Does Coldplay Actually Suck?
"I don't care. Go on and tear me apart."
Chris Martin sang those words on "A Sky Full of Stars," a track off Coldplay's 2014 album, Ghost Stories, but they serve as the perfect slogan for the British group's nearly 20-year run. More than any other modern band, Coldplay has managed to shrug off dismissals that they're bland, sentimental, shallow, and lame. Creation Records founder Alan McGee, in a 2000 op-ed for The Guardian, dubbed their output "bedwetters' music." Rock critic Robert Christgau wrote they were "the definition of a pleasant bore." The message from cultural gatekeepers is clear: Coldplay sucks.
And yet, unlike other punchline acts -- Nickelback or Creed, say -- Coldplay has endured. This Sunday, Coldplay will play the halftime show at Super Bowl 50, simultaneously the most desirable and thankless gig in music. They'll be joined by Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, much more energetic pop stars who'll add some pep to the Pepsi-sponsored proceedings, and there will likely be confetti. And at some point, possibly during "Fix You," a friend of yours will probably turn to you and say, "Damn, Coldplay sucks!" and you'll nod and check your phone.
But here's the thing: do they? For all the scorn heaped upon Coldplay, I often wonder why casual music fans make such a performance of hating them. Is the perceived terribleness of Coldplay merely a piece of received wisdom, a meme that's been re-blogged into fact? Disliking Coldplay is easy to do. And it's kind of fun.
But is it correct? To find out, let's take a closer look at some common arguments for and against Coldplay.
Coldplay isn't coolColdplay has never -- not for a single minute of their existence -- been cool. Arriving at the tail end of the Britpop era, the group immediately got lumped in with a number of other moody, ballad-heavy European rock groups, such as Travis, Stereophonics, and Keane. Unlike Oasis, Radiohead and Pulp, this new breed of band aimed straight for your heart with emotionally direct, sensitive songs that had self-pitying titles like "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" If you liked your music aggressive, confrontational, and a little off-kilter, these were not the bands for you.
And no one has ever been as aware of this as Chris Martin. In 2008, Rolling Stone published an interview with Martin under the headline "The Jesus of Uncool," in which he discussed the influence of Radiohead on his own band. "Sometimes I feel like they cleared a path with a machete," he said, "and we came afterward and put up a strip mall."
That type of self-awareness is one of the secrets to Coldplay's appeal: they've never wanted to be cool, and they know that you think they're not cool. Martin, in particular, is content with playing the role of the grateful nerd as romantic frontman, wearing his emotions on the sleeves of his stupid jacket.
They're an easy targetAs my cheap jacket comment above proves, making fun of Coldplay is easy. If you need more proof that making Coldplay jokes is like shooting very sad fish in an eco-friendly barrel, look no further than this Family Guy clip, which finds Peter Griffin saying he got kicked out of Coldplay for suggesting they do a song "that's not whiny bullcrap."
The word "whiny" is particularly telling: if there's one thing that pisses people off about Coldplay, it's that they write about love and intimacy in a way that scans as feminine to certain rock fans. When the band first broke out, Oasis mouthpiece Noel Gallagher declared them "a bunch of fuckin' pansies, the lot of them." (He later befriended Martin and told Esquire last year that "that fucking guy can write a tune.") And in The 40 Year Old Virgin, Paul Rudd tells Seth Rogen, "You know how I know you're gay? You like Coldplay."
In many ways The 40 Year Old Virgin putdown felt like the tipping point for the band's relationship with the rumpled-button-down, rock-loving public. Once Paul Rudd makes fun of you in a movie, it's hard to come back with that crowd.
They have some killer singlesThis is the most conventional argument in favor of Coldplay: they are a solid singles band. From the syrupy sweet "Yellow," with its rain-soaked video, to the arena-rock EDM bombast of "Paradise," the band excels at creating moments of communal pop catharsis. "Clocks," "The Scientist," "Speed of Sound," "Lost": these are intimate, trance-inducing anthems that take greeting-card themes and blow them up into skywriting penned with stardust. These are the songs that make fans grin like an idiot and spread their arms out like they're big, dumb birds.
Will Champion, the group's drummer, probably deserves a good amount of the credit for that. More than the band's Echo and the Bunnymen-esque riffs or their U2-worshipping art-rock moves, the secret to Coldplay's success lies in their nimble understanding of rhythm, particularly how simple percussion choices can shape a whole song.
Listen to the simple pitter-patter of a song like "Magic" or the thundering whoomph of "Shiver." It's all in the drumming! I think Champion is the reason the band has always been a favorite of hip-hop artists like Swizz Beats, Jay Z, and Kanye West. (Never forget, on "Big Brother," Kanye rapped, "I told Jay I did a song with Coldplay/Next thing I know he got a song with Coldplay/Back in my mind, I'm like 'Damn, no way.'")
And a couple of great albumsIn the process of writing this article, I went back and re-listened to the whole Coldplay discography -- yes, this is how I choose to spend my Friday nights.
Like many teenagers growing up in the early '00s, I have fond memories of the band's first two records, Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head, but paid less and less attention to them following the bloated, post-rock excess of 2005's X&Y. It turns out that that was a mistake. After The 40-Year-Old Virgin and X&Y, Coldplay became a sneaky good album band, capable of weaving together songs into cohesive, sometimes silly, invigorating collections.
The band arguably reached its creative peak with Viva La Vida, the Prospekt's March EP, and Mylo Xyloto, a bizarre concept record that's partially inspired by the HBO series The Wire. Those dizzying new heights were reached by taking a page out of the U2 playbook: make an art-rock record with super-producer Brian Eno. It should've been a disaster -- the cover art of Viva La Vida looks like a parody of a self-serious rock band -- but instead these carefully modulated shifts let the band explore shoegaze, prog-rock, house music, and other new directions.
They even discovered their playful side, in their collaborating with Rihanna. If you want to understand why fans still obsess over this band, this era is the place to start.
And some really terrible recordsI'm not going totally crazy here. Coldplay has produced some garbage-ass music, too. About half of A Rush of Blood to the Head is bland piano-rock, X&Y is a bloated mess, and 2014's Ghost Stories is enough to make you wish Bon Iver had stayed locked in his cabin forever. Their newest record, A Head Full of Dreams, is a slight course correction which finds the group teaming up with Norwegian production team Stargate. It's poppy, frothy, and light -- but mostly forgettable.
After prolonged exposure to Coldplay, one thing becomes very clear: Chris Martin is not a good lyricist. His poetic musings about love, loss and Peanuts characters can make Bono seem like Don Delillo. From the first chorus of "Don't Panic," the opening track off Parachutes, Martin was already trafficking in banalities like, "We live in a beautiful world/Yeah we do." It sounds like something that should play over the opening credits of a bad indie movie. (Oh, shit -- it did!)
And then there's the Goop factorLike Coldplay, Gwyneth Paltrow inspires a startling amount of rage in internet comment sections. On one hand, Shakespeare in Love is a pretty fun movie and Contagion is pretty sick, but on the other, the Goopster marrying Chris Martin was a bit like the two most grating honor-roll students from your high school getting together and sending a bulletin to your alumni newsletter about how happy they are -- only the alumni newsletter was an online newsletter about the best 18K gold dumbbells to buy for the holidays.
Oh yeah, and they also named their kid Apple.
Eventually, Gwyneth and Chris broke up, which would seem to have little bearing on whether or not Coldplay sucks, but people will probably bring it up this Sunday anyway, so it's worth remembering. Apparently, Martin is like her brother now, a comment that again plays into Martin's anti-rock-star image, but also shows that he's probably an OK dude and maybe you should just give him a break. And Gwyneth and Apple while you're at it.
So wait, does Coldplay suck or not?You're free to join the Coldplay army, or not. I'm far from the first writer to write a spirited defense or careful consideration of the group's music, and I won't be the last. The quality of their Super Bowl performance will do nothing to change that. Like Phil Collins or the Eagles, Coldplay is destined to be a generational dividing line, an artistic entity that inspired passion in millions while leaving many others shaking their heads in disgust. Even in an era of rampant poptimism, they remain one of the few bands that people don't mind hating on.
For me, any band capable of whipping together a rousing Springsteen-lite piece of electro-pop like this will always have a place on the Spotify playlist in my heart. Coldplay is an often embarrassing band, but they're capable of creating moments of real communal magic on stage, like they did while covering John Lennon's "Imagine" following the recent Paris attacks. In their blandness, they offer a beautiful world of simplicity. Sorry, I don't think that sucks. And, like Chris Martin, I don't care, so go on and tear me apart.
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