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A Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay
Coldplay is one of the most successful bands in the world, and yet their breakthrough work almost needs a public defense.
Aimee Mann as Coldplay Co-Signer
Aimee Mann deserves her own essay and she’ll probably get one, but today she serves to co-sign another artist. You see Aimee Mann defines “cool” for me in ways that few other artists possibly could. I’m guessing most of you have heard of her, but she’s far from the kind of mainstream popularity that sometimes threatens the very essence of cool. Isn’t it crazy that you have to be cool to be popular, but if you get too popular you might lose your sense of cool? Anyway, Aimee Mann is cool.
The way too short version? She had a one-hit-wonder start with the song “Voices Carry” with her new wave band ‘Til Tuesday and then went on to defy the one-hit label. She broke into the mainstream with her songs in the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed Magnolia. She even got an Oscar nomination for “Save Me,” only to lose to Phil Collins who had a song in the animated Tarzan. I love Phil Collins too, but it’s hysterical that it played out that way. If anything it only bolsters the cool case for Aimee that she and PTA would lose to Phil Collins and Disney in an art contest.
As I said, Aimee Mann will get her own treatment on this site at some point, but today, you’ll have to take my word for it that she’s a total badass. So why am I talking about Aimee Mann in relation to an essay about Coldplay and A Rush of Blood to the Head? In 2002, she released a live cover of “The Scientist” that is sublime. Listen to it for yourself.
That’s very much the story of Coldplay. I think their album - A Rush of Blood to the Head - is a nearly flawless record. It came out in a time period where we still had a hangover from the late 90s and we didn’t quite know which way things were trending in popular music, specifically rock music, in a post-2000 world. Coldplay has gone on to be wildly successful, selling more than 100 million records and selling out basically every show they’ve played for nearly 20 years. And yet, in the realm of music, they’re more Nickelback than Radiohead in terms of respect. But it didn’t start that way. When A Rush of Blood to the Head was released, the sky was the limit for Coldplay. In so many ways, they’ve reached beyond the sky, and yet, there’s an air of scorn around the band.
But we’re going beyond that.
Aimee Mann choosing to cover one of your songs at the time period she covered it was far from an ironic poke at the band. It’s validating for them in that moment in time. So much about these essays is erasing what we know about how the story ends, and go back to the start to remember how we felt before we knew. Coldplay needs no help from me, but it still felt necessary to lead with Aimee Mann defending the honor of a band and a song that has over one billion streams on Spotify. It’s a strange world we live in, isn’t it?
Anyway, this week A Rush of Blood to the Head is the Album of Record.
Coldplay was formed in 1996 but for most of us, the story of Coldplay begins in 2000 with the release of the song “Yellow” from their full-length debut album Parachutes. I think I first heard “Yellow” on some network TV promo for their fall lineup or something. I specifically remember hearing the anthemic final piece of the song as the marching guitar lead sends the band into a celebratory, yet somehow sullen finish to the song. I’m going to make it up and say that there were clips of CSI strewn in? It probably wasn’t CSI, but you couldn’t argue with this guess.
Listening to the song again recently, I can hear little discordant notes in the doubled vocals. I’m not sure if these were intentional or accidental, but whatever the case, they worked to create an infectious vibe for a song with giant crossover appeal from alternative rock stations to adult contemporary. Parachutes, as an album, however, was just alright.
“Trouble” is a good song that stands the test of time. “Don’t Panic,” “Shiver,” and “Sparks” are nice songs to go along with “Yellow,” but the record is pretty uneven. For most people, if the band disappeared completely after Parachutes, Coldplay would be a one-hit-wonder. But it was a hell of a hit!
“Yellow” was a staple on my mix CDs in those days. I left for college at Boston University in Fall of 1997 as a computer geek with a CD burner in the ginormous custom PC tower that I painstakingly put together myself. The Napster revolution happened while I was there. I also grew up on mixtape culture, so making mix CDs was one of my favorite things. One of the features of the MP3 era was a return to singles culture. If you could try out music a song at a time by downloading just one file, you were more willing to take a chance on a band like Coldplay and their one song. You could easily drop it on a mix CD and fall in love with it in a way you couldn’t if it was one of five discs in a disc changer. I don’t know who I’d be as a music fan without that era, but I’d be much different, that’s for sure.
I can remember my final days in college driving around in my used 1997 Honda Accord (with a salvage title, no less) pumping CDs into the aftermarket Pioneer CD player playing my custom mix CDs because, honestly, who could trust the radio? I liked some of the top alternative songs of the day.
The top 50 alternative songs of 2001? “Yellow” finished 24th. The top ten include some solid bands like Incubus, Tool, and Linkin Park, but they’re followed closely by Staind, Nickelback, and Lifehouse. Alien Ant Farm and Sum 41 and Crazy Town and P.O.D. and Puddle of Mudd and and and… It’s not a banner period in alternative rock music, to say the least. Yes, I was listening to lots of Staind, but it doesn’t hold up and I know it. You don’t always know you’re listening to music that’s “of a particular moment” while you’re in the actual moment. Something like disco was seen as a fad, and I remember thinking it was a fad when boot-scooting line dance bars popped up for country music in Chesterland Ohio where I went to high school. I was proven right when the boot-scootin bar closed and became seven different restaurants over the course of the next decade, but I digress.
In the early 2000s it was just a muddled mess. Emo metal like Staind was living alongside pop-metal and fusion rap-rock, but tossed into the mix on alternative radio were songs like “Yellow,” and “Hanging by a Moment” by Lifehouse. Nothing made sense. There was no cohesion. Somehow out of that muddled mess at the end of my college years, Coldplay went into the studio just six days after 9/11/2001 and started recording the follow-up to Parachutes.
Living Through 9/11 and Catching a Quarter-Life Crisis
While Coldplay was in the studio writing their first song in a post-9/11 world, I was still a nervous wreck. 9/17/2001 was just about 20 years ago exactly and I was feeling literally terrified. I didn’t live in New York, but all the planes that were used as weapons had left Logan Airport in Boston. The days after 9/11 while the world held its collective breath, in Boston, we held our breath a little bit tighter than most places other than New York. The investigations were ongoing as they identified the locations and landmarks the terrorists had visited in Boston prior to delivering the largest blow to the country since Pearl Harbor. I was close to graduation and this obviously changed the outlook of the world drastically for everyone, including me.
Beyond the worldwide tragedy impacting us all, I was also feeling like a failure personally. I had been working for a company in Cambridge Massachusetts and delayed my graduation by a semester mostly unintentionally because I was working too much and didn’t plan my credits appropriately. No harm, no foul though. I was working in business development as an intern for an internet company and had the job I wanted all lined up! The company I worked for had been acquired in a merger and we had just moved into this swanky new office space with a ping pong table and a fancy coffee machine and space for a big expansion in cubicle-dwellers. What could go wrong?
The dot-com bubble burst, they laid everyone off and started to wind down operations. I was one of the last people to go because I was so inexpensive, relatively speaking. On the downside, I no longer had a safe landing spot after I was set to graduate with a finance degree in a post 9/11 world. On the upside, I was likely the only college super senior in my school who was riding out a severance package that was a parting gift from the excesses of the dot-com era. I remember sitting in my cube with no business to develop anymore, depressed and listening to “Chop Suey!” by System of a Down on repeat. It was an ill-gotten MP3 recorded off the radio and it had the final notes of Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” fading out as the opening to “Chop Suey!” began.
It’s important context for this album because 9/11 happened and then Coldplay entered the studio six days later with essentially one song, “In My Place” in hand. The opening song on A Rush of Blood to the Head is a song called “Politik” that was written on 9/11 by Chris Martin. The band recorded it on 9/13 and it was cathartic for the band to “hit our instruments as loudly as possible.” But that’s not what grabbed me about “Politik” and set about making the album a modern masterpiece. The second half of the song is where the magic happens.
Heading into minute three, the song gets sparse and atmospheric.
“And give me love over
Love over, love over this, ahh
Give me love over
Love over, love over this, ahh”
And then the song resolves into a soothing, triumphant symphony of “oohs” with drummer Will Champion, bass player Guy Berryman, and guitarist Jonny Buckland blasting away. When you see the band perform it live, Chris Martin’s spastic performance threatens to steal the show, but it’s an ultimate example of a band all pulling in the same direction to serve a song. We wouldn’t hear it until August of 2002, almost a year after 9/11, but it was obviously still top of mind as the art created in the aftermath of the tragedy started to make its way into popular culture.
I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I heard it for the first time, but it hit all the emotional peaks that I look for in a song. There are just certain parts of songs that encapsulate the reasons I listen to music. The end of “Politik” is one of those parts. It’s emotional, anthemic, but not-quite-celebratory. It’s hopeful but not fully resolved. The final note tells you as much. You feel great, but the final note isn’t a triumphant major chord. They hit you with a slightly unsettling final note.
Even though I don’t remember exactly where I was, I know exactly how I was feeling. I now know that I was in the midst of a major quarter-life crisis. I had moved back home after graduating in December. I got a job in a big corporation, and I moved to an apartment with a friend. Things were going fine until I settled into the groove of working and realized that the changing of the seasons no longer meant much. As a student for the better part of 20 years, I lived by the rhythm of breaks, including a summer break. After a few months on the job in the midst of a Cleveland winter, I looked around at my predictable weekly schedule and living for the weekend, only to do it all over again, and wondered, “Is this it?” I was lonely, depressed, drinking way too much, and that made me even less desirable to hang out with, so the loneliness kept expanding. Self-sabotage is a hell of a drug.
I did what I always do and leaned into music. There were many albums that I clung to, but A Rush of Blood to the Head was a big one. I loved the whole album. It flowed so well and every song felt like it belonged after the next. I was never a big lyrics guy, so the overall musical vibe of the front half of the album just worked for me. From “Politik” to “Clocks” is one of the strongest album openers I can think of.
We didn’t know who Coldplay was going to become. All we knew is that they took the success of “Yellow,” and didn’t rest on their laurels. They put together an album that was “of the moment” in the best possible way. It feels like a complete work. Where “Yellow” had been a perfect example of the MP3 craze and lived in my mix CD world, A Rush of Blood to the Head defied that new paradigm, dragging you back into the album world whether you wanted to be there or not.
Why Does Everyone Hate Coldplay?
To be fair, this question could be viewed as a straw man. How can you say everyone hates a band that sells out shows worldwide in large venues and has billions of streams? Obviously, they’re loved by many. Still, there’s something about Coldplay that makes people presume they stink or that they’re somehow uncool or bad. I asked my friends on Twitter what they think it was, and here’s what we came up with.
People didn’t like that he married Gwyneth Paltrow in 2003.
People didn’t like them on the Super Bowl 50 halftime show.
In the 40-Year-Old Virgin, Coldplay was the punchline as to why someone might be gay.
Talk about a joke that wouldn’t get written today!
Take it from me though. If you google “Why do people hate Coldplay?” there are over 2.3 million results. There are numerous Reddit threads. There’s an entire article on Vice about it from a British perspective.
There is some sort of deep-seated guilty association that prevents us from heralding Coldplay with the reverence their biggest, most affecting tracks deserve – that makes us put disclaimers on any compliment. Is it because they are the music equivalent of feeling moved by an episode of Hollyoaks? Is it our hang-ups over them being the next U2? Our hangover from the bleak period in the mid 2000s when Snow Patrol and The Fray poured cups of lukewarm tea into our collective gullets? That’s certainly part of it.
It all comes back to who we are as people. Chris Martin, for all his talent, is an employee eating a cheese sandwich in his cubicle. He is the guy you met at that party one time who you really need to delete off Facebook, but haven’t. He is the Next Christmas sale, your Uncle shopping in Fat Face, and your drama teacher waving his hands. He’s your ex-boyfriend, lights dimmed in the room and candles lit, strumming through a song he “penned” on the bus home from work. There’s something so everyday, so pedestrian about him - if the average person wrote a song on the guitar and DM’d you a Soundcloud link, the end point they would feasibly get to would be close to “Yellow”. By choosing not to like Chris Martin’s music, we’re choosing to strive harder, higher, and further than what we deem to be average.
It’s almost like Coldplay can’t escape their efficiency. Nothing about them is superlative unless you look at the sum total of the parts. There’s no chance that any of them will end up on best of lists as individual musicians. Not the best guitar, drums, bass, singer, or anything else. They’ve defied the rock-god archetype and made it to the top just the same and it seems to cause fans to distrust them at best and loathe them at worst.
No matter though. I’m far too old to care about that kind of stuff anymore. I’ve found my footing in the camp of letting people like what they like. I no longer believe in guilty pleasures in music. If you have music that gives you pleasure, why should you feel guilty about it?
Seeing Coldplay at Their Pinnacle
I wasn’t in the crowd that thought Coldplay sucked. I might not have thought they were the coolest band in my collection, but I appreciated them. In a full-circle kind of way, as Coldplay happened to be there as I connected some serious dots in my life, I had a chance to see them with my fiancé in the luxury suite of the giant corporation I still worked for in March of 2006. The lonely college boy with no future who faced down a crippling quarter-life crisis brought on by his first job at ginormo-corp was enjoying the fruits of that job with a girl who actually liked him. I had faced down the quarter-life crisis. I defied my own self-sabotage and found a girl who not only liked me but moved to Cleveland and wanted to be married to me. Talk about the ride of a lifetime. I’d be lying if I said we dated and got married to Coldplay. It didn’t even register as one of the most important albums, but it provides a really nice bookend.
The band released their third album X&Y, including “Fix You,” which is probably their most powerful song next to “The Scientist.” That’s the tour my future wife and I saw for free thanks to ginormo-corp. We also got all the Heineken we could drink, which passed for a fancy beer in an arena in those days. Is there anything more cliché than drinking Heineken in a luxury suite while watching Coldplay? I’m a defender of the band and I told you I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but the imagery of this scene is not how I picture myself at my coolest, ya know?
Anyway, it was a phenomenal arena rock show. That’s who Coldplay had become by that point, and they leaned into it. I enjoyed the show so much that I put together a Spotify playlist of the setlist some years later.
They peppered the night with songs from A Rush of Blood to the Head, including “Politik,” “The Scientist,” “Clocks,” and “In My Place.” They had the giant yellow beach balls popping all over the audience during “Yellow.” They ended the night with “Fix You” with Chris Martin swinging a giant light bulb on a string over the entire audience. It was a bit gimmicky, but it was just incredibly moving and fun.
For me, the night was stolen by the live version of “The Scientist.” The song starts with Chris Martin all alone at the piano and a video going on the screen behind him. The whole audience sang along “nobody said it would be easy,” and it was a perfect singalong. The second verse is when the rest of the band reveals themselves a piece at a time. First, guitarist Jonny Buckland on acoustic guitar and finally bass and drums kick in with Guy Berryman and Will Champion respectively. Essentially, they’re just the backup band for the audience to sing along with the big chorals and call and response. It wasn’t the most original thing in the world, but that’s not what rock music is about all the time.
I didn’t care what Coldplay would ever do again. The band didn’t owe me anything more than what they already delivered on those first three albums spanning my time in college until I was engaged to be married and all the vicissitudes in between. So even if the band is disposable for some or a joke to others, it was part of the soundtrack of a time in my life. It isn’t always about the music as much as it is the one-to-one relationship the music has to any one person during any moment of time in their lives.
As I reflect on A Rush of Blood to the Head today nearly 20 years later, it’s with that in mind. And if you don’t want to take it from me, take it from Aimee Mann.