Scrolling through the New York City Public Library’s website on a quest to find some good music to order (I’ll have a blog post sometime in the future on the insanely good selection of music available for free in New York Public Libraries), I noticed they just acquired Hits Are For Squares the Sonic Youth Best Of collection put out by Starbucks a few years back. I have all of Sonic Youth’s “regular” albums (including the Deluxe Editions of Goo, Dirty and Daydream Nation, thank you very much), but I ordered it because it had an exclusive track (it’s called “Slow Revolution” and it’s underwhelming), and I wanted to hear pre-Daydream Nation songs remastered. Basically, I ordered it because I’m a completest sicko who cares way too much about sound quality for his own health.
Anyway, I picked the CD up and was somewhat disturbed by it. Let’s get one thing clear – I’m not talking about the music. With the exception of the aforementioned “Slow Revolution”, the music on Hits Are For Squares is excellent (although the band’s output has been a little weaker this past decade). I’m not here to review the music or tell you why Sonic Youth is great. They just are. What I want to talk about is the sterile and conservative way Starbucks presents this CD to the public. Many of you out there may be cringing at just the idea of one of alternative rock’s longest-standing institutions partnering with an artless corporation like Starbucks. Based on reputations alone, the names Sonic Youth and Starbucks do seem a little strange together, but I’m not terribly bothered by it. It’s going to take a lot more than a name to upset me. After all, is Starbucks any better or worse than Capitol or Universal or any of the other major labels? Probably not.
My issue with Starbucks is how they made Hits Are For Squares all about Starbucks, and not about Sonic Youth. First let’s look at the hideous cover:
No that’s not a joke. There’s Starbucks product placement in a Sonic Youth album cover. If you can somehow get past that borderline sacrilegious move, you’ll notice that the front-cover image has absolutely nothing to do with Sonic Youth or anything they embody. I can see this as a cover for a John Mayer or Sheryl Crow album, but not Sonic Youth. It’s sad to see a group that’s had iconic covers by amazing artists like Raymond Pettibon, Gerhard Richter, and Richard Kerns saddled with such an ugly image that was clearly chosen to sell product, and not as good art. Also, what’s with the Parental Advisory warning? I can’t remember the last time I actually saw one of those on a new album. Why was it necessary? This isn’t exactly a 2 Live Crew cassette from 1992. Also, what parent in 2011 would actually be concerned about their kids listening to Sonic Youth?
OK, the next issue I have is with the tracklisting. Again, the songs are great, by why did Starbucks (and I’m totally assuming all the bad decisions were made by Starbucks and not the band) need to have each song “selected” by a celebrity. Did you know that “Disappearer” is Portia Del Rossi’s favorite Sonic Youth song, or that Beck is just nuts for “Sugar Kane”? Now that you know, do you care? The celebrity angle is extraneous and, once again, at odds with the spirit of what Sonic Youth is. Is Starbucks picturing people on line for coffee saying “I don’t know much about Sonic Youth, but if Eddie Vedder and Radiohead like them, then they’re probably worth checking out.”? Is “Teen Age Riot” any better of a song because it was Eddie Vedder’s choice? No, it’s a great fucking song and that should speak for itself.
Speaking of fucking, the liner notes, (which include the celebrities talking about the songs they chose) actually censor that word. I want fucking, not f*****g.
So there you have it, what could have been a celebration of an important band’s best work from three decades ended up a hideous piece of crass commercialization that adheres to all the most conservative impulses of corporate America. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my grande pumpkin spice latte.