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Fifty Shades of Starbucks: They Did It Again

They did it again! They refers to the USA and France, and “It” to a formidable “pas de deux” in cultural deception. The USA stole an inherently French concept, dumbed it down, repackaged it and sent it back for a large fee. And France… well, France still bought it!


Think of it, it’s the equivalent of your neighbors borrowing your car, trashing it, then having you pay them to get it back. That’s pretty much what happened when Starbucks decided to expand to Europe and France, apparently oblivious to the fact that the novel concept that made their coffee company so big in the USA has been a European specialty since the 18th Century. Ever heard of Paris Cafes?

Starbucks success says a lot about the U.S.,  a country where you can take any unique experience, standardize it and scale it up until it’s not unique anymore.  Then, marketing gurus take over and work really hard to make million of patrons such as you and me feel like the entirely predictable experience that we are being served has kept some of its original grit.

Since there was no point of reference in the U.S., it’s only fair that Starbucks would succeed: the kind of place they built was not a dinner, not a cocktail lounge, not a sports bar, not a burger joint; the place that Starbucks finally brought to the U.S. was essentially missing from the landscape, a sanitized version of the coffee shop that was good enough for the country that didn’t know better. Now, exporting it back to Europe, particularly France, showed some real guts or a fair amount of craziness. I am not trying to sell my version of Pagliacci to Pavarotti, why would you, eh?

In contrast, not only each Paris Cafe has something different and truly unique to offer, but it also manages to serve good coffee. The Starbucks coffee experts obviously can’t tell the difference between “strong” and “burnt”. Any human being familiar with the Paris espresso will realize that the Starbuck maniacs roast their beans with a flame-thrower then torch them with X-Ray guns.

Who cares after that if the stuff is organically grown by Guatemalan virgins managing sustainable micro-farms on remote plateaus only accessible by bullshit?In the cup, it is well-rounded and refined, with notes of dark cocoa, Bing cherry and a floral sweetness.” That is indeed what you would probably experience if you could taste anything beyond the pungent bitterness of burnt rubber. And this will be handed to you in a paper cup, you’re welcome.

So the scandal is that Starbucks still-somehow-kind-of made it to Europe.

With 63 locations in France, most of them in or near Paris, and a recent plan to scale up its operations, Starbucks has already overstated its welcome as a one-time joke on the Paris boulevards. Maybe it’s not yet profitable, as reported in this excellent New York Times article, but it’s still standing! So who knows what’s next? Now Pavarotti is listening to my rendition of La Traviata on the banjo, wondering if he shouldn’t get the album; Victor Hugo is watching Les Miz in awe of Herbert Kretzmer.

The next thing is apparently Fifty Shades.

Marquis-de-Sade-9469078-1-402As duly noted by Elaine Sciolino last week in the New York Times, one could expect that the French wouldn’t buy (figuratively or literally) a lesser – and British – accomplishment in a genre dominated by such French literary giants as Anaïs Nin or Sade. You wouldn’t expect either that the puritanic take on sex carefully crafted for an Anglo-Saxon audience by EL James would fare well with the liberated and more frank approach to sexuality for which the French are famous.

Brought to France by Editions JC Lattes and its Executive Director Isabelle Laffont, the mommy porn best seller “Cinquante nuances” was preceded by much noise – essentially scorns and laughters – from French critics. Trying to imagine the reception of Fifty Shades in France indeed reminds me of an episode of the TV-series Friends where Joey suddenly appears at the door wearing an elf costume. Catching sight of him, Chandler bends down, apparently in pain, holding its head as if suddenly taken by a seizure “Too — many — jokes — Must mock Joey.

In essence, the problem with that piece of British S&M is the same as with the American coffee-house: we invented that thing, we perfected it, we define excellence. You copied that thing; you copied it imperfectly, adapted it to a taste that’s entirely different from ours, and you are now trying to sell it back to us as if it were that big invention of yours. What do you think we’ll do????

Ok, we’ll buy it.

“Indeed. Fifty Shades has defied the naysayers, writes Sciolino, selling an estimated 900,000 print copies and 40,000 e-books since last October, according to its publisher. A half million copies of Volume 2, which arrived after the New Year, have already been shipped to bookstores in France.”

So, yeah, they did it again. Nothing spells decadence like forgetting who you are and what you have.


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