10.25.2011

Coldplay Produces Shallow Pop Music and I Don’t Even Care [But Maybe I'm Starting to]


This post, from a few years ago, is my argument for why you should listen to Coldplay, how despite any conflicts you feel, just go ahead and listen anyway and enjoy yourself. You can read the more negative (or shall I say critical) post: Why Coldplay Will Never Be a Great Band.

On October 24th, 2011 the British band Coldplay released their fifth studio album Mylo Xyloto (pronounced my-lo zy-letoe, for those used to normal English words). I am a longtime fan of this band (more on that in a moment) but after hearing a few of the songs from the forthcoming album, I am quickly becoming disinterested in them altogether. Their new music is...well...uninteresting. Or is it? In what follows I try to work all that out by meditating on Coldplay’s oeuvre in particular and the merits of pop music in general. We will take on this dismantling of Coldplay in two parts: Part 1 will be in more of a story form and Part 2 will focus on specific aspects of their music.

In the winter of early 2001 I had the great fortune of spending three months in England doing ministry work in schools and church youth groups in three English cities (thanks Dave Jane for the opportunity of a lifetime!). Every month we were stationed at a particular church and we would do a bunch of events focused on youth ministry—teaching religious education classes and putting on morning assemblies in the schools, leading worship, preaching, doing skits, and putting on weekly game nights for the church’s youth group. The first month I stayed in Coventry with the Gibbons family and their son Stephen had a pretty decent CD collection. There was a new British band in his collection that he was sure was going to be one of the few to actually find success in America, much like Oasis, Blur, and Radiohead had done a few years before. That band was Coldplay and the album he had me listen to was Parachutes.

I have always been hungry for new and innovative music, but I am not drawn to what is obscure or overly difficult; I have mostly populist tastes. I hope to strike a balance between what is intelligent and pushes boundaries and what can still appeal to the masses. This can range from anything from Bach and Phillip Glass to Sufjan Stevens and Radiohead. While none of the music mentioned in the previous sentence could be considered easy listening, it still appeals (or has the potential to appeal) to a wide range of people.

I purchased a number of CD’s on that trip to England. Other than the many British worship albums I bought that are hard to find in the states, the four CD’s I remember picking up were The Beatles’ compilation 1962-1966, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Travis’ The Man Who, and Coldplay’s Parachutes. As a goodygoody youth group kid at the very end of his teens the purchase of this “secular” music was a sign that I was expanding my horizons. While my peers who joined me on the trip experimented by dabbling in chaste quantities of alcohol, I was only interested in “experimenting” with music (I actually started liking Ladysmith Black Mambazo on this trip, one group that actually did expand my musical horizons). What I did not realize at the time was that all of my musical purchases in England were well within the mainstream Britpop spectrum, even the worship music. All of it was safe and rather innocuous--and in a sense Coldplay represents the apex of this kind of music (although it could be argued that artists like Keane and Matt Kearney are even more squeaky clean).

I did not actually purchase Parachutes until a month after I first heard them when we were stationed in Chesterfield at Zion Church. I remember having our team make a special stop at a Sainsbury’s one morning after doing a school assembly so I could buy it. The youth pastor at the time, Paul Hollingworth (who still works at the church) promised me that if I bought it we could go back to the church and listen to the album on the church’s sound system before lunch. I had heard numerous songs from the album over the course of my first two months in England but I was eager to have my own copy. I have very fond memories sitting in the balcony of the church being blasted away by “Yellow” and “Shiver.” I was and still am a bit of an Anglo-phile and to me this music sounded like the definition of British coolness. On top of that, I took comfort in knowing that I was listening to it long before a vast majority of America would and within the confines of merry-old England at that(!), making my coolness rise even a few more degrees.

In my opinion, Parachutes is still Coldplay’s best album (no matter what Pitchfork says). Of all their albums, the music on Parachutes is trying the least to appeal to the largest swath of people possible. The music is more melancholy and sincerely passionate than on later albums and the abstract indecipherable lyrics (which accompany every Coldplay album) even make them sound a little artistic rather than vague and bland. At the time I didn’t really know what Coldplay were singing about in any of their songs, and to be honest, for the most part I still don’t. But it didn’t really matter back then because I was so taken in by the music. They were in the midst of perfecting for the next generation that stadium-ready rock sound that U2 had taught me to love so much. I didn’t care if “Yellow” didn’t make sense and was probably the most lazy “love” song ever written. It didn’t bother me that “Everything’s Not Lost” was a clichéd attempt to give the fans a little pep talk and make them feel loved by their favorite band whenever they are having a down-in-the-dumps kinds of day (a technique they have used quite frequently since).

None of this mattered on through to their last album, 2008’s Viva La Vida, because it was the music that took me in (although I only liked half of the music on 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head). They consistently produce well-crafted Britpop that plays right into the sweetspot of those of us who like stadium-ready anthems, big hooks, soaring melodies, and just the right touch of sincerity. Coldplay makes the kind of music that causes us feel like the band really cares about us fans and that all they want is for us to have a good time and go away from their concerts feeling uplifted and encouraged--even if it is in that sterile, pseudo-religious, Oprah-like way. For a decade now I have looked past the opacity and (perceived) shallowness of their lyrics because they simply made me feel good and because they are one of the only bands my wife and I continually love listening to together.

But this was until I heard their new singles “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” and “Paradise.” Upon listening to these tracks it was apparent to me that Coldplay have never embraced more of a paint-by-numbers adult contemporary sound. It almost seems like they could be aiming to get played on “family friendly” Christian radio. In preparation for writing this post I have read a number of reviews of old Coldplay albums, and of the reviews that are negative most of them cite their music as mostly forgettable and inoffensive. In the past I have chosen to ignore this tendency in their music, but it is getting to a point where it is now bothering me. As a fan I am beginning to grow weary of the shallowness in their lyrics, and if the music does not draw me in—as their new material does (that is, fails to draw me in)—I simply become uninterested. As I have established by now, lyrical depth has never been a motivation for me in listening to Coldplay, but the constant fluff they keep putting out has left me feeling, well, COLD...

But wait. My Coldplay story does not end here. There was a significant break in time between writing the first and second half of this piece and I have now listened to their new singles numerous times, which have both managed to ear-worm their way into my head (“Paradise” is on cognitive repeat as a write this) to such an extent that it could be said I have been in a Coldplay “mood” for about two weeks now. This can be illustrated by a particular story.

Last week my job (the headmaster of a school) had gotten especially stressful. A pressing number of little fires needed putting out and they all came to a head on Wednesday when I had to deal with a number of discipline problems amongst my students. Towards the end of the day I was talking with a mother and her daughter and son about an incident that had just occurred between them in one of their classes. The little girl had just yelled at her mother—who was also her teacher—and her brother, in his persistence to help, had only made the situation worse. However, even though there was all this present animosity between them, while talking with them I sensed a genuine repentance, a real love between them, and a desire to help. So, while talking to the brother I got overwhelmed by my emotions, started crying, and was unable to talk. All the stress of that week had gotten to me and after I finished talking to them I went into an empty hallway and had a pretty decent cry for a guy of my age. And what music was persistently running through my head as the tears were streaming down my face? The final refrain of Coldplay’s “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”: “every tear, every tear, every teardrop is a waterfall.” Coldplay had done it again! Their music had gotten inside me and even managed to comfort me in a trying moment.

So what I am supposed to do when I end up liking and being positively affected by something I am trying hard not to like? Have I merely fallen prey to the Coldplay songwriting formula or is their earnestness more than a shiny veneer? I want to believe Coldplay cares about me and that they want their music to get me through the tough times of life, but the cynical side of me says that all Chris Martin wants is for me to keep buying his records so that he and Gwyneth can purchase themselves another house on the French Riviera. Should I detach from the somewhat obvious economic proclivities that accompany every mainstream record release and just enjoy the music, allowing myself to be emotionally affected by it?

Man, all these questions are getting pretty heavy. I just need to take a break, eat some lunch, and dream of “para-para-paradise, para-para-paradise, para-para-paradise, oh oh oh oh oh-oh-oh…”
Related Articles:
My 3 Sentence Review of Coldplay's Ghost Stories
Wakeup!—Uncovering Arcade Fire's Grand Narrative

6 comments:

kayla said...

Ok, I'm a big Coldplay fan so:
1. Yellow, I believe, was about his mother dying of cancer. So, that's some deep stuff, and if not deep, then touching.
2. So far I have listened to their more recent albums, Viva la Vida and Mylo Xyloto, more for the musical side and less for the lyrics. But their past albums like you said, are deeper and I often have "Coldplay" days or even weeks.
3. I also have had "Paradise" constantly running through my head this past week.
4. I love the fact that you went to England and first heard them there! Your coolness points did go up. Congrats.
5. Stop worrying about what the musicians do with their money. If you like the music, buy it. You only buy an album once so it's not like you're paying them monthly for their music which you love some days and don't care for on others. If our music tastes didn't change, then life would be pretty boring. There are some days when you just need a good beat to dance to. So if nothing else, think of Coldplay's new album as that. But don't quit liking the band because of one album or one song.
6. I hope I didn't offend in what I wrote here. I've read it again to make sure. Just know I say it in love. haha
7. I'm sorry you were having a bad week, see you Saturday!

Chris said...

These excellent comments come from Stephen Gibbins, who first introduced me to Coldplay. They're very insightful:
Chris, how you doing? Will catch up properly via inbox but whilst you asked I thought it'd be good to respond to your blog.

Very interesting read and I was totally unaware that I'd introduced you to Coldplay. Glad you're still enjoying them and everything English, which I remember so clearly about you. That and the fact you guys were encouraged to eat everything on your plate at guests house, a respect I admired.

Onto your blog and Coldplay. I agree with you on the first part and kind of on the second. Parachutes still is my favourite album, its raw emotion and melodies for me have never been replicated. Yellow is a classic, despite like you say, its apparent confusion lyrics wise. But then again that portrays love, in that you know most of what you want to say but it often communicates in confusion. Spies is just a brilliant song for so many reasons. They have never reached those heights, probably because they purposefully wanted to do new things and push themself. Which leads onto the new album.

I have not purchased it yet due to my uncertainty over the new singles. Every tear drop is a waterfall is ok, I like some of the riffs and the lyrics, although they are lacking substance and almost seem overly metaphorical. But then they released paradise. Admittedly its a catchy chorus but what I do not like is that it is over produced. It's almost like they got an R&B producer in to mix it. The drums sound electric, and there's too much going on away from a 4 piece band.

Ultimately for me, music is enjoyable to listen to if its good live. Having seen them a few times, what makes Coldplay so good is their talent playing live. Viva la Vida lent itself to not having good live tracks and now I fear the new album has gone even more this way. If a live performance is littered with backing tracks, it ruins it for me.

The second aspect which is not great, is the prospect of replicating the song. What I loved about Parachutes is that me and my mates could jam that album and get pretty close. With this new album, we'd need 20 of us plus a computer to get close. Likewise with Christian music. I prefer Jesus Culture because they are a 5 piece and the songs are easier to replicate. Some other lines of Christian music requires 5 lead guitarists and 3 pianists to replicate. I feel Coldplay are venturing too close to pop type recording as opposed to the mainly natural sound of rock.

So ultimately its not that I'm unsure of Coldplay because if the song quality. But more the process by which they record, the amount of layers each song has and how its become far too over produced.

That's my pennies worth upon your request. Look forward to your opinion and any further blogs you write.

Phernandeau said...

Chris - I don't have much to say on the subject - only that Parachutes was my favorite Coldplay record but I don't listen to it much anymore.

I bought Viva La Vida as soon as it came out and listened to it on a plane a couple of times. I was put off by the production (too much production) which seemed to be distracting from the lyrics which weren't very interesting in the final analysis. I have not heard it again though I still own it.

I probably won't buy Xyloto.

A friend of mine in California who is not a huge Coldplay fan somehow ended up with free tickets to a show a few years back. He still says it was the best concert he's ever been to. He's got a good ear for such things.

PS - I cried once when I was teaching high school because I had broken up with my girlfriend. No, I sobbed like an idiot in front of my entire class. They all gathered around me and prayed for me and some of the girls cried with me. I still cringe at the memory.

Chris said...

Kayla, thanks for your comments, you didn't offend me at all. I really like your advice--just relax and enjoy the music. I'll take that with. The only thing I get concerned with is that I music is such a powerful force in my life that I don't like it when people use it to knowingly manipulate people. So, I always think about that stuff when it comes to these massively huge bands that sustain entire record labels and the equivalent population of small Mediterranean country. But your advice is good and I still like Coldplay a lot (Life in Technicolor II is in my head right now). As far as "Yellow" goes, according to Wikipedia their reason for writing it is about as shallow as I might have imagined. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_(song)

Chris said...

Stephen,
yes! You did introduce me to Coldplay and I will never forget it! I remember playing my guitar so much in that back sunroom of your house trying to figure out Switchfoot songs and "Blackbird" by The Beatles. We had a really great month at your place.

I too absolutely love "Yellow." It's the first song of theirs I ever liked. I just think the lyrics are pretty pedestrian, meaning for the most part they sound like they were written by a naive teenager.

I think your complaint about their new music having difficulty being performed in a live setting and how you and your mates can't get together and play it anymore is a good one. I see things a little differently, but I get your point. I think this issue all depends on what we mean by "over-produced," something that Phernandeau hinted at as well. If by "over-produced" you mean too many people messing with the sound, at all kinds of unecessary tracks, and tweaking things until they sound like a perfect radio hit, then I think you have a good point and I definitely think there's good amount of that going on with Coldplay. But if you mean they're merely adding a bunch of tracks (extra vocals, keyboards, electronic percussion, weird electronic noises, etc) I don't mind so much as long as it's creative and makes a good listening experience. I kind of separate out the whole album experience from the concert experience. I see the album as a stand alone work that will exist forever and the concert is an in the moment experience. The problem I think with Coldplay as you've pointed out is that they're a 4 piece band and yet when they're playing live they've got all these other sounds coming from who knows where. Do they have trained monkeys underneath the stage or what? If they're going to have all those sounds then they should be play by real musicians and those musicians should at least be on the stage, even if they're not official members of the band.

I think a good example is Sufjan Stevens who has a little more freedom as a solo artist and who can therefore expand his band to however many people he wants. His last album "The Age of Adz" was all over the map and just crazy sounding. He tried really hard to adapt it for a live setting and he ended up having lots of people on stage in order to accomplish this.

But with all that said, I think you've brought up some good points.

Chris said...

Phernandeau,
thanks for sharing your memory. I cringe with you! I hope you're not offended that it gave me a good laugh. Throughout my experiences in working with young people I have been embarassed numerous times myself.

I saw Coldplay live once and it was a really good show. It was hard to get a good feel of the sound because we were pretty close to the stage.

You know, I think their lyrics are a problem. I don't think they've dug deeply enough, I don't think they have a good refining process, and I think they try too hard to be universal and end up saying close to nothing a good portion of the time. I'll have more to say on this in an upcoming blog.