justice). Whereas bebop privileges the individual, and the collaboration between improvisers as musicians run complicated musical lines demonstrating their virtuosity, the protest songs used at Starbucks shared few sonic similarities with bebop. Their messages were simple, and the melody lines repeat, making it easy for anyone to join the protest. They can be sung in call and response format, creating the potential for limited improvisation within a steady chorus of protesters, and encouraging engagement through clapping.

Ultimately this episode at Starbucks demonstrates the extent to which “tropes of meaning,” those shared cultural and emotional characteristics that have effectively defined bebop as revolutionary, do not align with the “tropes of meaning” created by the physical space of Starbucks. Bebop developed and maintained a reputation for protest, revolution, and anti-commercialism—but in Starbucks, those strains of protest are obscured through the sounds of steamers, calling into question the future meaning of bebop, and the future sounds of protest.

[1] Mark Laver, Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning (New York: Routledge, 2015), 230.

[2] Ibid., 75.

[3] Pearl Cleage, “Mad at Miles,” Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 40.

[4] Laver, 36.

[5] Amiri Baraka, Black Music (New York: Akashic Books, 1967), 29.

[6] Gerald Early, “Miles Davis and the Double Audience,” Miles Davis and American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 154.

[7] Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997), 24.

[8] DeVeaux, 23.

  • Joe Keenan

    Excellent, insightful essay.