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.