October 22, 2006

In opposition to Goldilocks

Warning: long post that makes almost no mention of knitting.

There’s an article in today’s Times describing Starbucks’ continuing expansion into cultural tastemaking. According to the article, Starbucks is using its trusted brand to introduce its many customers to non-coffee products such as CDs, books and movies. The movie Akeelah and the Bee, Mitch Albom’s new book, and Starbucks-produced jazz compilation CDs were just a few of the examples cited. The reasoning for many customers seems to be “I like the coffee, so I’ll probably like this too.”

Like everything else about Starbucks, all of these items are carefully calibrated to appeal to a particular sensibility, what the article describes as the “Starbucks Aesthetic.” These products are “Inspirational but not hokey, familiar but not ubiquitous…” and “provide an education without being preachy.” They’re “not racy or dark” but they are “thought-provoking.”

Starbucks customers are like a cultural Goldilocks, searching for something not too transgressive, nor to mainstream, but something that's juuuust right.

The Times even described one customer that was grateful for Starbucks’ help in editing down his cultural choices (!) because, as he said, “some people of caring hearts and minds have looked at this and felt it was worthwhile and beneficial and would create a good vibe in the world.” Leaving aside the fact that “caring hearts and minds” and “multi-billion dollar corporation” are phrases that almost never occur to me simultaneously, my immediate reaction was intense irritation, out of all proportion to the actual content of the article. I underlined and made marginal notes. I ranted over breakfast.

I thought about it first in the context of libraries, wondering if it would be possible for libraries to brand themselves as, if not cultural tastemakers, at least as trusted guides in a similar way. I know, I know - library users do have the same respect for librarians as Starbucks customers have for Starbucks. But Starbucks gets a gigantic two page story in the Sunday Times. Public libraries, not so much.

Obviously, the library needs to appeal to a broader constituency than Starbucks’ core customer, described in the article as early 40’s, well-educated and with an average income of $90,000 a year. But it seems to me that if a coffee shop chain can become a trusted source for advice on movies, music and reading material, a library - staffed by people with a masters’ degree in helping people find relevant, interesting information - should be able to do the same.

The other (non-library) issue here is that feeling smug about buying just the right middlebrow compilation CD reeks of NPR-listening, overpriced coffee-drinking, ineffectual liberalism. The kind of liberalism that shops at Trader Joe’s and drinks Fair-Trade coffee but votes for a Republican governor because, while they do support adequate social services in theory, they really do feel they’re paying too much in taxes.

And why does that piss me off so much? Because I am an NPR-listening, Starbucks-drinking middle class elitist liberal in many ways (though I’ve never voted for a Republican governor and would be fine with paying more in taxes). I do however feel like I’m making the world a better place by going to independent bookstores, by buying organic cereal, or by eating free-range eggs. I prefer local heirloom tomatoes, artfully distressed furniture, and interesting shoes.

I may shop at the Gap and Anthropologie and Ann Taylor, but I think logos and corporate emblems are vulgar. I don’t have a car, and I take public transportation to and from work every day. But I’m endlessly grateful that the boyfriend has a car and I don’t really need to take the T anywhere that might be really inconvenient.

Plus, I knit. I buy yarn that’s handspun and dyed by a Peruvian women’s cooperative. Aren’t I virtuous?

David Brooks neatly skewered this worldview in his book Bobos in Paradise. Although sorely lacking in sociological depth and rigor, Bobos was an uncomfortable, and often hilarious, critique of precisely my lifestyle (or at least my potential lifestyle, in a rather higher tax bracket). Now I don’t particularly like or respect David Brooks, but his belabored central point, that there’s some hypocrisy in this behavior, did hit home.

I do firmly believe that local, organic food is better for consumers and the environment than the food produced and shipped across the world by agribusiness conglomerates. I believe local businesses give more back to the community than chain stores. I believe there is a real danger in the homogenization of taste and the loss of local variety and the ever-increasing commodification of American life. And I do believe making something unique and beautiful with your hands is better than buying a mass-produced item in a store.

The problem, of course, is that my small lifestyle changes are ultimately completely insignificant. Occasionally eating hormone-free beef is not fixing anything. And I sometimes think that making those kinds of small changes satisfies people’s do-gooder urges enough that they don’t need to work for substantive change.

If there’s a vague feeling that all is not right with the world, rather than researching an issue, writing letters, attending demonstrations, lobbying politicians, or doing anything else that requires real effort, I just boycott Wal-Mart. And I feel like a good person, a virtuous, socially conscious person because of it. The world may be full of problems, but I am living righteously in my small way.

The other problem with making these decisions is that they are ultimately circumscribed by the same consumerist worldview I object to in the first place. It’s consumption-as-resistance instead of actual resistance. Not only is it remarkably expensive to live this way, it’s also very, very comfortable.

Thus the ridiculously strong irritation with Starbucks and their safe-yet-moderately interesting cultural products. Because I feel like just their kind of Goldilocks. And "just right" isn't at all the same thing as "righteous."

1 comment:

Marge said...

I hear you, sister!!