Tasting Notes: How Your Barista Is a Spotify DJ
Like many baristas, I came to the coffee profession in part because of coffee shops - not just because it’s where your latte comes from but because it’s the place you can sit and unwind, read your favorite book, maybe have a cheerful, surface-level conversation with a stranger.
Coffee shops, at their best, should be safe spaces where anyone who’s anyone can sit, have a drink, and feel welcome. And, for me, music has always been an important part of that experience, both as a barista and as a customer.
Most baristas also function as unofficial house DJs for their respective stores, helping to create (or if they’re bad at it, to dismantle) the atmosphere of the space in which they work. It’s fun and often a little surprising to find out which songs work in coffee shops and which don’t. I personally have a rigid, almost dogmatic approach to what kinds of songs are appropriate for coffee shop playlists (upbeat but not too loud, edgy but not too abrasive), and I know other baristas have their own.
Although, somewhat sadly, the ubiquity of Spotify radio and other algorithm-based entities has led to certain songs and musical styles being omnipresent in coffee shop settings, regardless of who’s working there or what anyone’s preferences are. Here’s a fun, only slightly dispiriting game you can play; go on a coffee tour of Manhattan and see how many shops you can visit before you hear Thundercat’s “Them Changes” or Dr. Dog’s “Where’d All The Time Go” or LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great”. My guess? Fewer than two. It’s not that these songs are bad. In fact, I’d count each of the above examples amongst my favorites. But these songs and their ilk are starting to feel like compulsory listening, and nothing compulsory is ever fun.
How to paddle against this wave of pre-approved coffee-shop jams? I took a bit of a novel approach to spicing up my playlists this month. I took a deep dive into music that was not just coffee-shop appropriate or barista-approved, but actually takes coffee as it’s subject, or uses coffee as a lens through which to view its central theme.
Digging through my record crates (and yes, I’m the kind of asshole who still has crates) it readily became apparent that there’s a pretty strong tradition of pop music about coffee, although nowhere near as strong a tradition as songs about beer or whiskey.
But alcohol and pop music have an easier, more straightforward relationship; beer makes you want to dance and sing, coffee just makes you want to sit and talk. Plus, most songs about booze have a melancholy edge, or at least an acknowledgement that some day (probably tomorrow) the fun has to end. There’s drama in writing about alcohol. But there’s no drama inherent in drinking coffee. It’s just pleasant.
That said, there’s plenty of drama in the songs I sampled for this post, most of it intentional. Although it must be said, there’s a sinister undercurrent to a couple of coffee songs, one that probably needs addressing. In much the same way that the history of coffee is inextricably intertwined with that of colonialist plunder, so too has a lot of pop music about the drink simply provided an excuse for white American artists to dabble in “exotic” sounds. Witness Frank Sinatra’s jauntily racist “The Coffee Song” and the generic Arabianisms of Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee”.
But on the other hand look at a young Bob Marley’s nuanced take on the subject in “One Cup of Coffee”, which the Dylan song “borrows” from. This song was one of the first professional recordings the young Marley made, but it tells a strikingly adult tale of lost love and bittersweet resignation. Over a deceptively bouncy reggae rhythm, one that in the years to follow would come to be identified closely with Marley, he sings
One cup of coffee, then I’ll go.
I brought the money,
like the lawyer said to do.
But it won’t replace the heartaches I caused you.
In this song, that last cup of coffee is the final grace note before the great plunge into loneliness, the last spark of a dwindling relationship. It’s a great song, much like Marley’s later hits in its ability to speak devastating truths against a backdrop of joyful, easy-to-listen-to music.
Coffee performs a similar, if not identical, symbolic function in Burke and Webster’s 1948 standard “Black Coffee,” most famously performed by Ella Fitzgerald (but also given memorable readings by Sarah Vaughan and Peggy Lee).
I'm feeling mighty lonesome.
Haven't slept a wink.
I walk the floor and watch the door.
And in between I drink…
In this song, black coffee isn’t the last shared familiarity between former lovers who have grown apart, but a salve for loneliness, a bandage placed on an already broken heart.The only company the narrator has is the cup of coffee, which functions as a constant reminder of how much she once had, and how much it hurt to lose. It’s a strong addition to the canon of great blues-influenced songs that find the deep wells of hurt hiding beneath seemingly banal, everyday rituals, like drinking coffee.
Not that every song about the dark stuff is dark in mood as well. There are great tunes that use coffee to symbolize the blossoming of intimacy and connection, rather than its loss or its continued absence. The creamer of this crop, for me is Otis Redding’s “Cigarettes and Coffee,” not just a great song about coffee, but one of the great love songs of the 20th century.
It’s early in the morning
About a quarter till three
I'm sittin' here talkin' with my baby
Over cigarettes and coffee, now.
The brilliance in this song comes from its seeming inelegance, the way the lyrics appear to be thought of on the spot, casual asides you might mention to someone you like, just to reassure them that you like them. Of course as the song goes on, the music swells and the claims get bolder. By the song’s midpoint, Redding is literally proposing marriage.
And oh my heart cries out
Love at last I've found you, ooh now
And honey won't you let me
Just build my whole life around you
And while I complete, I complete my whole life would be, yeah
If you would take things under consideration
And walk down this aisle with me
Offhandedly intimate reminders of affection have bloomed into bold declarations of love, and coffee and cigarettes have paved the way for love and marriage. It’s fitting then that the song is built the way every great cup of coffee is built - from the union of bold, arresting ideas and homey, comforting flavors. Happy and sad. Dark and light. Bitter and sweet.
Definitely coffee-shop appropriate.