Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In Defense Of Coldplay

Until Coldplay sold 20 million records, they never particularly bothered anybody - critics who thought them a bland and pasty concoction couldn't think of any particularly compelling reasons why they were any worse than Travis or Ocean Colour Scene or a thousand other inoffensively tunerful, scrupulously non-innovative British imports, and were generally content to let them collect Perfect Single awards for "Yellow." But then A Rush Of Blood To The Head went way beyond platinum, and it became clear that what was acceptable in moderate obscurity would no longer be tolerated if it was famous.

Let's be perfectly clear about this: I like tuneful, middling, big-chorus balladry. I think Travis's The Man Who is a near-perfect mope-fest, enjoy the swing-for-the-rafters anthems of Embrace, and generally like Britpop and its unexceptional holdovers. If the entire American indie nation is suddenly going to embrace an ambitiously emotional but unexceptional-in-songwriting outfit like The Arcade Fire, the least I can do is be allowed to guiltlessly like mildly sugary hooks. The general British self-flagellation about the Britpop era (exemplified in the NME's sneering coverage of anyone aspiring to hearken back to that era, presumably to make up for all the time they spent fellating the Gallaghers) is, I think, undeserved.

And, within that tradition, I like Coldplay fine. They're lyrically mediocre, exceptionally tuneful, and they make music for love-lorn high-schoolers. I used to listen to "The Scientist" and "Clocks" over and over back-to-back throughout 11th grade, and there's nothing wrong with that. But apparently, Coldplay's status as angsty Brits with guitars means endless comparisons they can't live up to: Slate seems hell-bent on irrelevant comparisons to Radiohead. In a bizarre attack on Salon, Brendan O'Neill attacks the band for being "upper middle-class kids who mean well, don't drink or do drugs or even smoke" and perpetuates the myth that popular music can only come from self-destructive excess and hedonism (he even chides the Libertines' Pete Doherty for wanting to quit heroin, rather than crowing about its glories), which seems to miss the point, musical or otherwise. In his infamous hack job in The New York Times about "the most insufferable band of the decade," Jon Pareles was so incensed that he accused them of spawning a mawkish, mediocre-ballad "generation of one-word bands - Athlete, Embrace, Keane, Starsailor, Travis and Aqualung among them," forgetting that Travis way predated Coldplay, and that the latter were actually accused of ripping off the former when they first showed up.

Comparisons to Radiohead have always missed the point: they're both British and depressive and wield guitars, but Radiohead is tense and spiky, frequently hookless, obsessed with texture, and generally far more ambitious not only in their methods, but in their goals. Coldplay just wants to soothe you, and the fact that they both started from the same template is fairly irrelevant. Blaming Coldplay for being polite seems pointless and irrelevant.

The only two legitimate complaints against Coldplay are that their lyrics suck and they're predictable. Both are undeniable; X&Y is a virtual compendium of cliches and trite rhymes ("Are you lost or incomplete/Do you feel like a puzzle/you can't find your missing piece"), when it's not being bizarrely overwrought (as on lead single "Speed Of Sound," which bizarrely, and in defiance of physics, insists that birds travel at the titular velocity), and Coldplay never met a predictably soothing chord change they couldn't use. Which means a lot of people are sincerely bored by Coldplay, and that's OK; there's certainly room to find their success inexplicable. What it doesn't do is explain the virulence of the attacks.

Obviously, part of it is that Coldplay is massively successful, and anyone whose livelihood involves writing about music gets annoyed when their pet bands remain unpatronized while a seemingly bland, unworthy outfit achieves undeserved fame. But the main issue, I think, is that people are threatened by said success and what it means, because X&Y - while ridiculously overlong at 62 minutes, weighed down by songs that continuously hover around the 5-minute mark, and relentlessly monochromatic - really isn't that much worse than A Rush Of Blood To The Head. It's musical comfort food, and nothing more or less. It's just that there's more at stake now that the band is successful.

Maybe what critics find so offensive is that the band isn't stupid. All the songs are carefully crafted, and the super-expensive production centers on making the band sound futuristic and ethereal; it claims the innovations of Brian Eno (who shows up to provide some extra synths at one point) without his ambitions, and that means that something once outsider-ish and vaguely transgressive is now so mainstream as to be on soft-rock radio, and that must surely bother early Eno adopters. On "Talk," Coldplay cop a Kraftwerk riff and change that band's chilly innovation into, as Alexis Petridis acutely observes, change a "twinkly, synthetic hook" into "a portentous, echo-laden, pained-expression guitar riff." How dare Coldplay take an innovatively inhuman band's material for their banal, sentimental ends! etc.

And yet. When you're done sneering at the band's sentimental ambitions, lyrical ineptitude, et al., you can't fault them for not meaning it. Even in the face of overwhelming fortune, Chris Martin remains immaculately depressed and worried: worried about losing love, of seeming weak, etc. And he and the band have taken the time and trouble to cook up songs with enough hooks and atmosphere to back it up: mundane, yes, but pleasant. (Special props go to the organ arrangements on "Fix You.") While there are no welcome surprises like Rush Of Blood's twangy "Green Eyes," the band works very hard to be good at what they do. And they are.

And the truth is, I like Coldplay, and I'm not sure why I have to be so defensive about it. Are they more offensive than most charting bands? Hardly. Sure, I'd love it if The Wrens suddenly became platinum-selling superstars, but in the meantime I'll settle for this on the charts: pleasant, carefully-tuned mopery from someone who cares. Sometimes, you need that.


Blogger Emmanuel said...

I found your post via Technorati. Right on, mate! Coldplay is tuneful and tasteful. Some people mistake their generic lyrics for songwriting ineptitude. Not so, I say. That so many people can relate to Coldplay's lyrics is a sign of the band's ability to connect with modern audiences. In terms of songcraft, Coldplay is hard to beat.

8:28 AM  
Blogger I escaped from Alpha 60 said...

I know that I am a little late in reading this but thank you for your thoughtful and sensitive reading of Coldplay! I found your link to this via the House Next Door and your "Viva la Vida" review. However, I think that there is a lot to be said for the vitriolic disdain for the band in question. People are more cynical nowadays than the ever were, possibly in connection with our current administration and a deviation from humanism and a focus on greed and, if not that, apathy. Coldplay is a band that engages us/reminds us about potent human emotions. For all of "X&Y"s overblown tendencies and overextended songwriting, it is a record that is important because it shows that a humble and subtle band can incorporate the legacies of Radiohead, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno's production work, etc. There's no need to apologize for the fact that their music is easy to listen to! U2 (I think their strongest muse as of late), could be played in the dentist's office too, but that doesn't compromise their achievements or their art. Despite Chris Martin's lyrical platitudes, he is a man carrying the burden of not wanting to sing about the apocalypse. That's why we have "Kid A". Why so many hateful critics don't think these two can co-exist, is a sign of something far more complicated in our times.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:31 PM  

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