The Coldplay Effect

Coldplay released their new album, Mylo Xyloto last week, to mixed reviews. I, for one, liked it. Certainly not their best, but it’s still better than most slickly produced, tritely written pop out there. Sure, Coldplay is no Animal Collective in terms of moving pop forward, but then Coldplay is not “indie” and never has been. They’re a popular band and popular for a very good reason: they make quite pleasant, addictive pop music.So why so many haters? Why is Coldplay hipster kryptonite? Why have most self-respect indie kids long abandoned Coldplay to the realm of painfully saccharine, popular radio-ready mainstream bilge?

I think the key words are “popular” and “mainstream.” The gist of it is simple: Coldplay is too popular. Too many normal people know about Coldplay and like them. It holds absolutely no esoteric “cool” cachet to say “I like Coldplay.” Everyone has heard of them and probably owns some of their music.

For hipsters and fans of the obscure and esoteric, this just will not do. They may have loved Coldplay and “owned” that affection circa 2002 when Parachutes was genuinely new and Coldplay was still little-known apart from “Yellow,” but once Coldplay began its meteoric arena rock ascendency and started showing up on Starbucks mix CDs, the cool kids disowned Chris Martin & Co. faster than you can say “meh.”

When asked, “what have you been listening to lately?” no hipster in his/her right mind would say “Coldplay.” They would say “Oh, I’ve been into ____ (insert Brooklyn indie band of the week). Have you heard of them? Didn’t think so.”

The world of indie music is a strange one, because while it favors quality it also favors–perhaps even more–the “hidden/esoteric” quality of little-known music. When a band is unknown to most people, their fans can boast a “privileged, secret knowledge” and have the privilege of being on the cutting edge or inner circle of something new and good. But when too many people get in on the “secret” and also start to appreciate the goodness of it, hipsters must move on to find the next little-known thing.

This is a puzzling paradox for a few reasons. First, if you acknowledge that a band is good and producing quality music, wouldn’t you want as many other people to recognize that fact and be able to appreciate it too? Wouldn’t the widespread public acknowledgement of the quality of your favorite new band be good news to you rather than the cue for you to abandon all ownership of it? And secondly, if you truly do like a band for its quality music, it doesn’t make sense that you would so easily abandon it once it becomes popular. If you do, then it’s clear that your affection for the band was never really about the quality of the music. It was always about the status and cool cachet that the band’s obscurity provided. Once that wore off, so did your affection for the music.

The Coldplay Effect is essentially this: Liking music when it’s convenient to your image (i.e. when not many others know about it) and abandoning it when it becomes mainstream. Of course it goes beyond music too. The same phenomenon happens in fashion, when a style is beloved by trendsetters for a bit but then anathematized when it becomes “on the shelves of Target trendy.” It also happens in food (pork belly is so last year), film (“your favorite filmmaker is Wes Anderson? Hmm… I prefer Truffaut”), and in a whole host of other cultural arenas.

The problem with this attitude towards culture (and I fall into this trap too, of course) is that the appreciation of quality gets subsumed under appreciation of status. The artistry of the work is demeaned when it is turned into a status symbol valued more for its obscurity than for its excellence. And this is a shame, because there’s a lot of stuff out there that may be wildly popular, but is also amazingly good. We shouldn’t ignore or deride something just because of its popularity. Not even Coldplay.

16 responses to “The Coldplay Effect

  1. Brett, Does this mean that if you are an artist/writer or a musician and you have created a certain style of art or you have written a certain type of music or lit for a certain period of time, as well as developing a significant fan base or group of art/lit enthusiasts. On top of that you have also been able to make a comfortable amount of revenue from your work. Then all of a sudden you decide out of boredom and a feeling of artistic stagnation you decide to do a complete 180 in your work, and you individually are pleased with this change, but your fans enthusiasts or patrons are not and your sales and revenue begins to slump. But this is what you want and you don’t care about these side effects. And then over time you start to develop a new fan base that happens to like your new sound or approach more. They then become dedicated and loyal to your new work. Historically speaking this kind of thing has been happening with artists and musicians for many many years even before the modern technological age so it is not really a new occurrence. In fact most artists and musicians now a days will say that it is good to change things up from time to time. My questions for you are A. Is this decision to go in the opposite direction on behalf of the artist/musician/writer wrong. And B. If it is not wrong could it be possible that this feeling of boredom and stagnation can be reversed to where it is the actual fan or the enthusiast who is experiencing this with the artist/musician/writer’s current output? My point I guess is don’t be too hasty in compartmentalizing all hipsters or art/lit enthusiasts who tend to go the route of “The Coldplay Phenomenon” as just doing this in order not to be mainstream. Sure this happens but I think it is just as likely to happen by people just out of artistic boredom on behalf of the fan or enthusiasts. And if the artist/musician/writer can feel this way about his own work why can the fan or enthusiast? Anyway sorry this was so long, but I was just trying to be as clear and concise with my point as possible.

  2. I used to think like this through my last few years of high school, and several years in college, except this was in terms of Underground Hip Hop Music. I was convinced that the masses just couldn’t appreciate quality music. In other words, I was a snob. There were a lot of us who would sit around and try to claim we knew about more underground artists then the next guy. I still think that a lot of mainstream rap music actually sucks for a variety of reasons, but I no longer dismiss everything with broad strokes. Now that I’m older I usually laugh at that whole attitude that I used to have.

  3. I’m working Reslife at a fine arts boarding school, and I find this attitude in some of my residents (whether it be with music, film, literature, etc.). I sent them all the link; this is an eloquent explanation of the problem. Thanks.

  4. I think there’s a deeper desire than an simple attraction to “new” “obscure” or “esoteric.” I think hipsters desire to have something personal.

    Loving the obscure goes deeper than pursuing an image or identity; finding the esoteric is not simply used as a means to an end; I don’t think it’s primarily pragmatic (for some it might be). I think it’s actually a desire to be unique; it’s individualism, I guess.

    But that’s rooted in the simple desire to be valued, affirmed, given worth. In America, only the recognized individual has meaning. That can be as shallow as being cool, or hip, but it comes out a a deeper desire to be loved.

    Coldplay doesn’t distinguish me from others in a way that is lovable. In fact, it may do the opposite. But with the obscure, I have identity, and in that is a avenue to distinction, wherein I can be chosen, known, and loved.

  5. Though I have some “hipster” tendencies,I know that some of the things that I like I truly will always like,in style or out of style,cool or uncool,popular or unknown. I do like the discovery of new things that aren’t commonly known,but that’s because I’m always trying to continue my growth and find new experiences. I do share my new discoveries,but I am slightly cautious of sharing them with people who just jump on bandwagons and then ruin the things that I like by running them into the ground.I have like Coldplay for a short amount of time and they were already hugely popular once I started listening to them. At the same time, most of the people I’m surrounded by don’t listen to anything that is outside of the “culturally correct” options. I still like Coldplay and I don’t expect to fall in love with every song or cd they put out. I’m also looking for what’s next and what’s fresh and new. I look for that in bands/products/clothing that I’m familiar with and also in new places.I look for that in your blog,and I also enjoy finding it.

  6. And then there’s this: Hipsters may rattle off a long list of obscure indie bands as their favorites, but the list almost ends with “. . . and U2.” Ha!

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  8. Brett, I’ve been reading your blog for a few years and have never commented until now. I want to thank you for your insightful commentary on pop culture, including this piece. (nerd alert) I am currently a seminary student, and so I could not read this piece without thinking that you might have the idea of “gnosis” and “Gnosticism” in mind. Anyway, just wanted to say that it is an insightful connection. Interestingly, I think maybe you have hit on a very human reason as to why, I think, Gnosticism itself seems to have died out (at least in its classic form, forms of the Manicheans were still operative during this time, but even Mani had special “visions” that were kind of a secret knowledge.) as Christianity was becoming more mainstream (and of course the Trinitarian and christological controversies furthered the orthodox theologies, but still I am wondering if part of the reason is because it just wasn’t cool anymore? Interesting (to me at least). Anyway, thanks as always, for the insightful commentary.

  9. Pingback: Coldplay for Coldplay haters « Audible Thoughts

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  11. I Fucking hate the term “hipster” so much. The past couple of years all I have heard is, “oh you’re so hipster” or the complete opposite, ” you’re such a hippie” . I hate being labeled. And no, thats not because I’m a closet hipster who wont admit it for the sake of sounding mainstream, but because I could care less about becoming apart of a “clique”. Do I wear somewhat vintage clothing? Yes, because that’s the style i like. Do I support local bands and some artists who aren’t typically popular? Yep! Only because acoustic folk is more my style and unfortunately, that hasnt become very popular… Yet. ( mumford and sons are going to change that, i know it ! ) … But does that mean I don’t support popular bands? Of course not! I have huge respect for ANY artist who has talent! Thats why I hate when I’m approached by a “hipster” who questions why I would love both Coldplay and u2. I love them because they are amazing. If ANYONE of my favorite artists had one of their albums go to number one, I’d be estatic.
    It’s almost as if I’m into all the “hipster” activities, minus the arrogant and ignorant personality that goes along with it.

    Oh well. I’m just my own person, I suppose :)

  12. I Fucking hate the term “hipster” so much. The past couple of years all I have heard is, “oh you’re so hipster” or the complete opposite, ” you’re such a hippie” . I hate being labeled. And no, thats not because I’m a closet hipster who wont admit it for the sake of sounding mainstream, but because I could care less about becoming apart of a “clique”. Do I wear somewhat vintage clothing? Yes, because that’s the style i like. Do I support local bands and some artists who aren’t typically popular? Yep! Only because acoustic folk is more my style and unfortunately, that hasnt become very popular… Yet. ( mumford and sons are going to change that, i know it ! ) … But does that mean I don’t support popular bands? Of course not! I have huge respect for ANY artist who has talent! Thats why I hate when I’m approached by a “hipster” who questions why I would love both Coldplay and u2. I love them because they are amazing. If ANYONE of my favorite artists had one of their albums go to number one, I’d be estatic.
    It’s almost as if I’m into all the “hipster” activities, minus the arrogant and ignorant personality that goes along with it.

    Oh well. I’m just my own person, I suppose :)

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