Circle May 19 on your calendar. That’s the day British megaband Coldplay will officially return from wherever it hibernates when it isn’t promoting an album and begin, yet again, to promote an album. This one is called Ghost Stories. The first two singles, “Magic” and “Midnight,” have already materialized online. Next up: magazine covers, late-night TV, the requisite stadium tour. Singer Chris Martin will appear as a “key advisor” on The Voice, where he will presumably show contestants how to add at least one falsetto part to every song. Global ubiquity will ensue.
Not incidentally, May 19 is also the day Serious Music Fans will remember that they’re supposed to hate Coldplay and rush to the Internet, the airwaves, and the local pub circuit to remind the rest of us how vast and all-consuming their hatred is. Yet again.
It’s only March and the bile is bubbling up already. Here are a few comments from a recent Guardian story about the band: “The epitome of fucking blandness.” “Banal ditties with no balls.” “Dreary old farts.” “Music for people who don’t like music.” “Dull as dishwater.”
Or as pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman once put it, “Coldplay is absolutely the shittiest fucking band I’ve ever heard in my entire fucking life.”
Why is Coldplay widely considered so detestable? And do they really deserve to be? In a certain sense, I’ve been pondering these questions for years, although never systematically and never out loud, because among my friends and acquaintances—the sort of people who pride themselves on their exquisite taste in music—it was always an established fact, tacitly agreed upon and taken for granted, that Coldplay wasn’t really worth discussing, let alone liking.
But here’s the thing: I always kind of liked them. I liked their melodies. I liked their ambition. I liked Chris Martin’s voice, warm and rich and crackling as a bonfire in winter. And when I got the opportunity last weekend to see them premiere Ghost Stories live on a Los Angeles soundstage for a tiny crowd of 800 people, I took it. I liked that, too. (Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow had yet to announce their impending divorce at that point, but you could sense in the tone of the new songs [heartbroken] and in the way they interacted at the after party [awkwardly, with Martin mostly talking to another woman and only occasionally, tentatively touching Paltrow’s back] that all might not be well.) Anyway, by the time the show ended I’d decided to stop referring to Coldplay as a “guilty pleasure” or something I have “a soft spot for” and finally admit that I’m a fan.
Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out why that was so difficult to do. Why it feels so blasphemous. Why so many people are so eager to flaunt their musical bona fides by loathing Coldplay. And what all of this says about how we approach popular music today.
I think I have some answers.
The first thing to realize is that people don’t simply despise Coldplay. They feel threatened by them. I understand that this sounds kind of batty; Coldplay is “a band whose very name has long been synonymous with all that is safe and blandly sentimentalist in contemporary pop,” as Spin critic Philip Sherburne recently put it. “Threatening,” in other words, is the last adjective that comes to mind when you think of Chris Martin strumming an acoustic guitar and singing about all the stars and how they shine for you.
But bear with me. Coldplay is clearly doing something right. They’ve been a world-famous working band since releasing the single “Yellow” 14 years ago. That’s twice as long as The Beatles. They’ve sold more than 70 million records worldwide, making them by far the most popular guitar-based group to emerge since the turn of the century. And they’re the last such group to score a Billboard #1 single (2008’s “Viva La Vida”). The bottom line is that they’re connecting with a lot of listeners, again and again, on a pretty visceral level.
If Coldplay weren’t insanely popular, no one would care enough to hate them. That much is obvious. But the problem with Coldplay’s popularity, at least for the haters, is more complicated than that. The problem is that they—and they alone among the most successful musical acts of the 2000s—look and feel like an elite alternative rock band. They write their own songs. They play their own instruments. They work with experimental producers (Brian Eno, Jon Hopkins). They commission album covers from respected contemporary artists. They’re even British. Structurally, Coldplay is a lot more like Radiohead than, say, Katy Perry.
Yet they don’t act like an alternative rock band at all. The one thing uniting all alternative rock bands is that they’re not primarily concerned with pleasing their audience. They’re far too busy following their own muse; you can follow along if you like. That independence—often described, not quite accurately, as integrity—is a big part of their appeal.
Coldplay, on the other hand, seems to care about nothing but pleasing its audience. They write universal lyrics about mankind’s most universal experiences: love, devotion, betrayal, heartbreak. They craft melodies that mirror those experiences, swooping and soaring and begging you to sing along. They incorporate the trendiest sounds into their songs—The XX (“Magic”), Bon Iver (“Midnight”), Kraftwerk (“Talk”), Rihanna (“Princess of China”)—but never stray all that far from anyone’s comfort zone. They appear on The Voice. They say thank you constantly. They apologize. They might be the most ingratiating band in the world.
This disconnect causes a lot of cognitive dissonance. Coldplay’s ostensible genre, alternative rock, is intrinsically cool—not cool in the high-school sense, but cool in the way that Lou Reed or Miles Davis was cool. Aloof. Reserved. Audacious. Ironic. Calm. Rebellious. Coldplay, meanwhile, is not this kind of cool at all. They are its opposite. (Chris Martin, by the way, is very, very aware of this, which is even more proof that he is uncool.)
And that’s why Coldplay is so threatening. They’re sheep in wolves’ clothing. We tend to use popular culture to decipher our own lives; when we feel the need to publically, vocally hate a band—as opposed to just disliking a band—what we’re really doing is using that band to convey our personality and perspective to other people. Coldplay seems to be one kind of band—the kind of band many Coldplay haters might actually like—but in reality it’s not. So the need to insist that Actually, no, I’m not the sort of person who would like Coldplay is more pressing than it would be with an act like, say, Nickelback, where it’s just obvious. The result is that every few years Serious Music Fans feel compelled to clear up any confusion and define themselves by disparaging Coldplay, usually for failing to adhere to some alt-rock ethos the band never claimed to adhere to. Coldplay is not edgy, ergo I am edgy. Coldplay is not adventurous, ergo I am adventurous. Coldplay is sentimental, ergo I am not sentimental. And so on. Hating Coldplay is a simple way to make sure that no one mistakes you for the sort of person who is both easy and eager to please, who cares what other people think, and who is not all that challenging himself. The sort of person, in short, who might be considered uncool.
If you decontextualize Coldplay, however—if you start to listen to them as the pure pop group they aspire to be rather than the alternative rock band they appear to be— all of the ire starts to seem wildly disproportionate. Case in point: the show last Saturday night. The new album, played in full for the first time, struck me as one of the finest pop releases so far this year. (It also struck me, even before I heard about Martin’s impending divorce, as an obvious breakup album.) Opener “Always in My Head” was a dreamy lost-love song with a chiming, circular guitar line—the perfect slow dance for Prom 2014. “Magic” and “Midnight” were both excellent as well, replacing stadium bombast with a newfound sense of simplicity and restraint. The daft, ecstatic EDM stomper “A Sky Full of Stars,” meanwhile, seemed destined for club ubiquity. Best of all was “True Love,” which married Coldplay’s loveliest melody to date—a vertiginous, asymmetrical, absolutely exquisite piece of writing—to a soul-baring set of lyrics by Martin. “Say that you love me,” he pleaded again and again, presumably to Paltrow. “If you don’t, lie to me.” These songs weren’t created to compete with Animal Collective’s or The Knife’s in the integrity sweepstakes; they were designed, like Rihanna’s and Lady Gaga’s, to activate our brain’s primordial dopamine pathways as quickly and painlessly as possible. That Coldplay (a real, live band) is able to reach these reptilian pop pleasure centers without the help of professional songwriters or backing musicians is a rare (and rather admirable) feat these days.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that everyone has to like Coldplay. Music is a primal, subjective thing, and if Ghost Stories doesn’t do it for you, that’s totally fine. Even so, perhaps the time has come for all of us to acknowledge that hating Coldplay with the fire of a thousand suns—hating any band, really—is ultimately kind of narcissistic: a tic that probably has more to do with the haters than with the band they despise.
Even Chuck Klosterman has realized this. In his latest book, I Wear the Black Hat, Klosterman admits that he was “hating Coldplay in order to avoid hating myself.” His new attitude toward the band seems healthier. “‘Hate’ and ‘Love’ aren’t opposites,” Klosterman told Rolling Stone last year. “The opposite of ‘Love’ is ‘Indifferent.’ So if you actually hate something, it actually means you have a pretty deep emotional investment with what that expression means. Like if you hate the Red Hot Chili Peppers or you really hate The Doors or whatever, you’re really doing this for other people.” And what could be less cool than that?