Coldplay growing up

Coldplay is changing. With their sixth studio album Ghost Stories on the brink of release, Coldplay have been releasing singles showcasing how much their sound has matured. There’s clean, classic Coldplay in “Magic“, something that sounds like a crossover with Bon Iver’s atmospheric autotune sound in “Midnight“, and a straight-up electronic dance track “A Sky Full of Stars“.

That’s quite a mix. It might be difficult to believe that Coldplay, one of the biggest bands in the world, started as a post-teenage angsty guitar/piano rock quartet 14 years ago. Yet, you know that that’s precisely how Coldplay began. Listen to Parachutes (2000), and you’ll hear just four young guys named Chris, Jonny, Guy, and Will rocking it out on their guitars with that dude on the piano singing poetically sappy lyrics. Riding on the success of “Yellow” especially, they returned with the confident A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002), which firmly established them as hit group. Their audiences really connected with their accessible rock sound in the similar but bigger X & Y (2005), which pleased and expanded their fan base with tracks meant to fill arenas. Viva la Vida (2008) and Mylo Xyloto (2011), showed a continued progression towards grander arrangements and more inventive sounds and sing-along melodies. Now, Coldplay have fully embraced their role as kings of the alternative rock stadium, capable of selling out any venue anywhere in the world.

Some people miss old Coldplay and wish that they would return to their roots in guitar/piano light rock. But why should they? Coldplay really were nearly teenagers when they wrote Parachutes, and Coldplay has grown considerably since then. When I miss old Coldplay, I just listen to old Coldplay! Ah, the wonders of modern music.

Besides, we Coldplay fans have grown up too. I was introduced to Coldplay in 2005 (high school sophomore year), when my good friend wouldn’t stop talking about their music. That was my introduction to modern music, as I had listened to almost exclusively classical music up until then. Words and singing with music, what it this?! Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed their intriguing harmonies, Chris Martin’s soothing falsetto, and the general feel-good vibe that they exuded.

Thus, I was surprised to discover that it was considered uncool to like Coldplay. My college roommates, who were very connected with music, actively disliked Coldplay; on their impressively expansive iTunes collections, Coldplay was consistently and conspicuously absent. Yes, I have my roommates to thank for greatly broadening the scope of my musical taste and steering me in the right direction, but I somewhat secretly retained my interest in Coldplay. Sure, their music is occasionally simple and emotionally neutral, but they put out some undeniably brilliant work.

Just listen to the chord progressions in “Shiver” or “Sparks”, or appreciate the sonic complexity in “Viva la Vida”. Or watch the amazing and endearing “Strawberry Swing” video, or the heartbreaking and masterful video for “The Scientist“. Since they began, Chris’s voice has expanded its range, gained a fuller tone, and grown much more powerful. Will has stepped up his drumming and singing chops, Jonny gets way more solos, Guy’s bass is as strong as ever, and they all have built many more sounds into their lineup. They, like the entire music industry at large, is now favoring sonic complexity over purely melodic or harmonic complexity.  Their success is no accident.

from the remarkable iTunes and Viva la Vida ad campaign

Additionally, they and their publicists have crafted their larger-than-life image with care. When touring for Viva la Vida, they all wore those colored bands on their jacket sleeves, and Chris always had that red V painted onto his shirt. They marketed heavily, collaborating with iTunes in those terrific flat-color monochrome TV adds with “Viva la Vida”. In the age of Mylo Xyloto, their entire stage setup was spray-painted in graffiti. Now with Ghost Stories,  the kind blue background and the intricately drawn wings, dove, and constellation maps are just so pleasantly beautiful. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest.

I imagine they struggled, like any reasonable human beings would, with suddenly becoming so shockingly famous. Without needing shying away from their reputation (ahem, Radiohead), Coldplay have managed it with grace. All four men are fathers, tireless humanitarians, good men who stay away from the terrible self-destructive path that often plagues rockstars. I know that Chris had his high-profile marriage with Gwyneth Paltrow and that it recently fell apart,but  their family matters are not much of my business.

Either way, the deluge of popularity made it less uncool to like Coldplay. Obviously I am not unusual in being a Coldplay fan, but that’s okay, because musical taste doesn’t need to be unique to be special. Music becomes significant to us when we ascribe our own memories and meaning to them, and I have so many distinct memories of Coldplay music.

  • In 2006, sitting in a cafe on a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska, playing Magic the Gathering with my brothers, the riff from “Clocks” playing quietly in the background
  • On a ski trip in 2007, “Swallowed in the Sea” endlessly looping in my head up the lifts and down the slopes because my orchestra friend mentioned it the week before
  • Learning the piano riff in “The Scientist” in 2008 and playing it quietly into headphones on my roommate’s keyboard in the common room
  • A Rush of Blood as my constant companion on those long transcontinental flights, blending into the white noise from the jet engines
  • Queuing their life LeftRightLeftRightLeft on Youtube and letting it roll as I delved into intense coding projects
  • learning how to type with Dvorak keyboards in 2010 by transcribing song lyrics, often from Coldplay’s songs like “In My Place” and “Amsterdam”
  • 2011, sitting a dark corner of a Science Center lecture hall, grading psets quietly while sharing headphones and listening to “Up in Flames”

There are plenty more, but the one song that has been imbued with the most personal significance is “Fix You”.

“Fix You” is a Coldplay masterpiece. When it starts with the quietly inspiring lyrics and friendly organ line, you can just hear both sorrow and hope in the music. The bass, piano, strings, and then guitar enter one by one, like friends coming together in solidarity to play this steady song. A subtle crescendo rises through the layering, not from any one part raising its volume. When the uplifting instrumental break begins, all it needs is the uncomplicated three-note guitar solo and the unmistakable drum line. When the piano pounds out the song’s signature chords, the song explodes into exuberant energy! All four of them shout out that glorious choral harmony, and it’s awesome. The sonic atmosphere is so fulfilling, supportive, and beautifully simple, and it makes the song so powerful.

Back in 2008, I needed that. I was thrilled to be at Harvard, but it came at the cost of some of the most crucial friendships in my life. When stretched across the country, some of those friendships snapped, and I was left without the connections that held me steady through high school. How or why I turned to Coldplay’s music I don’t know, but I do remember how I would don my headphones, turn up the volume, close my eyes, and let the song wash through me. And somehow, it worked. Listening to the song just made me feel safer. Again in 2010 I found myself turning to “Fix You”, but for a different reason. I felt drained of motivation and was searching for a source of comfort and guidance, so I put on my headphones again and turned up the song even louder. It was like I wanted to imagine them reaching out to me personally and helping me back on the right track.

I’m not alone in that sentiment; the whole world hears the song like that. Coldplay played it at the 9/11 memorial, Steve Jobs’s memorial, and countless other symbolic concerts. The song was a turning point for the band too, when instead of laying 15 of Chris’s voices they sang their groundbreaking four-part harmony and realized their strength as a true four-piece band. Somehow, people can just find solace in that song.

When I listen to “Fix You”, I see past versions of me in my head, ghosts from those lost and misguided times in my life. Without music by my side, they might continue to haunt me to this day, but instead they merely remind me how much I have grown and how enduring those times helped me thrive in their wake. You know what it feels like, that good feeling. “Fix You” sends shivers down my spine. It spreads warmth through my whole body. The rest of the world gets a little quieter, a little less urgent, and in that moment all I want to do is listen to the song and be content.

That is the power of music. That’s why I will always be a Coldplay fan, and that’s why Coldplay will stay with me forever.


Lights will guide you home

and ignite your bones

and I will try to fix you.

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