#466: Coldplay, "A Rush of Blood to the Head" (2002)

The last time I really listened to Coldplay, I was seventeen years old, which is probably the perfect age both to listen and then to stop really listening to Coldplay.

That, at least, is the cool thing to think—Coldplay being a band that has never been cool to love, though based on hushed conversations I’ve had with Friends Who Shall Remain Nameless, I suspect that most people have secretly loved Coldplay at one point or another.

On Rolling Stone’s Best 500 Albums List, the little blurb beneath A Rush of Blood to the Head reads, “Coldplay churn out bighearted British guitar rock on their second album – what Chris Martin aptly called ‘emotion that can make you feel sad while you're moving your legs,’” which is hilariously meaningless and vague, because exactly how is that any different from any other type of music? This, it seems, is also part of the reason why people hate them: their banality, their overwhelming, soupy blandness.

Despite “Clocks” insistent presence on the radio and on television shows circa 2003ish, the music video for “The Scientist” was my gateway into the rest of Coldplay’s oeuvre. I was at a friend’s house, sprawled across her sofa in the sort of sprawl specific only to fifteen-year-olds, watching television, when the music video appeared: a close-up of Chris Martin’s face filling the entire screen. “The Scientist” was the first video I remember seeing that didn’t involve a boy band or girl group dancing against a bright red background (note: I did not have cable growing up. I was deprived), and Chris Martin walking backwards over walls and through forests and floating leaves was the Most Beautiful Thing I Had Ever Seen, the revelation as he reverse-jaunted up a hill and past his apparently dead onscreen girlfriend to the site of a horrific car accident hitting me like a thousand beautiful bricks, each one finely crafted for me and me alone.

I was recovering from a car accident myself, one so bad it put me in the hospital with several broken bones, a new titanium rod lining the muscles inside my leg, and a morphine drip in my arm for a week. When, after a month, I finally returned to school in a wheelchair, my friends liked to steer me through the hallways at breakneck speeds, which I allowed if only for the change of pace.

It was an accident with no one to blame: I had stepped out in front of a car moving through a busy intersection. The bus in the first lane had stopped to wave me on, concealing the sedan in the next lane rushing up. I didn’t see the car, and the driver didn’t see me.

I spent a lot of time rewinding the sixty seconds of that one afternoon attempting to see what went wrong and when. With their video for “The Scientist,” Coldplay made me feel my minor tragedy—that the very concepts of tragedy and danger in general—could be romantic and compelling, rather than things to sensibly avoid. This of course is an iffy premise to buy into, but one that later would make the Twilight novels so popular. I was hooked. Their music became a receptacle for me to wash my own experiences clean of nuance and reckoning.

Coldplay’s music is manipulative. But it also manages to be impotent at the same time. “You’d practically expect the band to show up at your doorstep with a wilting bouquet and a Hallmark card,” the online music zine Pitchfork wrote of Coldplay’s single “Yellow.” Yet I can imagine that, to me as a teenager, a boy showing up with a card and flowers—who even cares about the state of them—sounded pretty ideal. And indeed, this was exactly the sort of sentimental crap—flowers, cards, candies—that made me feel better at a time when I inhabited a body completely foreign, with all its broken bones.

I spent weeks struggling down the length of my living room with a walker, and learned how to inch down the front steps on my butt with the help of my parents hovering at either side. I wasted days at a time in bed.

My life did not feel incredibly romantic or exciting. Hell, most of life is not incredibly exciting. But back then, this brutal fact enraged me, especially when I was stuck inside the house and relearning the basic concept of walking. I was fifteen and hormonal and the needle of my emotional odometer swung wildly from I’m fine to best day ever to I hate my life. The smallest thing could set off a melodramatic internal storm: brushing the arm of a crush in the hallway, an offhand glance from a friend, my father crunching his cereal across the breakfast table.

I preferred the dramatics of X&Y and Viva La Vida to Coldplay’s earlier albums, though it strikes me now, re-listening to A Rush of Blood to the Head, how much more personal their earlier music seems. I mean, not that much more personal, because let’s face it, Coldplay never really got beyond generalities. But still, in their first two albums you can hear a band rather than a faceless, over-produced machine. There’s a lot of distance between their later music and the listener, perhaps because their songs, through increasing popularity and overplayed Apple commercials, were becoming so very public.

I cannot imagine Coldplay’s music as a shared and communal experience, though such an experience is arguably fundamental to the very roots of music itself, because my teenage relationship with them was solitary and internal. For me, they embodied emotion itself. The minute I imagine Coldplay as a band that can be heard and scrutinized by other people, I can hear how they actually sound: cheap and sentimental.

“If nothing else, [Coldplay’s music] is harmless and pretty. Unfortunately, it's nothing else. If that's what you look for in your music, by all means, go for it. If you want substance, I suggest moving on,” sighs Pitchfork on Parachutes. Condescension aside, this is Coldplay’s Great Flaw: their music is emotion that they don’t bother to negotiate or refine.

“If your teachers suggest that your poems are too sentimental,” the poet Mary Reufle writes, “that is only the half of it. Your poems probably need to be even more sentimental. Don’t be less of a flower, but could you be more of a stone at the same time?” Coldplay does not try to be a stone.

The suggestion that harmless, pretty sentimentality automatically negates substance sounds wrong to me. I want to believe that the willingness to embrace such sentimentality must be indicative of something other than laziness or emotional unintelligence—of what, I’m not yet sure. And we all contain the potential, the capacity, for unrestrained sentimentality within us—it just doesn’t overwhelm as often as it did in adolescence. But it’s hopeful to imagine that it’s still there, growing and living and waiting to unfurl.

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

To be as affected as I was by “The Scientist,” you first have to put aside the logic lacking in its music video. If you replay it so that it runs forward, Chris Martin essentially leaves his lover in the field to die—which is actually the most unromantic, fucked up thing ever—healthily strolls out of a totaled car and past her into the woods, pauses to lean on tree trunks and gaze forlornly into the distance, and comes to rest, for reasons unascertainable, on a mattress in the middle of a sidewalk. It’s nonsensical and utterly constructed.

These rather obvious hiccups would not have even occurred to me back when I was a teenager governed more by emotion than reason. Coldplay, the “most insufferable band of the decade,” managed to also become one of the most popular precisely because they embody our insufferable, bland, and banal emotions. We like to think we are different from other people, but really we are just as unique as everyone else. And we disdain sentimentality because it makes us vulnerable to this knowledge, though saccharine language is often the most straightforward—if the most unartful—way to get our sloppy, over-the-top feelings across.  

Ten years later, I am sufficiently cynical enough that the flaws in logic almost negate for me any emotional power that the video for “The Scientist” held over me, though on some primal level I still feel it’s a beautiful song. Why do I find it beautiful even when I know it is ridiculous?

I wish I could still recklessly love Coldplay—part of me would love to be as naïve and un-self aware as I was at fifteen. Growing older has meant that I no longer need to listen to music the same way as I did back then—obsessively, maniacally, with my entire body, hunkered into the passenger seat of my mother’s minivan, the sweep of trees past the window registering only as an extension of chords. Crossing the street with headphones in and barely noticing my own surroundings until it’s too late.

Ten years later, Chris Martin’s voice is still as familiar yet distant to me as my own bones inside my skin. Even now his singing slips into a vein, like the IV my nurse used to pump me up with morphine, numbing my body with a dumb high of hyperbole and madness. In this same memory I’m now rewinding myself into, I can see my father leaning over me in my hospital bed. He’s holding my hand, and crying for the first time, and I know there is nothing more sentimental than this, and nothing more goddamn true.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt