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…”
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