Songs for the Struggling Artist

How Some Coffee House Music Almost Defeated Me
November 30, 2016, 11:53 pm
Filed under: art, music | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Full Disclosure: I play an acoustic guitar. I write songs. And I sing them. Not as often as I used to but it is a thing I do and have done. I am fully qualified singer-songwriter. If they gave out certifications for folky singer guitar players, I’m pretty sure I could get one.

And yet – the singer-songwriter mix at one of my local coffee shops made me want to smash my guitar. And I love my guitar. But this coffeehouse mix nearly put and end to it, and me.

It didn’t bother me right away. At first, I thought, “Oh nice! Some singer songwriters! I don’t really listen to this sort of thing anymore.” But by the end of my hour there, I couldn’t take another song. And I couldn’t really work at why for a while.

Then I broke it down. Most of the songs were sung by a morose dude over a twiddly guitar part. They didn’t seem to be about anything. They were designed to be inoffensive. They’re like the soundtrack to a Hallmark commercial. I‘ll call this genre Hallmark Twiddle.

And the thing about it is – even though it seems inoffensive…it also seems like music to get date raped by. Like – it’s “nice” guys with guitars who just want you to come up to listen to a few songs, baby.

At the café, the same few songs cycled back again and again. I had never heard them before but they began to make me feel crazy. I figured they were some Pandora or Spotify “Coffeehouse Mix” designed to have performance reviews meetings over. There’s nothing there that might accidentally make you tap your foot or feel something. And then occasionally there’d be some song I love and I’d get all confused. I came home from this experience all messed up and after some research, discovered that this was, indeed, the Spotify Coffeehouse Playlist. And the songs that drove me craziest had thousands and thousands of plays. (probably all of them at this same café where this is the only music they play.) I’ll tell you, I’ve never been a particular fan of hardcore or punk – but when my boyfriend played me some Dead Kennedys as an antidote to this experience, it really hit the spot. I felt a palpable relief.

So how does this happen? How did one Spotify playlist almost defeat me? I feel like so much of culture is like this now. It’s just designed to play in the background without interrupting your life. Don’t worry about it. It’s just aural wallpaper, baby – but it’s insidious. Its blandness can get under your skin and make you go crazy. There were only a couple of women in the mix but they were singing in a baby voice over a cute ukulele. (Check out my amazing friend Lydia’s song about this genre.) In this world, the majority of the tunes are sung by a guy with a guitar. But that guy isn’t Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg and especially not Bill Withers. He’s not someone trying to change the system or even just consensually get into your pants. A guy with a guitar now sort of half plays it and half sings over it to generically tell you it’s going to be okay and don’t worry, he’s going to take care of you, baby. Keep sipping that drink; there’s definitely no roofie in it.

This experience made me long for the days when the music in a place had to be chosen, when it had to be selected each time an album ended. When you had to put on a new record or tape or CD, you had to choose the music each time. You had to say, “Yes. We will be listening to Beleza Tropical here at the Flamingo Rotisserie again. I choose you, Patty Larkin. Today our customers will be dining with Oasis. That’s how it’s going to be. I’m choosing it.”

I find it hard to imagine an actual person choosing songs on this Spotify Coffeehouse list again and again. It has the feeling of someone selecting the music in the same way they selected the brand of plastic cups. I want more out of music. If it’s all twiddly guitars and drippy voices, it’s just like a faucet dripping all night. Actually, I’d rather listen to a faucet drip.


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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read it on Soundcloud, including a small demonstration of my impression of this genre, click here.


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