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The reason why Starbucks banned Bruce Springsteen

When one thinks of Bruce Springsteen, we normally think about his squeaky-clean everyman persona and his stadium-packing songs that depict the life of blue-collared Americans. Fittingly nicknamed ‘The Boss’, Springsteen has given us stirring classics such as ‘Born to Run’, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ and ‘Glory Days’. His candid, natural lyricism matched with self-awareness has endeared the New Jersey native to fans of every walk of life.

However, in 2005, Springsteen’s couth modus operandi would take a detour. April that year he released his thirteenth studio album Devils & Dust, and it would draw the ire of a company who at face value would seem totally random to us Brits; Starbucks.

The world’s largest coffeehouse chain felt they had no choice but to ban the album in their entertainment and retail stores, something we do not have in Britain. This is where it gets “shocking”.

The main track that caused offence was ‘Reno’, which describes an encounter with a prostitute and mentions both oral and anal sex. Furthermore, in ‘Long Time Comin’’, The Boss drops an f-bomb. These are uncharacteristic for Springsteen and it is not hard to imagine his mother being appalled by both. Alas, it is the twenty-first century, and in comparison to overly explicit chart-toppers, both these things seem well, vanilla. Subsequently, in a first for Springsteen, the album cover was given an explicit lyrics tag.  

Starbucks issued a statement reading: “While we agreed that the lyrics to ‘Reno’ did warrant an advisory, a variety of factors contributed to our decision not to carry the album in all of our retail locations.” 

The then President of Starbucks Entertainment, Ken Lombard, claimed that one of the factors was “ultimately an issue of scheduling”. This came as the chain was preparing a high-profile campaign to spotlight female rockers Antigone Rising’s album From the Ground Up, as this was being released on Starbucks’ Hear Music label around the same time. Although, it was not quite as simple.

At the time, Starbucks had secured an exclusive deal to sell the tenth-anniversary edition of Alanis Morisette’s double-diamond selling, Jagged Little Pill. Ironic as the album’s first single ‘You Oughta Know’ includes a reference to oral sex: “Is she perverted like me? Would she go down on you in a theatre?” Additionally, Walmart, who had banned numerous explicit albums from its stores in the past, stocked Devils & Dust without a question.

No public comments were made by Springsteen’s camp, or label Columbia records. However, anonymous sources informed Newsweek that Starbucks had not been entirely truthful when explaining their reasons for banning the album from its stores. Turns out, it had little to do with the lyrics. Allegedly, the company had hoped for a promotional tie-in for Devils & Dust. This would have gone against everything Springsteen stands for, particularly his age-old stance against using his name or music to sell products. Originally a deal had been arranged for Starbucks to simply stock the album, but the multinational reneged on their side upon hearing ‘Reno’. Lombard would say after: “We have great respect for Bruce Springsteen and for Sony. We’re confident that we’ll all have the opportunity to work together in the future.” 

Ultimately though, the ban had little effect. The album debuted at number one on the album chart and eventually went platinum, showing the true extent of Springsteen’s everyman success.