I know I don’t like Coldplay, but I can’t seem to remember why. When “Yellow”, the band’s first big hit, came out in 2000, it quickly became my favorite song to ridicule. It was too sweet, too comforting. It felt like the soundtrack to a car commercial — the kind that features slumbering children and plays up the quality of the vehicle’s airbags.
Subsequent Coldplay releases, full of lush melodies and Chris Martin’s relentless need to sing his feelings, only added fuel to my derisive fire. So I’ve spent the past decade purposefully avoiding them. I don’t listen to their albums. If their songs come on the radio, I change the station. At this point, I can’t remember if I actually dislike Coldplay or if I just think I do.
And so, I decided to try them again. Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay’s fifth album, came out this week. But before experiencing it I wanted to revisit the band’s previous albums to see if I still found them as cloying as I recalled. I listened to Parachutes, A Rush of Blood to the Head, X&Y and Viva la Vida in chronological order. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I tried to experience them in Coldplay-friendly situations: alone in my room (feeling lonely), on the subway (feeling lonely in a crowd), even on an early-morning run through empty city streets (feeling lonely in the world). Then I talked to people who truly love their music. And finally, I tried Mylo Xyloto. Were my Coldplay complaints valid? This is what I discovered:
Coldplay Complaint No. 1: Chris Martin appears to have written every lyric while weeping hysterically.
Martin is a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed British man married to a movie star, but he spends a lot of time expressing the emotions of a pimple-faced loner. Don’t believe me? Check out the following lines and see if you can guess which are Coldplay lyrics and which are from my high school diary:
“I want to live in a wooden house where making more friends would be easy”
“Do you feel like a puzzle, [like] you can’t find your missing piece?”
“I want to love you but I don’t know if I can”
“I know I’m dead on the surface but I am screaming underneath”
“Is there anybody out there who is lost and hurt and lonely too?”
Trick question! They’re all Coldplay. Lyrically, most of the band’s songs rehash the same subject matter over and over again: loneliness; heartache; the overwhelming hugeness of the world. Two different songs off Mylo Xyloto liken things to heaven (“Hurts Like Heaven” and “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall”— three if you count “Paradise” as a type of heaven). None of these topics are unique to Coldplay; in fact, most popular music can be broken down into two categories: songs about being in love and songs about being out of love. But there are interesting, poetic ways to explore human emotion, and then there are lyrics like “[I] stood on the edge, tied a noose / You came along and cut me loose.” “I wonder, how can you be so serious all the time when you’re married to Gwyneth Paltrow?” asks Phil Kinzler, a 36-year old marketing manager from Atlanta.
Kinzler is actually a big fan of Coldplay; so much so that he responded when I put a call out on Twitter for people to defend the band and says he’d willingly give up his “man card” in order to listen to their sensitive songs. “I can see why people are dismissive of them,” he said. “I just find simple beauty in their lyrics.”
Valid or invalid complaint: Valid. These lyrics are weepy as hell.
Coldplay Complaint No. 2: Their songs are designed to be sung in unison by thousands of people holding lighters.
This is a little less easy to dissect because it has to do with the band’s overall sound. Coldplay will start with an elegant melody, then add a soaring guitar part and compound it with momentous percussion at the song’s crescendo followed by any combination of “ohs” and “ooos.” It then repeats that pattern several times until it has created the musical equivalent of a club sandwich that’s too tall to actually eat. This is also known as the U2 effect.
Valid or invalid complaint: Valid for me; invalid for U2 fans
Coldplay Complaint No. 3: I’ve heard this all before.
Every time I listen to a new Coldplay song, I experience a strange case of déjà vu. I’m almost positive that I already know the tune—or at least part of it. Parachutes-era Coldplay sounded a lot like Travis. Viva La Vida racked up a number of “U2-lite” remarks when it came out (for good reason). And on Mylo Xyloto, the opening of “Charlie Brown” keeps reminding me of Yeasayer while the lyric, “Took a car downtown where the lost boys meet” might as well be plucked directly from Arcade Fire. (Coincidentally, Markus Dravs, who co-produced Viva la Vida and Mylo Xyloto, also worked on Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and The Suburbs.)
I don’t mean that Coldplay steals from other groups (though they have been accused of that before too, but so have lots of bands). What I mean is that their sound is very similar to music that’s already out there. So why should I bother to listen to them?
Valid or invalid complaint: It’s a toss up. This might just be a personal problem.
Complaint No. 4: I just don’t understand why people like them
Coldplay is so big that when the band delayed the release of 2005 album X&Y, its record label’s stock actually dropped. They’re so big that they’ve just released a concept album jokingly named after the idea of musical toes (Martin says the word ‘Xyloto’ was originally xylo-toes) and nobody seems to find that ridiculous. Have fans always been that taken in? I spoke with music producer and Gang of Four member Andy Gill (husband of TIME London Bureau Chief Catherine Mayer, by the way), who saw the band play in a London club before they’d even released an album. “There were a lot of fans there who were clearly into it, more so than you’d expect from an unsigned band,” he said. “Chris Martin was a great singer and he had a rapport with the audience. It was very obvious that they were going to do well.”
“They’re highly made fun of cause they’re cheesy, but they seem so genuine,” says Joana Oritz, a 22-year-old student in Austin, Texas. Oritz is a self-described “music snob” and when people ask what her favorite band is, “I really hesitate to say Coldplay, because then people are like, ‘You know all this stuff about music and then you’re going to pick them?’” But she does pick them. Oritz says she loves Coldplay so much that in high school, she used to neglect her homework in favor of watching a live concert DVD of their A Rush of Blood to the Head tour.
Maybe Coldplay is so beloved because the band is genuinely nice. Their songs are sweet, their melodies tugs at your heartstrings (or play your xylo toes, whatever) and Chris Martin seems like someone who, if you met him on the street, might actually care to remember your name. Coldplay may be the current butt of adult-contemporary jokes, but even the most scathing review will wind up complementing its members on their politeness, affability and seeming ignorance of their superstar status. That’s pretty rare for rock ‘n’ roll.
Valid or invalid complaint: Invalid. I think I’m just being a jerk
So maybe I don’t really hate Coldplay. They’re a charming band with pleasant songs and a surprising amount of staying power. “I listened to them in high school for the same reasons that I listen to them now,” says Chris Chu, frontman for indie band The Morning Benders. “There aren’t that many bands I can say that about; most either dwindled into obscurity or stopped making music that I liked.” Chu has a point; Coldplay have been Coldplay-ing for more than a decade and their popularity shows no signs of slowing down.
They’re often called the last big arena rock band, probably because they really are the last big arena rock band—a group through which millions of people can have a shared cultural experience. Officials sales figures won’t be out until next week, but the assumption is that Mylo Xyloto will be one of the year’s top selling albums, right up there with Adele’s 21 and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Coldplay doesn’t push rock boundaries—it doesn’t even gently nudge them. But if this is the status quo, I think I can bear it.