Why Does Everyone Hate Coldplay? (And Why They Should Reconsider)

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By Jake Pitre

David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How? How do you know I’m gay?
David: Because you macramed yourself a pair of jean shorts.
Cal: You know how I know you’re gay? You just told me you’re not sleeping with women any more.
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How? Cause you’re gay? And you can tell who other gay people are?
David: You know how I know you’re gay?
Cal: How?
David: You like Coldplay.

With this exchange between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd’s characters in The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2004, the tone was set for the cultural understanding and reaction to Coldplay. As the punchline to this joke, Coldplay is established through implication as effeminate, emotional and generally soft, ready to be mocked and dismissed. This has remained the status quo ever since.

It may seem like a fool’s errand, or at least pretty pointless, to come to the defence of one of the most popular and successful bands of our time, with millions of fans and the record sales, YouTube hits and “conscious uncouplings” to match. Do these rich straight white men really need me to parse the cultural specificity surrounding their unique position and push others to reconsider their music? Probably not, but I find this band fascinating, even if it is more often because of their singular evolution and standing in our culture than the music itself, which ventures regularly between blandly safe and sneakily brilliant. So here we are.

When your band becomes shorthand for soft and “gay” (which, give me a break), what do you do? Coldplay chose to embrace it, laying the bombast on thick and not shying away from deeply emotional lyrics and soaring synth lines. In the process, they chose to not challenge their mass perception and in some ways came out stronger for it. That said, their first album to come out after The 40-Year-Old Virgin was X&Y, likely their worst album to date. The recording of that album was reportedly difficult, with many songs getting scrapped and producers leaving in the middle of production. The result is a more electronic, grandiose sound than on their previous albums, which surprised some fans and mostly fell flat as the band appears to have briefly lost their way. It was all a little desperate, and the band had to do something big for their next act if they wanted to live up to the hype of being “the next U2”.

In 2008, they released Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. Here, the bombast and grandiosity played to their strengths – powerful ballads, vague pretentiousness, deceptively simple songwriting and lyrics. That last point is perhaps most crucial in understanding the mass appeal (and concurrent dismissal) of Coldplay. Chris Martin et al.’s lyrics happen to work in the same way that Ben Gibbard’s do for Death Cab for Cutie, or Lana Del Rey’s, or Tegan and Sara’s. They are highly emotional, a little melodramatic, and they sound very personal but are in fact devoid of anything actually intimate to themselves. The result of this is that anyone can relate to these artists, because the things they sing about are universally identifiable. At the same time, there is a distance between artist and listener that allows the listener to disassociate themselves if they wish to – these are Chris Martin’s confessional words, not mine. Brilliantly, both reactions work in Coldplay’s favour.

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Viva La Vida is unquestionably the band’s best album, their highest achievement in terms of songwriting, sonics, message. It is the perfect combination of their requisite softness and their ambitions of grandiosity and importance, an impeccable marriage between emotion and pomposity. When you consider this album in the band’s discography, it reveals itself to be the purest expression of what Coldplay is, or at least intends to be. This is where they realized how to engage with their strengths, what sets them apart, and to take their cultural perception and blow it up, quite literally. The embracement of their style, or rather the massively understood concept of “Coldplay”, gave them huge sway and left no power in their haters.

That may sound like bullshit, but hear me out. It may be surprising to learn how pervasive this dismissive attitude towards Coldplay has become, even as their success has only grown over time. Coldplay has been the butt of jokes and insults since “Yellow” became a hit. The New York Times called them the “most insufferable band of the decade” in 2005. On Family Guy, Peter gets kicked out of the band: “Guys, guys, I got an idea: how about we do a song that’s not whiny bullcrap?” Chris Martin himself addressed the ubiquity of this attitude towards his band in 2008 by saying, “Like millions of people in the world, I can’t listen to Coldplay.” Yeesh.

I think it is telling, then, that the same year, his band put out Viva La Vida, the most “Coldplay” Coldplay album there is. The lyrics remain as relatable yet obstructively impersonal, but the ambition is much higher and the sound is much grander. It is hard to overstate how important it is for a band to fully embody and seize who they are. It is the same difficulty most people have in accepting themselves as they truly are, instead of coming up with excuses or hiding under illusions. As great as Lady Gaga is, she seems to be perpetually unclear about who she is (although in her case, this makes her an even more captivating figure as we watch her work through this very publicly). When an artist is able to grasp that, which is rare, a more genuine expression can begin to be articulated. Wes Anderson, for example, doubled down this year on his own trademark style, accelerating it like never before and effectively turning out a phenomenal film with The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson, like Coldplay, embraced who he is and what he does so that a more authentically felt product could materialize.

Inevitably, Coldplay has struggled to maintain such a unique perspective and position. Their next album, 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, was a mess wherein they dropped the emotion and softness inherent to themselves while focusing on the bombast and grandeur. Without some of their key components, the band backtracked and lost their clear-sightedness. This month, they released Ghost Stories, their sixth album and a return to the stripped-down version of themselves from Parachutes (albeit with far more synthesizers). They considered it to be a “reset”, a “recalibration”. Drummer Will Champion said, “There’s only so far you can go without becoming pompous and a bit overblown, so we’ll tread that line very carefully.” I would argue that although Ghost Stories is far more successful at following who they are than Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay must keep in mind that they don’t need to reset themselves in order to reach previous heights. As Viva La Vida strongly attests, Coldplay works best when they accept themselves just as they are.

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One thought on “Why Does Everyone Hate Coldplay? (And Why They Should Reconsider)

  1. There’s a lot more wrong with Ghost Stories than just the abundance of synthesizers. Chris could probably go on stage with this album and leave the rest of the band behind. The drums are all canned and there’s very little guitar to speak of. I find myself thinking, what happened?

    I listen to cold play because there is an honesty under all that production. A human touch that gave us tracks like “Fix You”. That’s all missing from Ghost Stories, and the album is poorer for it.

    Great post by the way. Well written and informative.

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