No one has placed Coldplay at the forefront of 2002‘s ”rock renaissance“ yet, so let’s be the first. Yeah, sure, they sound more like a fey British import than a rough-and-tumble rock band. Yeah, they‘ll sell more records than the Strokes, the White Stripes, etc. (Most of the new rock bands have stalled short of a half-million units shifted.) And yeah, Coldplay lack the signifiers of their trendier peers — their music doesn’t bite, they don‘t wear cute outfits, and they don’t update and polish the sound of a classic but commercially unsuccessful band from decades past.
But despite this lack — or rather because of it — their music provides an insight into the true craving the new rock satisfies. In the light of Coldplay, we can see past the stylistic tics of these new bands and get at why their music has made us care again.
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If you‘re the type of music snob that gets surly about music that sounds effortless, you’ll get annoyed by Coldplay‘s sophomore effort, A Rush of Blood to the Head. One could complain about the samey sound from track to track, and the best songs are the ones that switch up their tempos, raising the bar on internal tension — ”Clocks,“ ”A Whisper,“ the title track. But perhaps complaints are beside the point. This is the most listenable record so far this year.
It begins with a swelling of sound, the sustain of massed violins. The song is called ”Politik.“ Strings give way to pulsing drums. They’re strong and forceful yet steady and slow. Pianist and front man Chris Martin begins to sing. Martin has the voice of an androgyne, and constantly breaks into high if not-quite-keening notes. He‘s seductive, but he stands apart from the balladeers that have paraded before us in recent years. Unlike Ricky Martin or R. Kelly, he won’t seduce you with assertiveness; his voice is wanton, wavery. It‘s all about pink moons and moondances and sad-eyed ladies of the lowlands being saved by gentle princes on horseback.
It’s an odd, romantic vibration, the sound of life‘s messiness pouring into an environment that’s been hermetically sealed far too long. Martin wants what we are.
Give me time and give me space
Give me real don‘t give me fake
Give me strength, reserve, control
Give me heart and give me soul
Martin’s high drama doesn‘t let up over the record’s 11 songs, and the balladeer in him is largely responsible for this album‘s success. But other aspects of Coldplay are crucial. Martin’s piano playing will inspire Bics to be flicked as house lights dim on their tour route. Jonny Buckland‘s restrained guitar sustains the songs’ forward momentum with the right combination of electric fuzz and acoustic pluck. And Guy Berryman‘s bass has enough thump to give the androgyne a spine. But what keeps you listening is Martin — his vulnerability, his availability. Listen to him long enough, and you’ll come to think it‘s not so much the rock that’s returned, but something less mysterious and far more precious than leather jackets and surly teenage attitude, self-doubt and electric guitars. You‘ll be seduced by softness.
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What links Coldplay’s music to the new rock music and elevates them above the trend-just-past is this availability, this presence. To put Coldplay‘s recent success in context — their new album debuted in the Billboard Top 5 — think about the annoying last big thing, namely teen-pop. It was a genre defined by absence. Consider where its main mascot stumbled.
In May 2000, Britney Spears followed up her 10x platinum debut, Baby One More Time, with the appropriately titled Oops . . . I Did It Again. It sounded a hell of a lot like the first one, with one exception, a cover of a rock & roll song: ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.“
Where Jagger and Richards brought us a sinister, almost evil burst of flesh and spunk and blood, Spears delivered clenched pop-funk. Semisanitized for the AOLWal-Mart demographic, her version of ”Satisfaction“ came off as mechanized and bloodless. Even the most obvious ironies were ignored. There were no girlies being chased, and no cigarettes. Covering the song was supposedly Spears‘ idea, and you can imagine her reasoning. She was positioning herself to (rock &) roll with the inevitable backlash against her pixieslut image.
No one was impressed. Spears’ preteen faithful were way too young to understand nostalgia. Her older fans, if they knew who Jagger was, were probably so stuck in the teenage wasteland that they could only appreciate him as a creepy grandpa figure. And one can imagine the reaction of parents along for the ride, their shame at hearing how easy it was for the young to turn their transgressive heroes into processed cheese.
In an epic stroke of bad timing, Spears‘ third album, Britney, came out in November 2001. Even though Britney featured a not-awful pop single produced by hot production team the Neptunes, and a not-awful ballad, ”I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,“ current events made her seem even more irrelevant than usual. Critics said it was a more ”human“ album than earlier efforts, and many pronounced it the best yet of the teen-pop boomlet, but it sold less than 4 million copies, a huge disappointment in the teen-pop stratosphere.
As strategic moves and stabs at credibility, these maneuvers were pointless. Her career wasn‘t sinking because we wanted a more credible or a more mature Britney — if there’s one thing we Americans can agree upon, it‘s the universality of supple breasts and thinly veiled soft porn. Problem was, there was no substance behind the spandex. Her lifelong aspirations toward fame — honed by years on The Mickey Mouse Club — provided Spears a personality. But there was no person, just a vessel, raised to actualize her parents’ affection for shows like Star Search and American Idol. Britney is JonBenet Ramsey, grown up and made good. Or maybe she‘s just the new Cher.
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Observing that Spears and the public had a falling-out when she tried her hand at credible music is not to say that credible music can’t be effectively counterfeited. The music of the current ”rock renaissance“ has been great — and rarely original. The punk of the White Stripes nods to Led Zeppelin and older blues traditions. The urbane ennui of the Strokes originated in the ‘60s and ’70s with the Velvet Underground and Television. The attitude of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs draws from New York‘s No Wave circa 1980. The Hives distill the Stones’ garage-rock howl. Contemporary rock‘s most likely breakouts, Australia’s the Vines, revisit a style of more recent vintage: Nirvanaesque grunge rock circa ‘92.
Which brings us to the well-dressed men of Interpol, who have accented their new-wave noir look with a damn fine record, the just-released Turn on the Bright Lights. Weirdly enough, Interpol are the least original of their peers. It’s a total Joy Division rip-off: The stark yet funky percussion so precise it could be keyed to a click track, the slashing guitars, the hopscotching yelp of Ian Curtis clone Paul Banks. The match isn‘t exact: Interpol have a mellower take on Joy Division’s sound, a little more catchy, a lot less dire. Where Ian Curtis sang that love will tear us apart, Interpol‘s romantic dysfunction isn’t that worrisome. When Banks sings on ”PDA,“ ”You‘re so cute when you’re frustrated,“ it‘s like he’s taunting Curtis for his constant torment.
One can imagine Curtis and Banks running into each other in the back of a smoky bar. Curtis confides to Banks, ”She turned around and took me by the hand and said, ‘I’ve lost control again.‘“ Curtis weeps. Banks replies, ”You’re the only person who‘s completely certain that there’s nothing here to be into,“ and explains to Curtis why he should have toured America instead of hanging himself: ”Chicks dig rock musicians. The groupies could have cheered you up.“
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Passionate rock songs by cute and depressed white guys are nothing new. And, really, Interpol are more pop than rock: They take on the work of a powerful predecessor and weave in sheen and sex and emotion. Indeed, Interpol will probably prove to be less influential than their influences and less memorable than Britney. All the same, they‘re more engaging than teen-pop, and a hell of a lot easier to listen to than Joy Division.
Meanwhile, here’s a buying guide: Turn on the Bright Lights is much better than A Rush of Blood to the Head. Who knows why? It‘s a matter of attraction and love and the human heart. You can’t figure that out. But you can write songs about it.