Things Music Critics Hate: Coldplay
"As hated as a band can be?"
Music criticism is as much an affliction as an occupation -- especially these days, it's far more reliable as a sickness than a paycheck. While critics vary in their particulars of taste, most share a generally similar set of symptoms, leading to widespread prejudice in their ranks against certain artists, sounds, and fads. Things Music Critics Hate is an occasional series that will attempt to diagnose and explain the broadly shared beliefs and biases that shape the landscape of music criticism -- and also to discover what qualities (if any) professional observers generally agree make music good.
Is there any band more hated among music writers than Coldplay? Probably not. The British quartet is a more favored target among rockscribes even than Train. The written dismissals have been accumulating for years, and have found a cause for revival with today's release of Coldplay's new album, Mylo Xyloto. In advance of the new album, the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones -- the pop critic most music writers wish they were -- indulged himself in a full-fledged (and hilarious) investigation of his negative views toward the band, exploring why "it's hard to deal with vexingly adequate music." Prejudices abound, but the new music itself has equally disappointed writers: The L.A. Times' Randall Roberts gave the album a tepid response -- "Coldplay is an expert at pleasure or at least poking into pockets of emotion without disturbing anything too much" -- and 1.5 stars out of four possible. Entertainment Weekly awarded it 2.5 stars out of five, asking whether the band members were tired of themselves. (Of course, Rolling Stone found cause for a 3.5 out of five, but we must take that with a grain of salt.)
Yet, as many of these reviews take pains to point out, Coldplay is wildly popular. Its shows pack arenas, and its records sell like half-off Viagra -- more than 15 million albums were unloaded in the U.S. alone since 2000. So why such a vast chasm between what fans adore and critics loathe?
Here's why: Coldplay to a music critic is like a Toyota Camry to a motoring enthusiast, or Applebee's to a foodie -- it's a denial of the artform, an abdication of nearly every interesting potential of the medium. And the search for new and interesting music is the very thing that keeps critics from selling out and getting better-paying jobs as high-school janitors.
Coldplay's music a lazy pastiche of other, better bands like the Beatles and U2, but even that wouldn't be a fatal flaw for professional music critics. No -- the band's real sin is that it borrows freely without producing anything particularly affecting, at least to those who listen to a great deal of music. The critic, you see, appreciates a genuine, strong feeling -- or even a genuine, strong lack of feeling -- above all else. A pop song may be banal and obvious, but if its obviousness is affecting and powerful, banality is forgiven. A new indie rock band may wear the greats of two decades ago as training wheels, but if it supplies a suitably meaty riff or cranky refrain, that can be okay.
Unfortunately for Coldplay, its emotional moves always feel constrained. The band's universe of feeling seems held within a small glass box, or caged like the elephant in the video above.
This is due partly to the (widely criticized) vagaries of Chris Martin's lyrics -- see "Once upon a time we burned bright/ Now all we ever seem to do is fight," or "Life goes on, it gets so heavy," from the new album. Those lines could be forgiven (or at least ignored) if the music held an expert's attention, but Coldplay also seems to find predictability a virtue, or possibly a necessity. You could fill in the rest of the melodies in "Paradise," above, after hearing their first few notes. And that's common for a Coldplay song. It's if those sold-out arenas would faint in shock at a sudden shift in dynamics or tempo.
Making emotionally impotent music is bad enough in the eyes of critics. But by ceding any element of surprise, the band has abandoned one of the main things that pop music writers need to keep their jobs interesting. Songs that are predictable, familiar, and constrained of feeling are no fun to listen to or write about. So Coldplay's pale dramas, as much as they clearly appeal to casual listeners, feel to music writers merely like one of the things we like least: a chore.