posted 16 July 2005


The Coldplay CD is good. The reviewers are the insufferable ones.

Coldplay released its third album last month. You may have heard about it.

You may have heard so much about it, in fact, that you may feel you don't need to (or want to) hear the actual album--particularly if you read or heard about some of the high-profile pans the CD has picked up along the way, most notably in the New York Times.

The short lesson to be learned is, of course, don't believe everything you read. I am a knowledgeable and discerning music fan and to my ears, X&Y is a rich, satisfying collection of songs that manage to resonate far beyond their simple surfaces might suggest. I don't hear a weak tune on the disc, and more than a few--including "Talk," "White Shadows," "X&Y," and "The Hardest Part"--are memorably wonderful.

The longer lesson has to do with the fact that we have been muddling through a cultural age, for a couple of decades now, in which anything popular is mistrusted by a certain community of cultural commentators simply because it is popular. And so after the huge and largely unanticipated success of the band's previous CD, A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay was doomed--the hipsters could no longer find them hip and therefore X&Y was going to be labeled a failure no matter what.

In other words, had the band issued an experimental excursion (very unlikely, as that's not Coldplay's style), I can readily imagine how they would have been savaged as trying to be something they aren't; "Stick to your knitting!" they would have been scolded. Instead they stuck to their knitting and (wouldn't you know) they've been told how they sound too much the same.

The underlying problem is that bands in Coldplay's position basically stop being listened to. Reviewing X&Y, a few too many writers seemed happy enough to write about their own preconceived notions, unrecognized psychological dramas, and pet peeves rather than the notes and sounds on the CD.

No, the new CD is not a musical breakthrough; it does sound generally (but not slavishly) similar to the last album (although I think it's better). And no, it's not necessarily a classic for all time, although classic status is typically difficult to determine until a few years have gone by at least. But being neither wildly different nor an all-time classic is no reason for the CD to be attacked, even ridiculed, particularly as it was in The New York Times, where the reviewer deemed Chris Martin and company "the most insufferable band of the decade."

The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.

Okay, so never mind the review's unsubstantiatable generalizations and patronizing (and sometimes incorrect) assumptions--the strangest part of the Times article, to me, was the paragraph in which the writer acknowledged the band's gift for melody, songcraft, and production and yet managed to imply that these are all quite dreadful things:

The band proffers melodies as imposing as Romanesque architecture, solid and symmetrical. Mr. Martin on keyboards, Jonny Buckland on guitar, Guy Berryman on bass and Will Champion on drums have mastered all the mechanics of pop songwriting, from the instrumental hook that announces nearly every song they've recorded to the reassurance of a chorus to the revitalizing contrast of a bridge. Their arrangements ascend and surge, measuring out the song's yearning and tension, cresting and easing back and then moving toward a chiming resolution. Coldplay is meticulously unified, and its songs have been rigorously cleared of anything that distracts from the musical drama.

Good, bad, pretty, boring, angelic, dissonant, well-crafted, complex: I can come up with any number of adjectives that properly describe a melody, but imposing is worse than a foolish choice--it's a dishonest one. The writer purposefully framed something he must know is regarded by average listeners as a positive attribute (the band's strong melodies) in a negative way. The "Romanesque architecture" simile is no accident, as it is intended to conjure buildings that have a pitiable sort of surface-level grandeur. Over and over he used language to imply that there is something inauthentic lurking in Coldplay's achievement. I have yet to figure out why music critics so often dislike music that is plainly melodic but they've been doing it since Rachmaninov's time and that's clearly not about to change.

The Times critic ends up not only criticizing the band making the music that's too likable but also the people who actually like it (including, in his words, "moony high school girls and their solace-seeking parents"). In so doing he would lambast Coldplay's
perceived lack of deeper artistic merit, but what he does instead is reveal himself as an insufferable elitist.

An even more distasteful example of elitism run amok can be found in the X&Y review published by New York magazine last month. Here was a reviewer so sure of Coldplay's pathetic, pedestrian detestability that he did not feel the need to write more than one sentence, in a 700-plus-word review, about the actual music he theoretically is reviewing.

Instead we get one or two intolerable pronouncements (e.g. "Your level of interest in their music probably correlates with your willingness to be bored") followed by freshman-level psychological analysis, centered on the reviewer's assertion that Chris Martin is neurotic. Each song is discussed entirely on the basis of its lyrics, and in the lyrics the reviewer finds Martin "obsessed," "hounded," "a worrywart," and "a fusspot."

Did the reviewer actually listen to the album or just read the lyric sheet? I am constantly astounded by the number of music writers who seem to forget they're actually listening to music. At least the Times' critic examined and discussed the sound of the album.

"Martin longs to talk," writes our New York magazine psychojournalist. "Between 'Tell me how you feel' in 'Talk' and 'Say how you feel' in 'Twisted Logic,' and 'You just want somebody listening to what you say' in 'Square One,' the CD would make a great ad campaign for the American Psychiatric Association."

Cute joke, but also pointless. Martin is singing these lines, and chances are the people enjoying the songs are not necessarily listening that carefully to the words in the first place (I for one rarely focus on lyrics first and foremost), and certainly do not hear them in the soundless vacuum implied by New York's text-obsessed review. In any case I contend that taking lyrics to task is a downright weird attack for a music writer to make, as it happens to be a time-honored method by which
rock naysayers have savaged rock'n'roll in past decades.

Thing is, rock music is never ever (ever) just about the lyrics; to offer alleged judgment on music based on lyrics only is shallow, misleading, and lazy. Not that bad lyrics don't exist--of course they do. The resplendent '80s (and still current) band New Order have written some truly awful lyrics to go along with some truly brilliant music. Critics tend not only to overlook this but often celebrate it (in a "yeah, the lyrics are bad but that's part of the charm" sort of way) because New Order they (phew!) like.

And yet bad lyrics aren't even the point. The point is that even lyrics that work very well in the context of a song don't always look great when simply read. Even the widely worshipped Bob Dylan has written dozens (hundreds?) of songs that look nothing like poetry standing stark on a page. Intent on ridicule, you could pull an awkward-looking line out of almost any song in existence.

But our intrepid New York magazine writer is not to be deterred in passing harsh judgment on music based exclusively on lyrics. He writes: "Only one track here is too weak to be a hit, and that's 'A Message,' an appalling, straight-faced love song. (Don’t believe me? It starts, 'My song is love,' then gets worse.)" When I listen to the song "A Message," I barely even notice that Martin sings the rather startingly straightforward line "My song is love," and I would contend, further, that the line is so "straight-faced" as to be rather bold, in its own way.

The sort of kneejerk elitism on display so prominently in both the Times and New York is particularly infuriating when compared to the general critical adoration tossed in the direction of another musician with millions of high-school-aged fans--namely, Eminem. Here's a guy whose lyrics can look not only foolish but downright sociopathic on the printed page. And talk about lyrics revealing potential psychological issues! But, hey, he's a hip-hop dude, a tough guy from the streets; our middle-aged critics feel tough and rebellious when they admire him. These same critics look at gentile, sensitive Chris Martin and see too much of a rejected part of themselves. Guess who gets the tough and rebellious scorn?

When all is said and done I can't say I'm surprised that these (and more than a few other)
critics felt the need to rake Coldplay over the coals for any number of perceived sins. The band has delivered a well-crafted (this is not a sin!) album of strong songs that appeal to a wide range of listeners; it's a sad reflection of our combative, fragmented 21st-century culture that this strikes some people as a bad thing.


"The End of Criticism" - posted 10 Feb 05
"Alarmed" - posted 16 Mar 04

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