Article Thumbnail

With ‘Yellow,’ Coldplay Made Sincerity Popular, Deeply Uncool

For more than 20 years, the self-effacing British superstars have followed the template of their first big hit to perfect a brand of uplifting, totally pleasant, utterly inoffensive pop music that people love to mock

The first time I heard “Yellow,” I honestly thought, “Oh wow, Dave Matthews finally wrote a really good song.” That confusion might sound silly now, but at the time it was understandable to think that was Matthews’ voice coming from your speakers — his sensitive lilt wasn’t that different from the one by this newcomer from Britain, a hopeless romantic singing about the stars that shine in the sky for his one true love. It was 2000, we were in the midst of nu-metal, and a band called Coldplay planted their flag with a song called “Yellow.”

It’s hard to think of a band this century that’s quite the same perfect package of mainstream popularity, industry respect, consistent tunefulness and utter disposability as Coldplay is. They sell out arenas, their albums still go platinum and they keep producing hits. (Their recent collaboration with BTS, “My Universe,” went to No. 1, their second single to do so.) They have remained the most beloved of the post-Radiohead British bands to channel that group’s moody aesthetic into a more mainstream, pop-friendly sound. (“We are not as good musically, but much more attractive,” frontman Chris Martin once said when asked to compare his band to theirs.) And everything that’s pretty and sincere about Coldplay is embodied in “Yellow.” Sometimes when it comes on, you want to run screaming from the room. Other times, you can’t get over how lovely it is. Wimp-rockers are like that, and pretending you’re utterly immune is a lie no one buys.

Give Coldplay credit: It’s been the same four guys in the band since the beginning. Alongside Martin, there’s guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion. Their name was essentially gifted to them by Tim Rice-Oxley, a musician from another rising U.K. group, Keane, who had come up with Coldplay but decided it was “too depressing.” Such concerns didn’t bother Martin, who was always an introspective, gentle guy growing up, which didn’t endear him to classmates. 

“When I went to boarding school, I walked a bit funny and I bounced a bit and I was also very homophobic because I was like, ‘If I’m gay, I’m completely fucked for eternity,’ and I was a kid like discovering sexuality,” Martin said in 2019. “I was terrified. … I was in a boarding school with a bunch of quite hardcore kids who were also gone for their thing and, for a few years, they would very much say, ‘You’re definitely gay,’ in quite a full-on manner, quite aggressively telling me that and it was weird for me for a few years.”

Teaming up in college, the band recorded a couple EPs in the late 1990s before, armed with a contract from the legendary Parlophone, they got into the studio to record their first full-length album. “We thought we could do it in two weeks, man,” Martin later recalled. “You know, like the Band or something. Well, after two weeks, we hadn’t done anything. We kept setting deadlines and never making them. It was pretty manic and painful, but in the end it was all worth it.”

The group had some catchy songs — including “Shiver,” which was bolstered by a Radiohead-like guitar figure and Martin’s soothing falsetto — but later Martin would come up with what would become “Yellow.” In fact, the song was dreamed up during some downtime while recording “Shiver.” “It was just a complete accident,” said Martin. “I was waiting around, and our producer, Ken [Nelson], was talking about how beautiful it was outside because of the stars. And then while I was waiting to do a take at the guitar, I was just messing around.”

Here’s what he came up with:

Look at the stars 
Look how they shine for you 
And everything you do 
Yeah, they were all yellow 
I came along 
I wrote a song for you 
And all the things you do 
And it was called “Yellow” 
So then I took my turn 
Oh, what a thing to have done 
And it was all yellow

There are plenty of songs about writing songs for that special someone. (Elton John’s “Your Song” instantly comes to mind.) But “Yellow” came out of Martin effortlessly. “At first I was singing it like a Neil Young song, and that melody came out and it sounded wicked,” he said. “The first verse and the chorus came really quickly to me, and I thought it was beautiful. That was the very first time I felt that way, ‘cause usually I doubt all my songs in the beginning.” Apparently, “Yellow” wasn’t about anyone in particular, but that only made heartfelt lines like “You know I love you so” more affecting — it wasn’t attached to a single human being, like how we know that Beyoncé is singing about Jay-Z. 

Still, when it came time to plot out a first single for their debut, Parachutes, the decision was made to go with “Shiver,” which did decently on the charts. But “Yellow” was the smash, going to No. 4 in the U.K. And although it failed to enter the Top 40 here in the States, it was all over college radio, which made sense considering how Americans had reacted to other post-Radiohead bands. Britpop was massive in England in the 1990s, with only Oasis really breaking through in the U.S., and likewise groups such as Keane, Travis and Elbow had a far bigger impact in Europe than here, where they were treated mostly as indie-rock outfits. Initially, Coldplay was a slightly more polished version of their peers, struggling to establish a foothold in an American marketplace that was much more into Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park. 

In a 2003 interview with the L.A. Times, Martin recalled being part of rock bills in the U.S., where the audience would throw things at them, rejecting their more melodic tunes. “We were confused about what we were trying to do and who we were trying to please,” Martin admitted. “Instead of focusing on all that bad stuff, I [decided] to focus on the four people in the audience who … paid their money and want us to show how much we are into it. I stopped being shy about showing how much I cared about what I’m doing.”

Starting with Parachutes, Coldplay have never been sheepish about showing how much they care. While many of their cohorts made empathetic, melancholy music, none of them combined Coldplay’s sincerity with their gift for radio-ready hooks. Of course, that’s what made it so ironic that they were even once compared to Radiohead, who actively challenged its audience and seemed distrustful of success. They released their divisive follow-up to OK Computer, Kid A, just a few months after Parachutes, practically abandoning traditional guitar-bass-drums rock for a more keyboard-driven, electronic-influenced sound. Now Kid A is viewed as a masterpiece, but there was a lot of debate about that in 2000, which paved the way for a more user-friendly Radiohead to click with a wide audience. Coldplay was easy-listening for the NPR crowd — they made smart, soulful tunes for people who didn’t want their music too edgy.

And, in reference to Martin’s crack about the differences between the two groups, Coldplay definitely had the more charismatic, self-deprecating, pinup frontman. While Radiohead made arty, groundbreaking videos, lots of people first fell in love with Coldplay because of a clip in which Martin just flashed his earnest eyes at the camera as he walked along an empty, overcast beach lip-synching his emotional words in slow-motion. Forget the artistic aspirations of Radiohead or the angry rants of nu-metal: Here was just a dude pouring his heart out in a poncho.

Initially, the plan wasn’t for Martin to be in the video all by himself. But the rest of his bandmates had other commitments, forcing him to go it alone. “The weather was just so bad; you know, it rains a lot in Britain,” he recalled. “We had one day to shoot ‘cause we were going on tour the next day — we, I, had no choice. It was meant to be a sunny video on the beach, but we had to change that. There were all these extras waiting to be part of the video shoot, but they were all miserable and all they wanted to do was to go home. So I just walked along the beach and sang to the camera. The whole thing took 20 minutes and we all went home.”

The “Yellow” video wasn’t as singular as Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which focused primarily on her vulnerable face, but it generated a similar intimacy that made Coldplay — and Martin in particular — feel authentic. That’s such an overused word, but normally it means “This thing has integrity, as opposed to something else out in the culture that’s kinda like it but way more annoying.” However you want to define “authentic,” Coldplay had it, which they embraced. “I think, especially when we took [‘Yellow’] to America, it was something that was very different to what was on the radio,” Champion later said. “There was a lot of that nu-metal, like Limp Bizkit. It was heavy, very masculine music. I think ‘Yellow’ represented something that was possibly under-represented.” And it came in the form of the handsome, agreeably beta-male Martin, whose thinning hair and kind expression made him seem approachable. In an era of NSYNC and Eminem, he was adorable, manly but unthreatening — a heartthrob who didn’t seem like a creep or a kid.

Next up was global domination. Coldplay’s 2002 follow-up, A Rush of Blood to the Head, sold even better than Parachutes and made them huge in the U.S. (It also turned them briefly into critics’ darlings, landing in the Top 10 of The Village Voice’s influential Pazz & Jop album poll.) They were an arena band with a knack for the mid-tempo number and the singalong ballad. “In My Place,” “The Scientist” and “Clocks” were just about ubiquitous on the radio, offering melodic comfort and gentle uplift for listeners still reeling from 9/11 and grappling with this new War on Terror. At a moment when the world was a frightening place, Coldplay gave you a big hug. They won Grammys, they were humble about their superstardom, and their frontman married one of the most famous women in the world in Gwyneth Paltrow. (They named their first born Apple. People had a field day with that.) And Coldplay just kept bigger and bigger.

Eventually, though, the band’s finely crafted pleasantness triggered a backlash. In 2005, New York Times music critic Jon Pareles delivered a haymaker essay, “The Case Against Coldplay,” opening with this salvo:

“There’s nothing wrong with self-pity. As a spur to songwriting, it’s right up there with lust, anger and greed, and probably better than the remaining deadly sins. There’s nothing wrong, either, with striving for musical grandeur, using every bit of skill and studio illusion to create a sound large enough to get lost in. Male sensitivity, a quality that’s under siege in a pop culture full of unrepentant bullying and machismo, shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, no matter how risible it can be in practice. And building a sound on the lessons of past bands is virtually unavoidable.  

“But put them all together and they add up to Coldplay, the most insufferable band of the decade.”

“It was a big deal,” Martin told Rolling Stone about Pareles’ takedown of the group. “It’s the first real attack on your band, and from a publication we all respect. I agreed with a lot of the points. It was like, ‘Yeah, I do sometimes go for the obvious, and I do sometimes fall back on old tricks.’ So, in a way, it was liberating to see that someone else realized that also. And there is something glamorous to me in taking a bit of a beating and keeping on going.”

There would be other attacks, too. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke once supposedly dubbed Coldplay “lifestyle music.” (What did Martin think of that dig? “I’m in love with a lot of things,” he replied. “Some of those things love me back. And some of them don’t — and one of them is Radiohead.”) And in 2011, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a whole piece where he grappled with what he described as Coldplay’s “vexingly adequate music.” Eventually, he had to throw up his hands: “The tunes are there, usually three to an album,” he conceded, “but that is something you could say of even Coldplay’s weakest contemporaries, like Maroon 5. What raises the band to some higher level of accessibility must be an averaging of Martin’s guarantee never to shock or offend anyone — which parents value — and the toy-soldier brand of pageantry and celebration that underpins so many songs. Coldplay keeps throwing massive parades for itself, without explanation or merit. Some folks just love confetti.”

Coldplay continued to have bestsellers, like Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, but any notion that they were cutting-edge or cool had long since vanished. (Tellingly, they’re the only act to headline the Super Bowl halftime show who got upstaged by their special guest.) Martin — the one band member most humans could pick out of a lineup — tried to laugh off Coldplay’s detractors. He leaned into being a normie, even when hip-hop acts like Jay-Z and Kanye West were clamoring to have him guest on their songs. Coldplay were the opposite of dad-rock — they were more like mom-rock, the sort of polite, friendly music that would make your mother appreciate what fine, upstanding young men they must be. They were the sort of guys moms want their daughters to marry — even though the daughter would much rather get with a bad boy. Their videos were sweet and dorky. They always, always meant no harm.

If you stay in the public consciousness long enough, well, then you never go away. New generations decided they liked Coldplay, too — which might explain why Gen Z turns to the band’s songs, including “Yellow,” to score their Tik Toks. But while writing about the phenomenon, MEL’s Magdalene Taylor noted that it’s not just people Apple’s age who are doing it: “[T]he original and slowed-down versions of ‘Yellow’ are regularly used in montages moms make of their kids from infancy to toddlerhood.” That development shouldn’t be surprising considering that filmmaker Richard Linklater featured “Yellow” as the opening song to Boyhood, perhaps our era’s defining film about growing up. Ellar Coltrane’s impressionable, innocent face as he lays on the grass, looking up at the sky, embodied all of the song’s tear-jerking sentiment. Who said “Yellow” had to be a romantic love song? It works perfectly for any expression of pure love. It’s a Hallmark card that’s good for all occasions. 

You still hear a lot of the DNA of “Yellow” in the band’s work, including their new album, Music of the Spheres, which has gotten mixed reviews. That earnestness, that desire to connect, that reliance on soothing sentiment is still with them, although it no longer seems as fresh as it once did. In recent years, Coldplay’s emotional authenticity has felt a lot more prefabricated as they self-consciously team up with hitmakers and rising stars to bolster their own standing. And with each new album and its new crop of predictably stirring songs, the genuineness of “Yellow” — the sense that it sprung from Martin’s subconscious unbidden — is a little harder to remember. 

The slightly fragile acoustic guitar that opens “Yellow” was always part of the song’s charm, as if the band was a little nervous about showing the world their sensitivity. Likewise, Martin’s falsetto worked because it didn’t seem like he totally believed in it — he didn’t know yet it would become his staple. The lyrics are almost a prayer: The narrator is hoping if he shows her the stars in the sky, then maybe she’ll realize how amazing she is, and also how much he loves her. 

People fell for “Yellow” because they were touched by Martin’s willingness to walk out on that limb to profess his undying devotion — how he refused to be the kind of adrenalized male that was all over rock music in the early 2000s. More than 20 years later, he’s still on that limb, but there’s little special about the gesture anymore. We’ve seen him do it too many times now. Nothing compares to that first love.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information