Last night, Coldplay bounded on stage to the euphoric strains of "A Head Full of Dreams,” the title track of its latest (and rumored to be final) album and current world tour. The Pepsi Center pulsed with the glowing wristbands given to the audience upon arrival, the colors changing and blinking in time with the song – activity controlled by some unseen force. Frontman Chris Martin skipped and twirled around the stage thrust into the arena floor. Then, Martin – revealing his true essence, as long suspected – exploded in a cloud of rainbow confetti, landing in fans' open mouths like neon snow.
Okay, so that's not exactly how it happened, but you get the idea.
I don't hate Coldplay. Bile for the band seems to be part of the gig for a music critic, but I don't hate Coldplay. For example, I hate misogyny. I hate that weird styrofoam on hangers. I hate cats murdering toddlers. To hate Coldplay would be to experience a visceral reaction to the band's music or presence. While the lights were bright and the hooks were massive, and the thousands of people in the audience last night were having a bona fide great time, I kept nodding my head and checking my watch, wondering how we hadn't yet reached the bottom of Coldplay's well of mid-tempo, platitudinous hits.
As long as Coldplay has dominated the mainest of mainstream rock music, listeners and critics alike have disdained the band, complaining not only of its blandness, but also its blankness. The band slipped into radio with wimpy, weird-in-a-good-way 2000 single “Yellow” and grew into grandiosity while still seeming to have its heart in the right, if boring, place. Noisey published two essays on Coldplay around its January 2016 performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, with writer Craig Jenkins referring to the musicians' reputation as “dinosaurs of a mawkish, performative sincerity,” and yet mounting a relative defense of the band as an antidote to culture “couched in concentric circles of distant, withering irony.” In short, Coldplay peddles in pop for the masses, but sometimes the lowest common denominator is true emotion.
Sure, fine. I, too, have been going to a lot of major pop concerts lately and emerging surprised: Adele with her accessible directness, Bieber with his authentic brattiness, and Carly Rae Jepsen with her sacrifice of ego on the altar of pop. Yet Coldplay dazzled and endeared itself in only predictable ways.
The question now is not why do we hate Coldplay or hate to love Coldplay. The question is not if Coldplay is the “biggest band in the world,” which it has been since around 2002, cemented with the critically acclaimed album A Rush of Blood to the Head. The question is not why Coldplay is the biggest band in the world. The question is: What does the biggest band in the world do with that power?
This is what Coldplay did from its platform last night:
1. It pandered to the audience with compliments and distractions. This included Martin turning on the house lights multiple times to wave hello to those in the rafters, and, early in the set, suggesting that maybe this would be the best show Coldplay ever played, and asking if Denver could be “the best crowd ever." The stage show was seamless, with ever-changing graphics and lights and balloons, special sets in the center of the floor and even at the back of the room, and Martin running around, trying to make eye contact with as many fans as possible.
Coldplay sent mixed messages at the Pepsi Center last night.
2. It played the (many) hits. The second song was a beefed-up version of "Yellow," followed by the 2011 single “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” an upbeat disco sample to which Martin added inexplicable saunter, straight into the ringing piano ballad “The Scientist,” which has been covered widely and movingly. The hit parade went on, with stage changes and new lasers, and with drummer and backup vocalist Will Champion thumping on a variety of surfaces, uninterrupted for more than two hours.
3. It made references to the world at large. A backdrop of marigold garlands seemed to reference Indian culture, and later a video screen featuring footage of soaring eagles seemed to shout out "Colorado." On piano, Martin segued from “The Scientist” into a brief interlude of “Pure Imagination,” an homage to actor Gene Wilder, who died yesterday. Amid the candy-colored lights and stage strewn with confetti, it wasn't hard to view Martin as an un-eccentric Willy Wonka for whom the lines “Want to change the world? There's nothing to it” might particularly resonate.
4. It was vaguely political. Coldplay is often associated with charity concerts and causes, and the latest album includes the clip of Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at a funeral. Last night's show featured a recording of the Persian poet Rumi's “The Guest House” and a video clip of an interview with Muhammad Ali, wherein he professed, “I'm going to dedicate my life to using my name and popularity to helping charities, helping people, uniting people…. We need somebody in the world to help us all make peace.”
It seems that Ali's statement might align with the band's perspective on how to use its platform, yet the only call to action issued last night was when Martin asked the crowd to send out “Rocky Mountain energy to Louisiana or Italy or France or Germany, or wherever you think needs it.”
This reminded me again of the Super Bowl halftime show, during which Martin pranced amid a deluge of rainbow confetti and a message "Believe in Love," which vaguely referred to marriage equality. Then Beyoncé showed up. But she didn't sing the part she provides on Coldplay's "Hymn for the Weekend" (how did that happen, by the way?), dressed in the video as a steely-eyed Bollywood star. Nope, she showed up in Formation. She used the very same platform and her position on it not only to perform music for the masses, but to make an unequivocally political and specific statement about race in America.
"Best crowd ever? Believe in love?" Chris Martin of Coldplay at Denver's Pepsi Center on August 29, 2016.
I'm not saying that Coldplay needs to be overtly political; I'm saying that it seems like the self-proclaimed "all-theist" Martin wants to be, but is so careful or focus-grouped that the band creates the musical equivalent of vaguebooking. (Sure, Mylo Xyloto was reportedly a political rock opera about a "war against sound and color," but any allegory was utterly muddled.) If playing to the lowest common denominator means that you have achieved global ubiquity and that each listener, even unwittingly, can be reached by your song, your message, then maybe every teardrop can be a waterfall. Coldplay, you've got the platform regardless — these songs, as electronic as you go, are never going to truly piss anyone off — so take a bigger risk with the rest of it, and maybe say something instead of everything.
And the rest of us, our ambivalence? Well, right now I'm writing about Coldplay. Not because its music moves me, but because I believe that numerous readers want a reflection of their experience, a note that says this publication cares about your interests, has its finger on your pulse. And yours, and yours. But can we use the biggest band in the world to talk about even bigger issues? How am I using my platform, small as it is?
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That's a killer pander: Coldplay performed at the Pepsi Center on August 29, 2016.