A Brief Tour of Pop Music’s Caffeine Addiction

A few weeks ago in our Friday feature the Playlist, I recommended a bubbly new single by the pop artist Sabrina Carpenter and made a bold prediction: “Get ready to hear this one everywhere.” Even more quickly than I imagined, the prophecy has come true. Last week, “Espresso” debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Carpenter’s highest charting hit yet. More important, it has taken over the nation’s psyche. You can hardly go anywhere these days without hearing someone quoting the song’s infectious hook “That’s that me espresso” or wondering aloud, “what is a ‘me espresso?’”

That’s a profound philosophical question for another day. Today, we are simply honoring the absurdist joy of “Espresso” with a playlist of songs about caffeinated beverages.

Coffee has been a consistently evocative theme throughout pop musical history, so this mix travels from 1940 right up to the present moment. That trusty beverage is often used to describe a sophisticated kind of romance (as it does on Otis Redding’s swooning ballad “Cigarettes and Coffee”) or perhaps the idle hours waiting around for said romance to occur (see Peggy Lee’s sultry take on the 1948 standard “Black Coffee”). Chappell Roan tries to use it as a shield against romance on a track from her 2023 album “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess,” reasoning with a former flame, “I’ll meet you for coffee, ’cause if we have wine/You’ll say that you want me, I know that’s a lie.”

In “Espresso,” Carpenter uses the caffeine metaphor to suggest how restless she makes a guy she has wrapped around her finger: “Say you can’t sleep? Baby, I know.” Also, crucially, she understands that “espresso” rhymes with “I guess so.” That’s poetry.

It’s time for the percolator,


A breezy summer bop with a dash of bizarro humor, “Espresso” is about to be blaring from every other beachside boombox. Carpenter’s gloriously unbothered vocal and the track’s disco-inflected sheen make the whole thing go down easy.

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A memorable image — “there’s a stain on my notebook where your coffee cup was” — kicks off this smoldering, six-minute classic about trying to move on from a relationship while concrete memories linger all around. (And yes, that is Elvis Costello on backing vocals.) The British band Squeeze’s songwriter and guitarist Chris Difford revealed in a 2019 interview that an actual coffee ring inspired those opening lines: “Yeah,” he said. “I still have the notepad in my office.”

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The great Peggy Lee kicks off her 1956 debut album with an elegant reading of this song, written by Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Weber and first made famous by Sarah Vaughan. That titular brew helps her stay awake as she waits up for an absent lover: “I walk the floor and watch the door/And in between I drink/Black coffee.”

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This brief but effervescent track from the deluxe edition of SZA’s 2017 debut album, “Ctrl,” chronicles the singer’s insecurities and doubts before declaring, “I wanna be a percolator.” I’m just going to pretend she’s talking about the coffee kind.

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This 1940 single from the pioneering vocal group the Ink Spots is a fun and slangy ode to a hot cup of Joe. “Slip me a slug from the wonderful mug,” singer Deek Watson croons, “and I’ll cut a rug till I’m snug in a jug.” And you thought “that’s that me espresso” was silly!

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Companionship and good conversation make an ordinary moment glow — “just talking over cigarettes and coffee” — in this warm, crackling ballad from Otis Redding’s “The Soul Album.” “I don’t want no cream and sugar,” he sings, “’cause I’ve got you now, darling.”

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This playlist began with one rising pop girlie, and it concludes with another: the suddenly ubiquitous Chappell Roan. Over a sparse but theatrical piano arrangement, Roan figures meeting an ex “only for coffee” is a better bet than meeting for dinner or drinks: “Nowhere else is safe, every place leads back to your place.” By the end, though, she’s not even sure a quick, caffeinated date is innocuous enough: “’Cause if we did coffee, it’s never just coffee.” Don’t even ask her about espresso.

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“A Brief Tour of Pop Music’s Caffeine Addiction” track list
Track 1: Sabrina Carpenter, “Espresso”
Track 2: Squeeze, “Black Coffee in Bed”
Track 3: Peggy Lee, “Black Coffee”
Track 4: SZA, “Percolator”
Track 5: The Ink Spots, “Java Jive”
Track 6: Otis Redding, “Cigarettes and Coffee”
Track 7: Chappell Roan, “Coffee”

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