First, the obvious question: Why would a band that has sold a reported 50 million albums, won seven Grammys, and married a Paltrow even need a defense? While Coldplay may rule the Minivan Dominion with a falsetto fist, in other circles, merely mention the band’s name inspires sneering and vitriol.
Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin once explained away the animosity toward his band by saying, “Maybe we’re too feminine for the masculine and too masculine for the feminine.” In an article succinctly titled “The Case Against Coldplay” Jon Pareles, of the New York Times, asserts that Martin’s band’s reception has nothing to do with confused gender roles. Rather, “the most insufferable band of the decade” is “supposed to be compassionate, empathetic, magnanimous, inspirational. But when the music swells up once more with tremolo guitars and chiming keyboards, and Mr. Martin’s voice breaks for the umpteenth time, it sounds like hokum to me.” Incidentally, that article was written in 2005, which means that Coldplay may or may not also be the most insufferable band of this decade.
But it’s not just critics, though. Everyday working citizens take to the Internet for communal Coldplay-bashing through Facebook, message boards, and the comment sections of articles by critics about Coldplay. Last week, the Times referenced the I Hate Coldplay So Much It Makes Me Want To Cry group, which while currently dormant still has 1,200 members, all of whom are seemingly OK with the social group’s “Coldgay” profile pic. And just this past weekend, an old married friend, with three kids in elementary school, asked me to recommend some music to her. When I suggested she try the band’s new album Mylo Xyloto, she lowered her voice and looked at me like she was about to admit an affair. She said, “I’ve kind of always liked them. But not, like, in public.”
Coldplay, ultimately, make rock music that’s not unlike a Pixar movie—predictable and family-friendly, but it’s also sweet, well-intentioned, and sometimes evocative. Martin, a cartoonish character with eyes so sincere and an aw-shucks personality so outdated you may as well call him “Woody,” wants nothing more than to move you, much in the same way John Lasseter intends for all his movies to inspire a welling eye or two. Of course the end result of one may feel disingenuous in comparison to the other, but that’s a subjective assessment.
Mylo Xyloto (it even sounds like the title of an undeveloped Pixar movie!) will not change anyone’s opinion of the band. If you love them, you will still love them. If you are embarrassed to admit to others that you enjoy them on rare occasion, you will still be embarrassed to admit to others that you enjoy them on rare occasion. It’s not their masterpiece (Viva la Vida is), but the sun-drenched Mylo still makes it hard for me to comprehend why people feel such animosity toward the band.
In an attempt to address where this vitriol comes from, it’s important that we try to understand the critiques.
The personalities suck.
“[Coldplay is] the anti-Sex Pistols,” Andy Gill wrote in The Independent. “An act that repulses not through outrage, bad manners and poor grooming, but through their inoffensive niceness and emollient personableness.”
Rock and roll—and specifically, punk rock—is about edge and attitude. I understand that. A bottle of Jack, check. A disdain for your audience, check. A perpetually upright middle finger, check. But I can say with complete confidence and assuredness that Coldplay has no interest in being Your Rock Band—never mind Your Punk Band. And being a new dad, I’m kind of okay with that. Ideally, I’d like my little guy to grow up and listen to the same stuff I listen to and champion independent artists like, say, tUnE-yArDs or John Maus. But if he became a massive Coldplay fan, this too would be fine. Just as long as he doesn’t become goth.
“Inoffensive niceness and emollient personableness” are two qualities Gill positions as terrible things. Being nice? Does that invalidate your rock status? Emollient? That’s how I like my shampoos and hand creams. If the biggest problem with Coldplay is that they’re really agreeable dudes, I’ll take them over Lou Reed any day.
The lyrics suck.
“Doe-eyed love songs based on lazy rhyming couplets and trite resolutions,” Joe Tangari of Pitchfork described Chris Martin’s writing. “[The lyrics are] somehow meaningless, yet also clich√©d. Had Coldplay accompanied these lyrics with remotely interesting or memorable music, this could be somewhat overlooked.”
Lyrics often suck. This is a fact. You’ll have your David Bermans, your Leonard Cohens, your Jay-Zs, but for the most part, the words coming out of singers’ mouths are full of clich√© after clich√©. Amateur poetry hour. Sentiments expressed a thousand times over, topics mined to the point of banality. A Pitchfork writer should know this more than anyone, having been exposed to just about every demo by a deep guy. The fact that Chris Martin knows well that he is no poet laureate is a little bit refreshing—this way, I don’t have to waste my time trying to figure out what he means because, chances are, he doesn’t mean anything.
The songs suck.
“Five albums in, the British band has found an uncanny equilibrium between swooping, arena-ready pop and cheesy, down-to-earth humility,” Marc Hogan writes in a Salon article titled “Why I Can”t Hate Coldplay Anymore.” Hogan has a funny way of proving his newfound non-hate by lobbing on backhanded compliment after backhanded compliment (at one point, he compares the band to a Subway outlet).
But Hogan does successfully and succinctly describe the Coldplay aesthetic, which is equal parts arena-sized and humble. Whether he meant his description as a criticism or as a compliment, he’s still right, but what he doesn’t acknowledge is how many bands that have achieved mass acceptance and universal popularity have shifted into experimenting with their proven formulas in an effort to regain its cred and disenchant the fratboy or soccer-mom constituency. Just as U2 did in 1991; just as Radiohead has done throughout its entire career. Coldplay, paradoxically, has and probably will never do this. Coldplay is as dependable as a Volvo.
The plagiarism sucks.
Good artists borrow, great artists blah blah blah. Coldplay isn’t the most original band in the world, nor are they creating the most original sounds in the world. “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” was accused of borrowing from the Eurohouse hit “Ritmo de la Noche,” but the piano sample in question is actually from Peter Allen”s and Adrienne Anderson”s “I Go To Rio”—and both are credited in Mylo‘s liner notes.
Also, do you honestly think Chris Martin heard a Joe Satriani song and decided it was something he had to rip off for “Viva la Vida”? Unlikely, if only because he seems like more of a Yngwie guy.
Perhaps, though, in an effort to defend Coldplay, I may actually be doing them a disservice. As Martin told EW last week, “We’re as hated as a band can be.” This self-effacing modesty may very well be a promotional tool. The only way a biggest band in the world can keep global adoration going as a sustainable career is by positioning itself as the bullied underdog.
The Coldplay detractors may be a vocal minority, and yes, the Internet can overamplify athe impression of hatred. But the vitriolic bile, the suspect cynicism, and the snarky album reviews are actually encouraging an already devoted fanbase to react in kind by becoming even more passionate. These fans will do anything to distance themselves from the critics, the sneerers, and the message-board trolls, even if “anything” means contrarily loving Coldplay. It doesn’t hurt that Chris Martin is a nice guy with nice songs who’s never presumed to be otherwise, and that he writes universally accessible anthems with even more accessible themes. These are things that make many people happy.
In Mylo Xyloto‘s serene elegy “Us Against the World,” Martin could be cooing about his fate as a critical punchline: “Through chaos as it swirls/ It’s just us against the world/ Through chaos as it swirls/ It’s us against the world.” It’s not profound, but you got the point. Right?