It is February 4th, 2008, the day after the New York Football Giants won the Super Bowl, and the day before the Super Tuesday primaries. I am sitting in a Starbucks because a) the internet is down at our office, b) the nearest “neighborhood” coffee shop has terrible coffee and employs only inattentive rude people, and c) I’m sorry, this vanilla latte is seriously delicious.
I mention all of this because from where I’m sitting right now, no day has ever felt more distinctly like itself than today. There are, as best I can tell, only two topics of conversation being explored in this particular Starbucks, and, I can only assume, the rest of the city: It’s either a blow-by-blow recount of the Giants’ victory over the Patriots (Yay Eli!), or nervous speculation about tomorrow’s election (Go Barack!). No one is talking about 1960s furniture or their childhood or their favorite macaroni and cheese recipes, and I’m pretty sure it’s because, as a corporation, Starbucks, in conjunction with iTunes, is making sure your mind never, ever drifts from the present.
When I got here a few hours ago, I opened my laptop to start working. I don’t often work in cafés, because I find myself incapable of accomplishing anything other than listening to people’s conversations and looking around to see if anyone has a nice shirt or is reading a cool book or a copy of The L. So this was something of a learning experience for me. For instance, did you know that you have to pay for wi-fi at Starbucks? You do. $9.99 for a 24-hour T-Mobile Hot Pass. The connection is crazy fast, though, so I’m happy enough, and I’m totally going to expense it anyway.
I untangled my headphones and opened iTunes, ready to choose the songs for a new installment of Popscene, the monthly feature in which Mark Asch and I make jokes about the songs most regular people enjoy listening to. Instead of the normal iTunes home page, with the personal recommendations which have been so badly botched after a year of purchasing the songs we write about in Popscene (I do not want to buy the Hannah Montana record, honest), I was greeted by the Starbucks-branded home page. Where the “New Releases” section normally sits is the “Must Haves” section, touting Kate Nash and — who else? — Vampire Weekend. Instead of the “Staff Favorites” section, there’s the “Coffeehouse Sound,” pointing potential customers toward Jenny Lewis, Josh Ritter and Ingrid Michaelson. It’s all pretty standard, really. Lots of Norah Jones and Sia, just as you’d expect.
But up there at the top of the page, there’s a black banner with the Starbucks logo and the words “Now Playing in this Starbucks”; next to it is an image of Joni Mitchell’s Blue and the song title ‘Carey’. Hmm. I look up from my screen, to the back of the store, and I see a giant, flat-screen monitor mounted in the corner. “Now playing,” it tells me, is the song ‘Carey’, from Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I take off my headphones to confirm. Yes, it is playing, just as my computer said it would be, quite loudly, through a nice sounding system, and if I want to own it, all I have to do is click on the “buy now” button and cough up 99 cents.
My computer, a coffee-stained, formerly white MacBook, would seem to know exactly what’s going on around me, and it feels strange, but also exhilarating, like I’m living in the future. I’m not, though. It’s February 4th, 2008, and the signs are all around me. They’re in iTunes, too.
ast night Tom Petty gave a perfectly enjoyable though not earth-shattering performance during the Super Bowl half-time show. He played ‘American Girl’, ‘Won’t Back Down’, ‘Free Fallin’ and ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’, all of which currently appear in the iTunes Top Songs list. Of the four, ‘Free Fallin’ is the highest ranked (#12), while ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ is the lowest (#55). ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’, which was not even played, cracked the list at #97, presumably because hearing all those other songs reminded everyone how awesome it is. And, quite impressively, Petty’s Greatest Hits disc has climbed all the way to number two on the Top Albums list. That a 57-year-old songwriter who hasn’t released a new record in almost two years can achieve this kind of literally overnight success is… well, it’s something.
Before Petty took the stage, way back in the first quarter of the game, a commercial aired for either Interscope Records, iTunes or Doritos, though it wasn’t immediately apparent which. I suppose it was for all of them. Let me explain how it went down. These words flash across the screen, in white letters, with some dramatic flames, as if a magician were making the words appear and disappear: “Every musician dreams of making it big. You voted to give them a shot. Doritos is proud to offer them the largest stage possible.” An acoustic guitar fades in, and onto the screen comes a young woman with dark, curly hair, singing a song that begins with the lines “This is a message from your heart, pounding away into the dark / You could thank me for a start / This is a message from your heart.” Credits like the kind you see on videos on MTV appear, with the artist’s name, the song title, and the record label info (“Now available on Interscope Records”). As the ad comes to a close about 45 seconds later, we see the words “She made it this far. The rest is up to you.” In the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, there’s an Apple logo, announcing that that song you’d just heard is available on iTunes.
Doritos ran a contest, apparently, where songwriters from all over the country submitted songs in hopes of appearing in this commercial. The winner was 23-year-old Kina Grannis, from Austin, Texas, with the song ‘Message from Your Heart’. She’s put out a few independent albums, and on first glance seems to be cut from the same cloth as Vanessa Carlton, Michelle Branch or maybe, if we’re going to give her the benefit of the doubt, Regina Spektor. To be safe, though, let’s just say Vanessa Carlton. Her voice is excellent, and the song’s melody is outstanding. Right now, it sits at number 51 on the iTunes Top Songs list — better than ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’, but definitely not as good as ‘Free Fallin’.
Why should you care about any of this? Well, I’m not 100 percent certain that you should. And I worry that I’d be much better off if I didn’t. But if you’re the type of person who obsessively charts the rhythms of popular culture, either from a fan’s perspective, the perspective of a concerned business or merely as an impartial observer, there’s really no better method for determining what people like and dislike than watching the iTunes chart. Or maybe there is, but there’s certainly none faster. If Doritos found that Kina Grannis’ song didn’t sell on iTunes in the days following the commercial, they probably wouldn’t put quite so much money behind the project next year, and Interscope would surely scale back their budget for the promotion of her record. If iTunes, and Starbucks, who are presumably getting a cut of the profits from this joint venture, find that sales of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Carey’ don’t spike when it’s played in the store, then they’ll probably just stop playing it. If Tom Petty wasn’t sky-rocketing up the charts, maybe the Super Bowl people would consider booking a younger act next year.
This opens the door for all sorts of dialogue about the dangers of searching for immediate gratification, which I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I’ve never really understood. If I’m thirsty, I’d like to have a drink as soon as possible. If I like a song, I’d like to hear more of it as soon as possible. And if I don’t like something, I want it taken out of my life as soon as possible, if not sooner. This is the kind of fantasy world Starbucks and iTunes are working toward, where a fickle public is having its every whim indulged, and while I know I should have some sort of philosophical opposition to this, I still find myself intrigued by the possibility that people somewhere might be getting better at figuring out what I like.
There is a far more nuanced argument to be made here, about this quest for immediacy making people less aware of the value of hard work, or willpower, or patience, or of the much more abstract, though not entirely false, danger of taking something for granted. I’m willing to accept that when you’re given access to a gazillion songs, bands or records, it’s difficult to give all of them the time they deserve. Rash judgments are made, and people are too quick to cast something aside if they’re not immediately grabbed by it. This doesn’t exactly encourage critical listening.
The iTunes/Starbucks business model also feels a little bit dirty because we know deep down that we don’t have quite as much say as we like to think we do. We’re given a voice, but asked only to use it with our credit cards, and only to make our opinions known on a relatively small sampling of music. Even though technically limited only by how deep they’re willing to dig on blogs or file-sharing websites to find things that excite them, a lot of people still feel, or at least act, as if they’re beholden to the options presented to them by large corporations, and this is at least a little bit troubling. But it’s probably a good deal less troubling than it was just a few years ago, now that the mainstream is going further and further out of its way to court the underground, trying its best to capitalize on a certain portion of the American public’s desire to appear as devotees of the obscure. What I mean is that regardless of the motives of companies like Starbucks or iTunes, the pool from which they’re choosing what they’re going to present us with has grown considerably larger in recent years — a small, but I think meaningful, comfort.
At very least, iTunes gives us answers to a lot of questions we’ve been meaning to ask. Does blog hype and lots of glowing praise from the press equal record sales, and if so, how quickly? Yes, apparently it does. And pretty quickly, at that. After a whirlwind week of press and live performances, Vampire Weekend’s much buzzed-about debut is number 4 on the iTunes Top Album list, just a few days after it was released. Did people eventually forgive David Chase for the ambiguous closing moments of The Sopranos? Maybe, but it’s more likely that they just love Journey, whose ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ sits at number 81, a full eight months after it was used in the final scene of the show. Did people like American Idol winner Jordin Sparks’ rendition of the national anthem? Yes, they did. It’s number 95.
Which brings us back to last night, or, actually, to today. I’m still sitting in Starbucks, and I think I might be visibly twitching. The coffee hasn’t helped, obviously, and neither has the fear that we’ll never regain internet access in our office. But I think more than anything, I’m on edge because of how connected I feel — to the people around me, who are also trying to decide if Beck’s Sea Change might be worth buying because this one song is actually really good, and to people all over the country, whose reactions to the things put in front of them I’m tracking in real time. I’m still not sure if I find it exciting or creepy, and I don’t know how I feel about computer-owning, coffee-drinking Americans being treated as one big focus group. It’s the feeling that our likes and dislikes are being examined to make other people lots of money. But it’s also the feeling that regular people stand to benefit as well. It’s the feeling that understanding other people can only be a good thing, and it’s the feeling of guilt for thinking you understand someone based on the music they like. It is, I guess, what February 4th, 2008 feels like.