Preview: Coldplay, Japan, 2006

Coldplay keeps focus on fair trade image

What is it with rock stars trying to save the World? Bono has his 'End World Poverty' campaign while Chris Martin lead singer and chief songwriter of Coldplay – playing three big venues here this July – is firmly behind the 'Make Trade Fair' campaign. Among other things, this aims to give the Colombian peasant growing your coffee beans most of the price paid for a cup of coffee in the developed World.

Martin has an interesting trick he does in interviews. He uses brightly colored tape round his fingers to draw attention to the = mark on his hand. Interviewers who find themselves short of a question are then guaranteed to ask what it symbolizes. It is actually the mark of the 'Make Trade Fair’ Campaign, and this gives Martin the prefect chance to expound his views, something which he defends against criticism.

"Anyone who criticizes me for talking about fair trade is really a few pebbles short of a beach," he told MTV last year on the release of X&Y their third studio album. But criticism is often valid because Coldplay's songs do not focus on the problems of international trade and poverty. Instead, they are typically about the usual personal themes of love, heartbreak, and rejection.

Two songs from X&Y are thought to be about Martin's wife, actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The lyrics on Fix You – "Tears stream/down your face/ when you lose something you can't replace" – suggest the song, the second single from the album, may be about the death of Paltrow's father in 2002. Backing this up is the fact that Coldplay used an old keyboard that Gwyneth's father gave her on the track. When asked about his relationship to the Oscar-winning actress, however, Martin usually refuses to speak, pleading privacy.

Coldplay's music – a successful blending of minor key gloom and power chord optimism, with Martin's soaring and emotional voice – is now highly regarded, especially since the release of X&Y. This album of guitar-driven anthems, like the first single Speed of Sound which evoked instant comparisons with U2, adds much needed musical muscle to the gentler piano-driven music of earlier albums. The new songs, some of which also owe a debt to German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, have been impressing arena audiences on the band's current Twisted Logic Tour in the same way that U2 has long been doing. As Martin freely admits, Coldplay have one eye constantly fixed on the Irish rockers, whom they see both as models and rivals:

"The reason I always talk about U2 is because U2 are the top of Mount Everest for us," he told MTV. "Talking about U2 is our way of motivating us to keep trying, because they are the peak."

Emulating U2 has clearly paid off, as Coldplay are now one of only two rock bands – along with Radiohead – considered in the same rank with U2. But despite Coldplay's mega status, the band continues to have an image problem, or, some would say, a lack-of-image problem. Radiohead's Thom Yorke has his 'lazy eye,' paranoia and angst-ridden persona. Bono has his wrap around shades, gold lame jackets, and mock-Satanic McPhisto alter ego. Coldplay, by comparison, come across as nice, normal, boring guys, looking like catalogue models for dress down specialists Muji.

While Bono's campaign to end World poverty is still a side-line to his glitzy show business career, Martin's concern with fair trade has, by default, become the band's image.

But this lack of a flashy image is also the key to understanding Coldplay and why they appeal. Images are often used to manipulate or hype an often substandard product. By refusing the usual rock theatrics, Coldplay manage to emphasize the sincerity, directness, and quality of their music. With such heartfelt songs as classics Yellow and In My Place, from earlier albums, and future classics White Shadows and the The Hardest Part from X&Y, any image would probably get in the way of Martin's sincerity and the musical craftsmanship of the rest of the band.

An obvious consumer trend of the last few years is that people want purity, not fancy labels or added ingredients. This is also a force behind the growing demand for fair trade goods, which are often pure, organic, and simply – even boringly – packaged. Retail companies like the Body Shop and Muji have successfully capitalized on this trend. With Coldplay we see something analogous in rock music. Seen in these terms, Martin's devotion to the cause of fair trade is a perfect fit.

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
2nd June, 2006

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