Coldplay's Environmentalism Is Like Their Music: Hollow | Gradient

Coldplay’s environmentalism is like their music: Hollow.

I know you might have loved Coldplay’s music video for “Up and Up.” A lot of people did, and that’s OK. The last thing I want to do is make you feel bad about something so seemingly innocent. Coldplay is on a mission to appeal to every demographic in the world, which is a hair’s breadth away from appealing to no one at all. Their recent album, A Head Full of Dreams, allowed fans to create their own version of the album cover, a gimmick that accomplishes the neat trick of making you feel pretty confident as a graphic designer, considering that your creation is bound to the aesthetic of the actually released album. This is the same copy and paste style that infiltrates their technically impressive but otherwise bankrupt music video.

It’s easy to understand the hype surrounding this video, but it’s impossible to defend it. Perhaps my conviction would be softer if not for Anohni’s brilliant new album HOPELESSNESS which, gosh, would I love to talk about.

The objective of my frequent drive from Dallas to Nashville is to knock as many minutes off of Google’s “estimated time of arrival” as possible. On a good day, I can shave off a whole 60 minutes. Food is a necessity, but I don’t pack a lunch, so it’s whatever fast food I can find within 50 feet of the interstate off-ramp.

Recently, a couple of bites into my shitty South of the Border burger, I have been turning on Anohni’s new album, HOPELESSNESS, for a casual first listen. Anohni is the artist formerly known as Antony from Antony and the Johnsons. She transitioned to female and is quietly making some of the best music of her life — no mean feat. Right out of the gates of HOPELESSNESS, “Drone Bomb Me” serenades my hopefully green Prius with the imagined words of a fictional middle eastern girl singing, “Blow me from the mountains and into the sea. Blow me from the side of the mountain. Blow my head off.”

Geez. I was kind of hoping for something lighter, sunnier, maybe something more like, I don’t know: Coldplay?

Next up, there’s a song about climate change called “4 Degrees” that continues the disturbing trend of an unsettling first-person perspective. “I wanna hear the dogs crying for water,” screams an anonymous voice that could really be anyone. “I wanna see fish go belly-up in the sea. All those lemurs and all those tiny creatures. I wanna see them burn.” As the tribal apocalyptic beats and remorseful horns fade, it feels like the world is actually over.

I’m in my car, looking like something out of A Clockwork Orange with my eyes peeled wide open. Is it this burger making me sick to my stomach, or is it the music? Or is the music making the burger sick? I’m very disoriented. Its celebratory nature is sickening, and that’s why it’s the most perfect protest album of the year.

The song “4 Degrees” in particular is a masterpiece of pop anthem sensibilities, produced by Hudson Mowake (of Kanye fame) and Oneohtrix Point Never, a very next level ambient artist. It’s an effectively jarring combination of inclusivity, through the head nodding, sing-a-long simplicity, paired with the antagonistic, stomach churning lyrics that make you want to shake somebody and say, “No! This can’t happen! We’ve got to do something about the environment!”

The song is a reference to the 4 degree celsius shift that would cause an irreversible climate apocalypse. Listening to it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of megalomaniacs like Donald Trump declaring: “It’s really cold outside, they are calling it a major freeze, weeks ahead of normal. Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming!” Anohni personifies this delusion singing, “I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze. I wanna see the animals die in the trees. Oh, let’s go, let’s go it’s only 4 degrees.” She ushers us into the end times, communicating plainly the consequences of our current actions. For Anohni, everything that doesn’t intentionally disrupt our actual trajectory is cheap lip service. Intention is useless. Intention is a delusion. Sunny platitudes might as well be buckets of oil in the Indian Ocean. There are no noble aspirations. There is only cause and effect.

A week later, I am still haunted by the album (and still masochistically listening to it). I’m scrolling Facebook when I run into Coldplay and the irresistible, non-offensive share-ability of “Up and Up.” Everybody I know shrieks, “It’s THE BEST!” And it is! It’s aspirational. It’s sunny platitudes. It feels wonderful to watch such good intentions. You could pave a whole road with them.

Like I said, I don’t hate Coldplay. I expect transformative art from the veteran arena rock band, like I expect the Sofia Coppola to direct an episode of The Bachelor. At some point, you take art on its own terms.

But given my vulnerable state following the harrowing repeat listens of “4 Degrees,” I was especially critical of Coldplay’s particular brand of environmental sentimentalism. Coldplay asks us to nod our heads and say “yes.” But, yes to what?

In the video, a turtle flies through a subway as if it’s already an ancient relic, additionally insulted by the decision to glaze it over with fake film grain. What is the point of this nostalgic trickery? Coldplay decorates the video with these taxidermic animals from a world where we once sang: “I know we’re gonna get it, get it together somehow,” a useless mantra if there was one and a depressingly accurate summary of resignation from disruption. If you know we’re going to get it together somehow, then you don’t have to actually worry about getting it together. Coldplay is like the old street preacher unconcerned with modern social ills, because Jesus is coming back soon anyway to judge the quick and the dead, so why tackle systemic poverty? We’re gonna get it together somehow.

The provocative images in the video are strung together haphazardly. There’s a juxtaposition of forlorn animals and 60s era swimsuit-clad leave-it-to-beavers, that it lacks any distinctive telos. It feels already resigned, like burying someone alive and recalling all the sweet memories you once had together.

The fantastical imagery is appealing, but you have to wonder of the discernment behind say, showing the god-sized band members banging their instruments on natural landmarks. I could only think of all the animals falling dead from the trees as an oversized, green-screened drummer kicks his bass drum and bulldozes over an entire species. Clearly this is not Coldplay’s intention, but that’s the point. Floating on this lazy, generic cloud, we can only deduce that they don’t give a damn about context or implications. It speaks to the gentle fatalism and weird identification about our role in the world, and it’s as bad for the environment as these fast food animals I keep eating.

Like a long warm shower, the video sedates you into a pleasant reverie singing kumbaya, but Anohni is here to flush the toilet in the next room and shock you with a burst of cold water. She asks us to come to terms with that which accurately reflects the changing world.

If aliens landed and couldn’t decipher our language or figure out the way we’ve gotten so good at diffusing responsibility amongst ourselves and future generations, they would have to determine what kind of people we are simply by looking at cause-and-effect. They would say, “It appears that these creatures want to burn the world to their ground?” And Coldplay’s music videos make for a pleasant-enough soundtrack.