Why Coldplay Will Never Be A Great Band (hint: it's the lyrics)

Look into his eyes...look deep into his eyes...
This is part 2 of a 2 part series on the work of Coldplay. You can find part 1 here: Coldplay Produces Shallow Pop Music and I Don't Even Care [but maybe I'm starting to]

The Story

Have you ever felt like you had a connection with a celebrity? Like in some bizarre alternate universe you would be friends with them, like the same things they liked, hang out with them, and have your kids play at the park with their kids while you talked about the mundane burdens of adult life? Well I have. One of those connections was with Chris Martin of Coldplay.

My wife (fiance at the time ) and I had gotten tickets to see Coldplay at some big outdoor pavilion near St. Louis in 2005 during their X&Y Tour (they called it the Twisted Logic Tour). Somehow we managed to get front row standing room only “seats.” It was a great concert and it was amazing to see them up so close. 

The moment where I felt the connection with Chris Martin came at the end of the concert when they were completely done with all the music and they were saying their thanks and goodbyes to the audience. I remember everyone kind of screaming and groping their way forward vying for Coldplay’s affections. I just stood there and observed. I wanted to know what these guys were like. Then, after Martin had reached down and shook a few hands, I swearand I could be wrong on thisbut I swear he looked me in the eyes for about a second and a half (he has very pretty eyes, by the way). In that moment I made sure to very earnestly send him a message with my own eyes and the message was this: “I get you and I appreciate what you’re doing here. Would you like to have a lengthy conversation?” And then I am almost certain, having received my message, in the last two tenths of a second of him looking at me he radioed back to me his own message, saying thusly, “Thank you. I really am a normal person, and I can tell that you’re one of my intelligent fans who really gets my music. It’s too bad that this isn’t an alternate universe or we could hang out after the show and maybe I’d even invite you to Gwyneth’s and my place in the Hamptons for the weekend.” And thus ended our whirlwind friendship.

The Critique
All absurdities aside, I really do think I made eye contact with Chris Martin that night and I really think I saw something in him that was sincere and caring and intelligent. It may sound slightly on the absurd side to say it, but I really want the best for Coldplay. I want them to make excellent and meaningful music and I want them to have a great legacy. In essence, I want them to become U2, a tag that has been applied to them not a few times in the last decade. And herein lies my concern about Coldplay, because while I have never been entirely disappointed with them musically (even 2011's Mylo Xyloto really grew on me), I am beginning to see that despite all their supposed and reluctant aspirations to become U2’s successors, they have always fallen short lyrically. They like to give the impression of lyrical substance but in reality they fail to bring any actual weight and depth to their words.

While I am certainly not the first to make this observation, let's look a little closer at their work in the hopes of shedding new light on the heights of Coldplay's lyrical banality.

1. Universally Universal
In an attempt to become a globally lauded rock band (i.e., "The Best Band in the World") they have instead come across merely as vanilla, and bland vanilla at that.  While their music is often compelling upper-middle of the road anthemic pop/rock, their lyrics are often so universal (see: written so as to appeal to everyone) that they carry no weight, or better put, no hooks in which to sink into a listener. See, for example, the lyrics to "Politik" the opening song off of 2001's A Rush of Blood to the Head. It confounds me to this day how they managed to write a song with that title that conveys nothing about what is corrupt in our world's political and corporate entities. Amid choppy, blandly abstract lyrics all we get is a call to "open up your eyes" (to what exactly, is unclear) and then a cry to "give me love over this", a universally clich√©d sentiment where again the "this" to which we prefer love over is wholly unclear. Sure, I am all on board for loving each other or whatever, but so what? Where have you placed us in your context-less song supposedly about "politi[k]s".

2. Literally Literately Illiterate
Please understand, I am not against them using universal themes that a priori appeal to all people, my complaint is they have no idea how to utilize those themes in compelling ways. How is it exactly that a band can release albums about love & relationships (X&Y), death & violence (Viva La Vida), a dystopian romance (Mylo Xyloto), and now a breakup album (Ghost Stories) and manage to say nothing significant or moving about those subjects? All the individual pieces are there in the words (conflict, pain, passion, infatuation, death, etc.) but none of it comes together to form a compelling work of art; we never feel like we are actually there with the characters in the songs or that the characters are actually real. All the supposed themes of their albums should be presented in a way that jar the listener, keeping them riveted while listening and contemplating long after the listening has stopped. Instead we're only left going "Oh, this is where they fall in love, and this is where they break up, and this is where someone dies, and this is where...". The catchy riffs stay in our heads for sure, for days and days even, and so do the lyrics accompanying those riffs, but we never actually connect with what those lyrics are about

For instance, I love the song "Yellow" and perhaps it works as an impressionistic meditation on love, but if one puts that song in context with the rest of their work it becomes confounding. All the emotions are therewonder, gratitude, reflections on mortality, and a sacrificial devotion to his loverbut it is all thrown together in a near indecipherable hodge-podge.  In short, the song is not even worth analyzing. It should instead exist as one of the innumerable disposable pop songs to be played or not played at the whim of one's preferences. It contains a number of great—if formulaic—musical ideas but not a single great lyrical idea.  And this is the case for a vast majority of Coldplay's songs. Let me beg the question: Does anyone think they actually succeeded in their consciously thematic or supposedly narrative works (that is, Viva La Vida [mortality and violence] or Mylo Xyloto [dystopian literature*])? The cover art to Viva La Vida is telling: what kind of ideological absurdity is taking place in their co-opting of Delacroix's iconic Liberty Leading the People?! What revolution are they calling us to?! Any call to action or the enlightening of one's mind seems to be mere artifice, a Hollywood backlot movie set with no actual building behind the two-dimensional veneer.

It is odd how to me that while I still find their music compelling in a "hey, that's a fun little tune" kind of way ("Charlie Brown" has been stuck in my head nonstop for at least five days now), never have I found their attempts to ruminate on love, death, injustice, or transcendence even remotely compelling emotionally or intellectually speaking.  Never have I listened to one of their songs and been struck by a truth or an image of beauty. To be concise, I have never had any idea what Coldplay are singing about even while what they're singing about is always clear in the vaguest of terms. 

As a model exemplar, read the lyrics to the closing song off Parachutes, "Everything's Not Lost":

When I'm counting up my demons.
Saw there was one for every day.
With the good ones on my shoulder,
I drove the other ones away. 

If you ever feel neglected,
If you think all is lost,
I'll be counting up my demons, yeah,
Hoping everything's not lost.
When you thought that it was over,
You could feel it all around,
Everybody's out to get you,
Don't you let it drag you down.
Cos if you ever feel neglected,
If you think that all is lost,
I'll be counting up my demons, yeah.
Hoping everything's not lost...

Singing out,
Oh oh oh yeah,
Oh oh yeah,
Oh oh yeah,
Everything's not lost...

Here we have references to demons and universal human afflictions (neglect, loss, things coming to an end, the judgement of others), but it's not clear what they are trying to connect with in their listeners even as they attempt to lead us in song together.  The song itself plays as a pseudo-congregational worship song, where we all join hands and sing "everything's not lost", which I suppose is supposed to mean something like "Hey, we're all imperfect, but we're not that bad, and if things ever get bad they won't get that bad, ya know?"

This is why Coldplay, for all their marketed posturing, will never even be considered a candidate for the category "Best Band in the World"for theirs or any other generation.  Chris Martin, for some reason, never learned that in order to be universally affecting, he must first latch on to a specific event, an event that grabs listeners and then tears them a part.  The Beatles (one such BBitW nominee), while certainly not succeeding in every song, did manage to powerfully convey meaning and emotion in the understated lyrics of "In My Life" and "Eleanor Rigby" or the more epic "A Day in the Life" . U2, (another oft-referenced BBitW), managed to grip us with songs such as "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", or "One."  By no means am I saying The Beatles or U2 are the best or deepest or most affecting lyricists of all time, but in the realm of bands who have had the most universal success in the last 60 or so years, these two mega-bands managed time again to craft powerfully arresting lyrics in terms of truths described and emotions expressed. Among Coldplay's contemporaries, I would also include two other bands whose lyrics are always more literate, visual, and narratively cohesive than Coldplays: Arcade Fire and Elbow (who themselves are auditioning for BBitW status). Let me be clear: in no way do I think Coldplay are required to write life shattering deep lyrics, but I do think their lyrics should connect with the audience regarding what their songs are specifically about.** It is my contention they continually fail to do this. Coldplay are primarily an emotive band. Their music is often glorious top notch anthemic rock but this is almost always to the detriment of meaning in their lyrics.***

3. Agnostic Theo-atheism 

(or why I'm beginning to be agnostic towards my belief that God does and does not exist)
Coldplay's music often feels transcendent. But what is it transcending to?

In Coldplay's world it's not that God doesn't exist but it's also not that he does exist either. It's not that they don't believe in God but it's also not clear that they actually do believe in God. Even though God does show up in some of their songs, it's not as if God really matters to Christ Martin or the characters in his music. But it's not that he doesn't matter either. Perplexed yet? It would seem Coldplay's lyrics are the poetic equivalent of a politician's campaign rhetoric where it is all but impossible to tell where they actually stand on an issue or what they truly believe about something. "Sure God exists but only if that doesn't make you feel too guilty about yourself. Or, sure God doesn't exist, unless you feel that he does. Take or leave our words as you like they're open for interpretation." Yeah, maybe a little too open. This isn't some kind of bold agnosticism on display, it's just lyrical and thematic cowardice and laziness.

Yet on the whole their lyrics represent an atheism striving for transcendence. They've given up on the idea of truly knowing God, but they still long for the feeling of knowing God, or the feeling that one feels when trying to feel God. Other than getting ballgames started, Coldplay songs and other pop acts are some of the last vestiges of public group singing still in existence in this increasingly secular, PC age. We sing their songs not because they mean anything to us outside of Coldplay (or any other pop star) as an entity but only because we have all come to love their songs in our own time as individuals. Their songs unite us as we heartily sing them together at a concert, but we are united only in a feeling and not through an actual overarching idea or belief or call to action.****

One shining example of this empty unity that longs for transcendence without ever achieving it is the song "Fix You" off of X&Y, a self-help song meant to comfort the afflicted soul (in this case Gwyneth Paltrow, Martin's seeming ex-wife). While I pretty much like the song as a piece of music, what I take issue with most is the line "Lights will guide you home/and ignite your bones/and I will try to fix you." Lights? Lights?! Where are these lights coming from and how are they supposed to help the person you're singing the song to? The song aims for musical transcendence, and I would argue it achieves it, especially with the bridge of beautiful multi-layered harmonies. But there is no substance to Martin's attempts to "fix" his love. The lights are a nothing, a context-less image. There is no God who saves and redeems. There are only "lights" and Martin's good intentions. In Christian theology Christ is the world's light and it is through his death, resurrection, and coming again in glory that we will be saved from our sins and the injustices and tragedies we face in our world. If Martin does not mean to reference this Light he needs to do a better job at explaining himself, for whatever kind of help he hopes to give his love, at the moment it seems a rather flaccid help.

This hopeful (all but) atheism permeates all of Coldplay's work, but it is indicative of something more foundational in their lyrics: an all pervading laziness and/or pandering to their audience.

So we are left wondering, is the God of "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" really God or just the feeling of God? Or does Martin really sing about love or just the sentiment of love throughout X&Y? Does he really contemplate his mortality or is he just thinking about thinking about it on Viva la Vida? I'm not sure we'll ever know and as Coldplay's career barrels forward I begin to care less and less. The old intro-to-writing class adage of "show more and tell less" tragically comes into play for Coldplay in that not only do they fail to show us anything in their songs it seems they really can't even manage to straightforwardly tell us anything either. 
*Mylo Xloto is probably Coldplay's most literate album to date with references to Alexander Pope, Peter Pan, the prophet Daniel, and containing a very loose meta-narrative (it's actually there, especially if you look it up on Rap-Rock Genius), but is it enough? IS. IT. ENOUGH?

**And yes, I am making the assumption that a song is most powerful when the music and lyrics complement each other and one does not dominate the other. Strong lyrics + strong music = great song.

***Out of all of Coldplay's albums I have most been moved by the lyrics of Viva la Vida. I have been moved by the music on ALL their records but I think the lyrics on that album are their most excellent, the ones with the most meaning. I am especially fond of the last phrase to the song "Death and All His Friends": "No I don't want to battle from beginning to end/I don't want a cycle of recycled revenge/I don't want to follow Death and all of his friends" even if I have no idea what those lyrics have to do with the rest of the song. It's strange. Every song on that album seems to be about SOMETHING but their true meaning never actually solidified in my mind, remaining illusive for each song (looking back, the song "Yes!" seems particularly worthy of more reflection). I want to believe Coldplay actual sing about true and meaningful things but it seems to be a rare occurrence in actual fact.

****Side note rant: There are two Beatles songs I absolutely love to listen but detest when they are sung together by large audiences. To me there is nothing more annoying than a Paul McCartney concert where everyone is singing "Hey Jude" or "Let it Be" together. If Coldplay had a predecessor in the lazy lyrics department it would be McCartney's writing on these Beatles tracks. Foreshadowing Coldplay, there are no actual ideas or beliefs put forward in those songs, but instead just the vaguest thoughts possible. The lyrics are more emotion than actual thought, and therefore it is my contention when people sing those songs they are not actually united by any great idea or identity or belief or event. Instead they are united by two things: their love of the songs and their love of the Beatles or McCartney himself. Never was this made more repulsive to me than during the finale to the opening ceremony of the 2012 London summer Olympics. Why were they singing a song intended for John Lennon's son with such rapturous sentimentality? Couldn't they have sung something that actually spoke to humanity's unity, to the beauty of athleticism, or the wonders of human achievement. No, instead we sang a rather maudlin but comforting song that reminded us of how much we all love The Beatles. Great choice.  

For some more retrospective thoughts on Coldplay check out these two articles:

Coldplay Albums From Worst to Best (via Stereogum)
The 10 Best and Worst Coldplay Songs (via Paste Magazine)
Coldplay's X&Y was it's first very bad album--and it's first #1 (via AVClub)


Anonymous said...

this is complete and utter shit. you are nothing more but a pretentious music snob.

PostConsumer Reports said...

Thank you! Please tell all your friends!

But seriously, don't you think art is worth talking about? I think art is important enough that we should discuss it, and at length.

I don't mean to come across as pretentious. Everything in my article are ideas I've been thinking about regarding Coldplay for quite some time. I have every single one of their albums (except the new one) and quite love their music. There are a few things though that kept bothering me about their work though, which I was compelled to write down.

Was there anything in specific in my article to wanted to comment on? It'd be great to have a conversation about it. Honestly.

PostConsumer Reports said...

UPDATE!: I now have their new album. Boy is it bad! http://www.postconsumerreports.com/2014/06/my-3-sentence-review-of-coldplays-ghost.html

Unknown said...

Hi, I think is very interesting your point of view, but let me tell you this: there is a concept very usefull to understand modern poetry. This concept is "empty tracendence"(Friedrich). You can see it in poets like Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud... Its the same you re saying, but with a different connotation.

Rossrossiter said...

couldnt agree more, the banality of their lyrics, that inability to actually pin a subject down or frame it with any real meaning makes me want to tear my hair out. Its almost as if a microsoft algarithym has grouped all of the worlds songs into one program and spewed out what it thinks people want to hear. Its just so safe and vague, like a wet dream in gap clothing. Nothing wrong with that but its not true art in my book, its background and not in any way essential to anything.