After the release of Coldplay’s third album, X & Y, in 2005, New York Times reviewer Jon Pareles called the British quartet “the most insufferable band of the decade.” In case you missed it, folks, the most odious band in the world to this erudite asshole is not Chumbawamba, nor is it Aqua, nor even Puddle of Mudd. After trudging through the Times’ review, and virtually every other bad review I could find of Coldplay, I was able to sum up why the band is, apparently, just plain awful.
1. Chris Martin uses a falsetto, girly voice.
2. Chris Martin is a bad songwriter.
3. The band isn’t original.
4. The band sells a lot of records.
5. The band is predictable.
In my daytime job working in the arts field, I have come across some brilliant people. Top among them is a Juilliard professor named Eric Booth who wrote a book called The Everyday Work of Art. The premise behind the book is that every waking moment is rich and full in artistic creation, from the way we tell a story to the PowerPoint presentation we must craft for work. The magnificence of art can’t just be confined to Mozart and Michelangelo, because, as Booth puts it, “When we assume that the work of art exists only in these isolated peaks, we shrug off our birthright.” What Booth means by “our birthright” is that we were born to be creative individuals, and this takes various shapes, forms, and processes.
If you were to take the myriad reasons that critics clean the floor with Coldplay and evaluate those claims independently, they might have a point. Maybe Coldplay isn’t original. Maybe they are predictable. But Coldplay, like any band, works through various tools. Every single tool might be bad or wrong, but together it works.
Take, for instance, the aggrandized dismissal of Martin’s songwriting. Martin isn’t a lyricist equal to Neil Young or Bob Dylan. In fact, his lyrics sound like a freshman’s first assignment in poetry class. In Coldplay’s hit song “The Scientist,” Martin laments “Nobody said it was easy/No one ever said it would be so hard.” His meaning is simple, the preceding rhyme (“It’s a shame for us to part”) is predictable, and it reeks of love-sick sentimentality. But, combined with Martin’s convincing gentleness, the doo-wop-reminiscent coos in the background, and haunting, constant backing of piano bangs, the parts synthesize into a poignant, moving whole. The work itself, evaluated and picked apart like a Thanksgiving turkey, is bad. But heard as an everyday work of art, it’s beautiful.
There’s something laudable and, contrary to belief, original about Coldplay’s desire to not only express their creativity and their oft-mocked bleeding hearts, but to improve the process and revel in the music. After the New York Times’ scathing review, Coldplay ditched producer Ken Nelson and recruited the über-cool Brian Eno to produce Viva La Vida. Of the Times review, Martin said “I agreed with a lot of the points ... so, in a way, it was liberating to see that someone else realized that also. And there is something glamorous to me in taking a bit of a beating and keeping on going.”
And keep going they did. Viva La Vida was an artistic creation in part because it was a drastic improvement from X & Y, and a return to the quality of their first two albums, Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head. Viva La Vida is Coldplay after a shower, cleaned of the day’s dried sweat and smelling sweet and rife with potential. And nothing could bother the critics more. As the Wordsworth Media Blog explains, “To critics, the idea of a band like Coldplay becoming successful is troubling because it destroys their roles as gatekeepers.”
Music critics are disgusted and aghast that anyone who isn’t creating high-art — whatever the hell that means — is well-liked. But if we go back to the “Why Coldplay sucks” list above, you’ll notice that only two of the complaints are about music at all. The predominant indictments of Coldplay are that they are too similar to everyone else; predictable sound-alikes with the capacity to sell out a stadium, despite the bad lyrics and feminine vocals. (Don’t get me started on the blatant sexism/homophobia of that criticism.)
Music criticism has become a filthy, disgusting monster that tells you what is art and when it’s art and eats your face if you disagree. The criticism has gone from discussing what is good and bad about a band to creating two categories of bands — good and bad. Groups like Coldplay, working artists who are defining and perfecting their craft as they go, have become fodder for any jerk with a PC and a keyboard to condescend to the masses. Except here’s the secret that Booth taught me: There is an innate, natural desire for us to cling to and seek out others who are creating consistently and bravely, constantly seeking to change themselves and the world around them. Something about Coldplay resonates with people, as evidenced by the nearly 20 million records they’ve sold. Though I seriously doubt that Coldplay will etch a place for themselves in history as music Gods, I hardly find them to be insufferable. I guess that makes me out of step with the New York Times and in step with just about everyone else.
7pm Wed, Jun 10