One of the better moments in the last few stumbling seasons of The Office came when James Spader’s Robert California offered his thoughts on the Black Eyed Peas: “It’s rock and roll for people who don’t like rock and roll; it’s rap for people who don’t like rap; it’s pop for people who don’t like pop.” Not to begin this thing inauspiciously by comparing Coldplay to the Black Eyed Peas, but similarly structured criticisms could be applied: they’re alternative music for people who don’t like alternative music, a British artist for people who don’t like British artists, sad music for people who don’t like sad music. These characterizations don’t necessarily have to be a problem, but it seems like we’ve all had a hard time accepting them. After all, if you try to be everything to everybody, there’s a good chance that at least some of the population wants a punching bag.
Even as a band that emerged and almost immediately embarked upon an unwavering path of commercial and critical success across five albums, almost any review you read of Coldplay’s music seems to either qualify them as “middle of the road,” or at least somehow address how a band that has remained so big for so long has done so without what the reviewers in question would qualify as a specific personality (these latter reviews probably lean more towards the “everyman” or “universal” descriptors than the likes of “bland”). Given, this is primarily an issue within more indie-oriented music coverage, where perhaps Coldplay does pose a problem, albeit one that has more to do with our expectations and perceptions than it does with any promises made by the band themselves.
The simple truth is that Coldplay has, from their inception, been weighed down by how obviously they’re influenced by their superior forebears. They’re the lite-R.E.M., lite-U2, lite-Radiohead, etc., etc. It seems that somewhere along the way, it was decided that if Coldplay’s sound quoted these bands, then they would be expected to be as daring as those bands have been, to push the boundaries of their sound in unforeseen ways. A sort of double standard has developed in covering Coldplay: We get cranky that they remain comfortable in the shade provided by the shadows of older artists, and yet we keep them in those shadows ourselves, getting all bent out of shape when the “experimental” Coldplay albums don’t turn out to be as much of a slap in the face as Kid A. Not everyone has it in them to spin off the face of the planet in as glorious a fashion as Yorke & co., nor should we expect or want that from everyone. The most detrimental and time-wasting element of how Coldplay has been discussed since their rise to fame is that fact that we can’t seem to assess them on their own terms. We rate Coldplay through rubrics designed from the bands Coldplay grew up listening to, not Coldplay themselves.
The result: “inoffensive.” Seemingly every review of a Coldplay album includes the word, and a healthy sprinkling of synonyms throughout. It’s not just rock critics — there was also the infamous Travelodge survey that ranked Coldplay as the artist most British people found best to fall asleep to, achieving the dubious victory of beating Michael Buble. (A lesser-mentioned, interesting sidenote/counterpoint to this conversation: Radiohead was also listed in the Top Ten of this list.) Used to such excess, describing a band as inoffensive becomes a shorthand, condescending way to dismiss them outright, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Thirteen years since Coldplay released Parachutes, does anyone know what we’re supposed to do with Coldplay, how we are supposed to perceive them? As a solid but occasionally middling alternative band? As a mainstream rock band too timid to drift out into the weirder edges of their music? As a pop artist that savvily incorporates strains of their artsier idols?
My point with all this is that throughout their existence, an ongoing frustration has overshadowed Coldplay’s music, as we’re continually flustered with a band failing to live up to standards they never set for themselves (well, OK, sometimes they have made comparisons that didn’t do them any favors). Maybe it’s always been a matter of circumstance. Coldplay came out of the same post-Britpop movements that birthed bands like Elbow and Doves. Many British bands from this era had a lot shared DNA, a dose of melancholy, heavily atmospheric music, and, yes, a debt to Radiohead’s ’90s output. Out of the bunch, Coldplay was always more destined for immediate stardom: clean-cut guys fronted by a clean-voiced dude who would later marry Gwyneth Paltrow, compared to the Guy Garveys or Jimi Goodwins of the world, all shaggier and possessing craggier, more whiskey-soaked vocals at a young age. Their peers would go on to craft plenty of their own impassioned, chiming guitar anthems, but Coldplay would beat them to the punch. As thanks, they were an easy group to blame when we started getting that slew of weepy piano hits from the likes of Keane and the Fray.
All this might seem a sort of odd, half-endorsement leading into a feature that’s supposed to function as a celebration of a band’s catalog. It’s not intended as such, but for a band so many try to write off as harmless, talking about Coldplay comes with a surprising amount of baggage. Nearly fifteen years in, the prejudices of these years carry. Even in these poptimistic halcyon days supposedly devoid of genre-tribalism, Coldplay remains the sort of band you admit to liking with a smirk and an “I know, I know.” With an apology. This is a list that tries to say goodbye to all that, to consider Coldplay’s music for artistic merit and staying power rather than oscillating hipness, to move away from assumptions of what their trajectory should have looked like and appreciate them for the consistently excellent pop artists they are.
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