In Defense of Coldplay

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with some of my students, seniors in a small, rural Texas high school, about what we were listening to. “Mylo Xyloto, the new Coldplay album,” I said, in answer to the question, What’s playing in your car?

Coldplay?” asked an outspoken girl on the front row. “I’ve never heard of them.”

I laughed, a bit incredulous. “You’ve never heard of Coldplay, for real? They’re quite big.”

“Can’t be that big if I’ve never heard of ‘em,” she retorted saucily.

“Uh, multi-platinum albums, sold-out global tours, Grammy awards, magazine covers,” I ticked off. I didn’t mention the names of those albums, nor some of my favorite tunes from the LPs – “Everything’s Not Lost” from Parachutes (2000), “The Scientist” from A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002), partly because I can play it on the guitar, “Kingdom Come” from X&Y (2005), “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love” from Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008) and “Charlie Brown” from Mylo Xyloto (2011), but I should have!

“Hmmm,” she said suspiciously, not believing that such a group actually existed.

Another student stepped in to translate for me. He turned to his classmate and said, “They’re like the Usher of Europe.”

Now I was belly laughing. Of all the descriptions of one of Britain’s favorite exports, I wasn’t expecting that one. Let me quickly point out that the band did initially name itself Pectoralz back in 1996, and had they kept that awful moniker, I wouldn’t be writing this column, for such a stupid band name is beyond defense. But the men who then called themselves Starfish before settling on Coldplay worked at it – it being their songs, their name, their collective persona, the whole kit and kaboodle, so Usher’s silky dancing and singing skillz notwithstanding, this super group is definitely bigger than one handsome American R&B crooner. Coldplay is a band described by its fans as a worthy successor to U2′s stadium legacy, but dismissed by its detractors as pandering and derivative.

Journalist Andy Gill happily owns up to being one of the haters. In this “Why I Hate Coldplay” piece, he made such comments as, “Coldplay have become one of those definitive cultural dividers, the twain of which shall never meet. They’re sort of the anti-Sex Pistols, an act that repulses not through outrage, bad manners and poor grooming, but through their inoffensive niceness and emollient personableness.” He also points out that he especially dislikes “the disingenuous empathy of lines like, “Is there anybody out there who is lost and hurt and lonely, too?” … lines feeding off the soul-carrion of the insecure and lonely while offering no solutions, merely crumbs of solace expanded to wedding-cake size by the musical monumentalism.” Gill’s piece describes the band as “bogus,” “mawkish,” “smug” and “bland.” He even accuses Chris Martin & Co. of wrecking the rest of England’s musicians: “it seems as if an entire generation of UK indie bands has been blighted by their slavish adoption of the Coldplay formula, with would-be anthemic hooks and choruses, gushing affectations of maudlin sincerity, and the sort of deracinated, wholefood ‘n’ soymilk attitudes that are steadily strangling the life out of rock’n'roll.”

So, um, yeah. Not a fan.

But me? I’m a big-hearted, album-buying, unabashed Coldplay fan, which is pretty much necessary at this point in the band’s wildly successful career, especially if I hope to hold on to my claim to having taste. The backlash is there, not all of it undeserved, so those of who dig the smooth, earnest, bright high notes that help to constitute the band’s signature sound have to stand and be counted. I might mention at this point that such a demonstration of support would be globally huge. The fans love, love, love these guys. The stadiums fill up for this group and its dancing roadies.

I should also add that I stood to be counted back in 2009 when I saw them live in Houston (at the same theater where I had seen Radiohead a few years earlier). This might also be the place to mention that I spent $120 for my Coldplay ticket. I know! And yes, I went alone, though I was joined by thousands of glowing Houstonians of every possible size, age, ethnicity, income bracket, gender and fashion style. And the craziest part of this ‘just got divorced’ gift to myself was that the night was worth every single freaking dime. How can a band provide $120 worth of amazing life, love and the pursuit of happiness? Um, shall I count the ways? The giant yellow balloon-balls that descended during “Yellow” so that audience members could play ad hoc volleyball with each other. The million+ tissue paper butterflies that fluttered onto our heads during the finale of “Death and All His Friends.” The tape on Chris Martin’s fingers or his almost manic, indefatigable dancing/singing/crazy fun playing/strumming/moonwalking. At the midway point, I was up on the arms of my chair (yeah, $120 included a cushioned chair under a ceiling fan) hollering “Fix You” so loudly that guy next to me looked uncomfortable. Hey dude, we’re at a Coldplay concert! The music was yes!

So why do some people love to hate ‘em so much? I mean a band as big as Coldplay doesn’t need defenders, does it? There are plenty of bands who play music that is less interesting, less musical, less polished, less pleasing. There are plenty of big name performers who don’t write their own tunes or play their own instruments, let alone generate their own typhoon-like energy swirls on stage, so what gives with the disdain? Maybe it’s this sense that Coldplay should just fess up to being total corporate sell-outs. Gill’s comment that “Their music sounds like Radiohead with all the spiky, difficult, interesting bits boiled out of it, resulting in something with the sonic consistency of wilted spinach” is interesting, though not quite accurate, and I say that as a Thom Yorke-digging, Kid A-adoring, less-expensive-than-$120-but-ticket-buying-nonetheless Radiohead fan.

It seems to annoy people that Coldplay has any measure of indie cred when clearly it’s anything but under the radar. It annoys them that Coldplay has the reputation of being emotionally deep when clearly, the guys in the band are radiating happy sunshine. They aren’t tortured, yet they wear Napoleonic garb in some military nostalgic costuming orgy. They act like they’ve got something important to say when really they peddle recycled pablum with anthemic choruses that please the masses, allege Gill and his ilk. Is this disconnect between reputation and reality what irks the haters? Or is it the wide smiles on the faces of the fans?

There is a whiff of the band wanting to shine a light, something vaguely motivational speaker-ish, yes. I don’t deny that. Martin probably does exist on a higher, more Gwyneth Paltrow-y plane than I do. Does Coldplay think it’s better than us though? Does Coldplay think it’s happier or better adjusted or better looking? Maybe. Do the guys think they have something to teach us? Heaven forbid. (Or should I say “Hurts Like Heaven” forbid?) Do they really think they are all that? And if so, well, how dare they, some spew. p.s. they are all that, and yeah, they do dare!

Here’s the deal. If I want edgy, I’ll go somewhere else -Deer Tick, maybe, or Deerhunter. If I want falling down broken-spirited, I can listen to Elliot Smith or Mary Margaret O’Hara. If I want full-bodied, there’s TV on the Radio or The National. If I want to listen to a lead singer with a less than superficially beautiful voice, pass that stack of Wilco CDs or turn on Aimee Mann. If I want spare, give me Iron & Wine. If I want pointy, I’ll put in Okkervil River. If I want inventive and quirky, Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens have got my back. If I want British that no one fully appreciates but should have, I’ve got my Kate Bush records. And so on …

Sometimes “The Hardest Part” of being a Coldplay fan is having the courage to look the snarkers in the eye and admit that vanilla is delicious. That the band tastes like “A Glass of Water” on a thirsty day. So when I’m in the mood for albums that hold together in all the colors of the rainbow, with choruses that swell, with hooks I can sing along to, with jangly guitars and satisfying bass lines, with just enough complexity to make me listen again, but enough simplicity that I can sink into a relaxed aural zone, with notes that are damn pretty sung and played by sweet-faced Brits, well, I know what to play. Coldplay.