Landmarks in Cultural Criticism: Coldplay

More than six years ago, John Parles penned “The Case Against Coldplay” for the New York Times. I don’t disagree with anything he says. In the intervening half-decade of music-for-moms-who-shop-at-Target, Coldplay has only grown more into the band whose sound is bigger than its ideas.

But I think Parles takes Coldplay too seriously, even on the terms the band establishes for itself. There has always been a characteristically English schoolboy cheekiness to Coldplay that its claimed ancestors (U2 most obviously, but also Wings, REM, Oasis, even a-ha) never really had. Make Trade Fair advocacy aside, Chris Martin isn’t self-serious in the way Bono and Noel Gallagher are. So it strikes me as a misstep to criticize his band by those standards.

That’s why my preferred landmarks in cultural criticism are Sasha Frere-Jones’s self-aware list of Cold play pros and cons and Amanda Dobbins’s fanciful imagining of the narrative spanning the band’s latest album, Mylo Xyloto. Both cover the same terrain as Parles – the distance between Coldplay’s “bigness” (in both sound and sales) and its inability to fill the stage it sets for itself – without resorting to the standards of “very serious rock criticism” for what is essentially a band your mom likes.

What both highlight is Martin’s fundamentally poor songwriting. The big sound of the opening arpeggios of “Clocks” is wonderful; the lines that follow (“Tides that I tried to swim against / Brought me down to my knees”) are trite and non-specific. They apply to everyone and no one at the same time. They wouldn’t sound out of place in a high school poetry class. The best pop songwriting – the best writing in general – takes the specific and expands it. “Where the Streets Have No Name” makes Belfast an existential battleground. “Nightswimming” makes a teenage vignette into a mournful lament. Even something as Top-40 friendly as Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is rooted in a concrete, almost tactile sensibility. Chris Martin’s lyrics go the opposite way, trying to begin with the abstractions and cram them into whatever vessels will fit them. It’s why they always sound better when recontextualized, whether by a choir of schoolkids or an old man on a respirator. New voices make the music about something in a way the lyrics themselves are not.

That’s why Dobbins’s imagined narrative is so wonderful. Given the insistent vagueness of Martin’s writing, her story is almost plausible. Frere-Jones gets at the same idea when he refers to “Coldplay’s inability to inhabit their time in any convincing way.” They’re the band that wants to capture the zeitgeist without watching the news or talking to people on the street.

Frere-Jones ends by saying Coldplay just love a parade, even when its confetti is unearned. I’m not sure that’s the right tack. Pop music is nothing if not the respite of confetti for confetti’s sake. Coldplay fails because they want to spend an album telling you how great the party was without ever saying who was there or what happened.

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