Backstory to “Early Rejected Works: An open Letter to Beijing Starbucks: In the Autumn of 2002 I returned to Beijing with the intention of carrying on with the mission I’d started in 1999 at Beijing Scene, namely becoming the Hunter Thompson of China’s expat writer scene. Beijing Scene had met a fairly dramatic end two years earlier, and the new game in town was a magazine called That’s Beijing (which would later expand to That’s Shanghai, That’s Guangzhou and That’s China, before itself meeting its own fairly dramatic end). Anyway, I wrote maybe a dozen articles for them, but I didn’t quite fit in with the editorial staff in the same way as I had with Beijing Scene, and eventually ditched Beijing altogether for warmer, less complicated parts of China.
But during the three or so months I was in Beijing, I churned out most of my articles at one of the first Starbucks in Beijing. I think there were three at the time, which was ironic as one of the stories Beijing Scene had done in 1999 was about how Starbucks had just opened its first branch in Beijing, and was going the put the independent coffee shops out of business. If I recall correctly, it was a cover story, the title was “You Will Be Assimilated”, and most of the people we interviewed eventually wound up working for Starbucks.
Anyway, I hung out at Starbucks because I was living semi-legally in a drab apartment block that was connected to what I guess was then Beijing’s central heating grid, which didn’t come on until Mid-November despite the fact that Beijing starts getting cold in September. So I hung out at Starbucks with my laptop for up to four hours a day, drinking their battery-acid coffee and listening to the two CDs they were officially permitted to play, over and over again.
Being a journalist, I quizzed the folks behind the counter and learned that the music selection had been mandated from the top, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that these two CDs were basically designed to create a relaxed, western vibe without accidently introducing listeners to any dangerous western philosophy. (Wouldn’t want the Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” to give the citizens any funny ideas now, would we?)
The two CDs were “Best of the Eagles” and “Simon and Garfunkles Greatest Hits”, which they played at about a five to one ratio. It eventually drove me nuts, so I wrote what I thought was a funny editorial for That’s Beijing with a bunch of double entendre based on Eagles and S&G songs. The editor, a frat boy type from Conneticut, thought otherwise. I suspect he thought I was a weirdo. Our editor-writer relationship didn’t last that long.
Anyway, I just found the essay on my mystriously long lost hard drive, and since “Bad Music at Starbucks” seems to be trending, I thought I’d put it up as both an example of bad music at Starbucks and also a snapshot of life in a Beijing that’s long gone.
Author’s Note: As with many of the long-lost hard drive articles, “An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks” was slightly corrupted, and the first sentence has been turned into a mysterious mixture of nonsensical Chinese characters and religous symbols. I have left this gibberish intact, having no recollection of what compelled me to begin the article with a sentence ending in the words “unmarked by the cheery logo of a mermaid preparing to engage in auto-cunnilingus”
An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks
आÀ䘀楍牣獯景⁴潗摲䐠捯浵湥unmarked by the cheery logo of a mermaid preparing to engage in auto-cunnilingus. While some – scruffy hippies and James Dean type uber-individuals, mostly – might disparage your borg-like saturation / assimilation tactics, our feeling is “why argue with success?” Bully for Starbucks!
However, there is one tiny thing that we at the magazine would like to bring up, a matter that threatens to work its way into our collective consciousness and disrupt the otherwise Peaceful, Easy Feeling that exists between us and Starbucks. We are, of course, referring to your, how can we put this, rigidly monotonous corporate musical policy. We all agree that the Eagles were a fine band, and far be it for any of us at the magazine to belittle their contribution to light, apolitical and “socially acceptable” rock and roll that helped western society heal from the jarring social rifts created during the 1960s. Nonetheless, even Don Henley might be driven to violence after hearing Hotel California two dozen times during an eight-hour shift. After only a few hours listening to the same bland seventies rock songs played repeatedly, we can’t hide our crying eyes. We can only imagine what sort of psychic toll this might take on your counter staff in the long run.
Likewise, Simon and Garfunkel were a fine folk duo, celebrated both for their harmonious crooning and their wistful take on the deeper existential questions which all much face. However, after hearing Feelin’ Groovy three times during one afternoon’s teatime, some of us have been known to curl up into fetal balls, whimpering “lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai” and cringing at imagined sounds of whip-cracks. If only it were true that a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. “Take it Easy! Take it Easy!” we tell ourselves, but still, Starbuck’s slavish corporate devotion to musical tedium is breaking out hearts, and shaking our confidence daily.
We assume that whoever is in charge of Starbucks, Beijing is not a hard-headed man so enamored with life in the fast lane that he would ignore the pleas of long-time customers and continue a musical policy sure to make us lose our minds. Of course, ultimately we have the option to simply avoid Starbucks, yet somehow we feel compelled to return. It is as if we are all just prisoners here, of our own device. Rest assured that such a rigid corporate musical policy will ultimately take it to the limit, putting us on the highway (to some other coffee shop, if we could only find one) and showing us the sign (that perhaps we should switch to snorting Ritalin).
So how about some new tunes, Starbucks? C’mon baby…don’t say maybe”
Joshua Samuel Brown,
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