On Monday night, a natural disaster unleashed a man-made atrocity.
It was a perfect storm—had British rockers Coldplay not been scheduled to perform in Houston during the lead-up to Hurricane Harvey, then their concert would not have been postponed. Had the concert not been postponed, causing the band to be tangentially affected by the calamity, then Chris Martin and his crew probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to write and dedicate a song to Houston. Had the band members not been raised on “loving country music,” as Martin has claimed, then maybe the resulting track wouldn’t have been so… hard to listen to.
To their credit, the band premiered this special tribute at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium by promising, “We'll never play this again.” Martin continued, “It’s a once-off and it’s called ‘Houston.’ We’re gonna sing it in Miami for everybody here, and we’re gonna send it over there to everyone who missed the show.”
The band’s heart is clearly in the right place, and their first instinct was good—if there’s one thing tired, long-suffering Houstonians could use now, it’s a good laugh. Country Coldplay sounds a little bit like an Elvis Presley impersonator, and knows roughly one fact about the city of Houston: “I'm dreamin’ of when I get back to Houston, / I’m dreamin’ of that very special place, / I’m dreamin’ of when Houston has no problems, / In that city where they send you into space, / I’m dreamin’ of when I get/back to Texas, / Corpus Christi, Harris County, Galveston, / There's a harmony that bonds down there in Houston, / Oh, Houston, you got to keep on keepin’ on.”
Because Coldplay is a fairly controversial band that’s faced a lot of backlash, and also has tenuous ties to Texas/America, their disaster-inspired ditty is just asking to be made fun of. Jokes like: hasn’t Houston already suffered through enough? Or: Coldplay’s Hurricane Harvey tribute song makes a powerful case for solving climate change. If any other band—say, a band that actually hails from Houston—had performed a country song in the wake of Harvey, it probably would have gone over a little better. But Coldplay, which is a few reputational blows short of Nickelback status, isn’t just any band. The British collective is a mainstream barometer of bad taste. In fact, the number of Coldplay songs a stranger can immediately recall will tell you everything you need to know about that person; if the list is longer than “The Scientist” and “Yellow,” it’s time to consciously uncouple from the conversation. Now, in addition to plagiarism allegations and GOOP adjacency, cynics can mock Coldplay for their country ballad response to a national crisis.
The problem here isn’t Coldplay’s urge to speak out in the wake of the tragedy—it’s their earnest belief that an outsider’s country homage would mean more to the people of Houston than, say, a charitable donation. So far, artists with actual affiliations to the Texan metropolis have responded with necessary monetary support. Houston’s own Beyoncé is working with her philanthropic initiative, BeyGOOD, “To implement a plan to help as many as we can.” Drake, a man who very much appreciates Houston culture, wrote a heartfelt Instagram post on Monday, explaining, “We are currently overseas in London, and all I can think about is how devastated I am as I look at images of the damage Hurricane Harvey has caused. I am praying for the safety of all those affected.” The rapper continued, “Houston has truly been a home to me over the last 8 years. Myself and (Future the Prince) are working with local relief groups to aid and assist the people of Texas in any way we can and in the most immediate way possible…I encourage everyone to do what they can to assist the people of Texas knowing whatever effort you can make to help will go a long way.” Actor Kevin Hart has challenged a number of his famous friends to contribute to a relief effort fund—and the Kardashians responded with an above and beyond pledge of $500,000, to be split between the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.
Celebrities have a long history of speaking out during times of great misfortune or unrest, and social media has only made it easier to send condolences or express outrage at the click of a button. Unfortunately, unlike the rich and unattractive, stars are always looking for a creative outlet for their concern. Whereas a regular billionaire might just donate to the Red Cross, artists like Coldplay opted for the knee-jerk reaction of lending their art to the cause. It’s this urge to self-express that drove Kathy Griffin to pose with the fake severed head of the President of the United States instead of just donating to the ACLU and having a good cry like the rest of us.
Coldplay’s Houston track joins a long list of bad songs resulting from celebrities’ best intentions. These efforts range from cheesy to overly self-congratulatory to ill-informed to all of the above; the standouts of the genre (“We Are The World,” “Voices That Care,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) jam together dozens of celebrities with the goal of raising awareness for various political issues and global tragedies. These lofty aims almost always fall short, resulting in inadvertent hilarity like Sting shouting out “the bitter sting” of Ethiopians’ tears, or Fred Durst free-styling about the HIV/AIDs crisis. But the real humor is in the sincerity of these tracks, and the celebrities who appear convinced that their harmonizing has the power to take on famine and de-escalate inner city gang violence. It seems like every tragedy (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, starving African children) has its own star-studded music video. As recently as this summer, Simon Cowell got a gaggle of his famous friends together to record a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” donating profits to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Of course, today’s charity singles, while self-satisfied and schmaltzy as ever, are nowhere near as offensive as their predecessors (thanks a lot, P.C. police). Take Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, a textbook example of well-meaning celebrities coming together in total ignorance. Dedicated to combating the Ethiopian famine, this 1984 record mostly just spread harmful stereotypes about Africa. Choice lyrics include, “And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time / The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life (Oooh) / Where nothing ever grows / No rain or rivers flow / Do they know it's Christmas time at all?” Even more remarkably, someone thought it would be a good idea to dust off this charity single in 2014 as a response to the Ebola epidemic. The intervening decades had not been kind to the song’s cliché, melodramatic lyrics, which a British Ebola survivor in Sierra Leone described as “cringeworthy” and “a bit much.”
“Stuff about ‘do they know it’s Christmas’? It’s just like, actually people live normal lives here and do normal things,” he explained. “It’s Africa, not another planet.” Hopefully, Coldplay’s Hurricane Harvey tribute won’t be similarly reprised in another thirty years.