I recently spent five weeks in Argentina, details of which appear here on my travel blog. (Feel free to peruse the rest.) Back in frigid Chicago, my thoughts have turned back to my home city and all its charm. And in truth there’s no better vantage point than my beloved coffee shops. Today, spending some hours at the surprisingly lived-in and comfy Filter in Wicker Park–version 2.o, I guess, although I’m not sure of the relation to the one that closed at the Crotch a few years back–I saw with fresh eyes some of the peculiarities of, well, how people act here. Americans at coffee shops seem to be a unique bunch. First of all, we go to them way more often than most other people. Technology–mostly laptops, with or without Wifi–governs our use, forcing issues like the number and placement of outlets. People look distinctive here too, and I’m not just thinking that because of the weather. Or maybe so. There’s an appealing mode of dress here that has to do with bundling up in creative and eye-catching ways. There is always the eye-catching, too. Furtive glances, thick glasses, dyed dreadlocks, bulging sweaters. It’s all so unusual as to constitute a “look.” Like the entire American political climate moving farther to the right, it’s not always obvious to us, but from the outside it’s pretty clear. We seem to have this desire to be seen, or to appear cool in the event that we are seen, a self-conscious way even of navigating furniture in a crowded space that reflects studied indifference, studied fashion, studied role-playing. It’s as if our ambition extends outward to all social settings.
Anyway, I was thinking about the music in this place, which I found supremely annoying–a mix of what could have been a few Pandora stations, maybe. But with some regularity, Disco-era hits, soft electronica, and other drivel came out of the speakers along with Radiohead, the Postal Service, and other touchstones. This is stuff I’ve heard way too often, and I found myself wondering as to why it was being played here. My only thoughts–that the folks manning the decks, as it were, really like stuff like that; that they didn’t care what in particular was on; or that it was presented ironically, inviting some knowing “Oh God, this song is soooo lame” eye-rolling and thereby increasing their cultural capital.
As for irony, the problem with hearing a Disco hit in a setting like a coffee shop is that I’ve already heard it a hundred times a day in other less culturally savvy settings. But I’ve still heard it a hundred times a day. So to present it in an ironic or nostalgic fashion simply exacerbates my annoyance with the song. Annoyance!
At this point, it should be recognized that the music in a coffee shop is as vital a part of its identity as its coffee (maybe more). And, with Pandora and infinite shuffle taking over people’s listening habits, baristas are, in my opinion, seriously lacking in this responsibility, which, yes, could be viewed like a regular job responsibility. Someone can just hit “shuffle” and throw an iPod on a dock, and pick it up eight hours later when they leave. This shows a complete disregard for the dynamics of the space, for the ebb and flow of customers, concentration, mood, and the day itself. Allowing the music to play off of, or indeed, against, these factors throughout the day seriously compromises things. A shitty song just takes you right out of your mood, and this could happen every three minutes. To some degree, a barista is a DJ, and a badly placed song should be an embarrassment just like a bad crossfade. But shuffling and Pandora, while they enable baristas to avoid distracting themselves with changing tunes, also strips them of the connection to their own music. If someone were to, say, put on a whole album, the arc of the album is heard itself, guiding the atmosphere in a much more appropriate way than the micro-guidance provided by a heap of individual songs. I’d argue that better albums would be played, because who would want to throw on an album with only one good song? And I’d also argue that new music would continue to be discovered, by new patrons, in new ways by old listeners. It just takes some initiative on the part of a barista, which doesn’t even mean actually bringing CDs to work anymore.
And as far as liking shitty music, well, not much to say there. To each his own. But at least own up and throw on a full album so people can really lay into you afterward.