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Coldplay—and Especially “Fix You”—Deserve a Better Legacy

Yes, the mammoth single became wildly overexposed. But it got so big only because it connected with such a large group of people—and is that such a bad thing?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the latest installment of its HBO Music Box series, Listening to Kenny G. Before that film reexamines the impact of the renowned saxophonist, The Ringer will spend this week revisiting other cultural figures and concepts that are likewise in need of a reevaluation.

You probably remember a couple of years ago, when Danny Boyle made a movie about a guy who gets into an accident and wakes up in a world where only he remembers the Beatles ever existed. The twist is revealed when Jack (Himesh Patel) plays “Yesterday” for his friends and nobody recognizes the tune. Assuming it’s an original composition, they tell him it’s “a very nice song,” and an increasingly frustrated Jack blurts out, “It’s not a very nice song, it’s one of the greatest songs ever written.”

Then comes the punch line. One of Jack’s friends says, “Well, it’s not Coldplay. It’s not ‘Fix You.’”

What a gut punch. Yesterday could’ve chosen any song in the English-language canon to signify shallow, obvious taste in music, and “Fix You” was called to the whipping post. This from a movie about how great the Beatles were—hardly an incisive, original piece of cultural commentary in its own right.

At its peak, Coldplay was one of the biggest rock ’n’ roll acts of its era, but one that nobody cool would admit to liking. And with more than 15 years of perspective, both the band and “Fix You”—one of its most enduring hits—are due a more nuanced legacy than the punch line they became.

Coldplay burst onto the scene in 2000 with Parachutes, a tidy 10-song album that featured “Shiver,” an anthemic, propulsive 12/8 number that still stands out as one of their best. Their next single, “Yellow,” was the band’s breakthrough hit, taking the qualities that had made “Shiver” so successful—assertive guitar and lead singer Chris Martin’s distinctive, sinus-heavy voice—and making them bigger, louder, harder to ignore. And the third single off Parachutes, “Trouble,” helped establish the piano, not the guitar, as Coldplay’s definitive instrument—a departure from the Britpop norms of the ’90s.

Then came A Rush of Blood to the Head, the band’s second album, which solidified the three distinct types of Coldplay song. The first was loud, slow, and drum-heavy, like “Yellow” and “Politik.” These were bangers, not in the sense that they made you want to get up and dance, but in the sense that they literally banged. Second, and in my opinion most successful: mid-tempo love songs like “Shiver” and “Green Eyes,” which positioned Coldplay to get onto every rom-com soundtrack and wedding reception set list for the next 25 years.

Finally, there were two of the album’s most successful singles: “Clocks” and “The Scientist,” which differed in tone and tempo but had in common a focus on piano and—despite clocking it at five minutes each—zero dynamic contrast.

Coldplay followed in the footsteps of the Britpop movement: the marriage of alt-rock and power pop with the end of Thatcherite conservatism. Oasis, the greatest example of the genre, had a flavor of Mancunian working-class belligerence about them that gave the band an air of unpredictability. And their contemporaries—some of whom lacked those genuine blue-collar, outsider roots—could at least fake it when necessary. Coldplay could never have written something as arch and class-conscious as Blur’s “Parklife” or Pulp’s “Common People.”

Compared to the Britpop artists of the ’90s, or Radiohead’s inventive musical virtuosity, Coldplay looked like a group of college-educated, middle-class Londoners gathered around a pretty guy at a piano. They were earnest, nonthreatening, and profoundly accessible—at the worst time of the past 40 years to be those things.

While Coldplay was climbing up the charts, the 1990s poptimism in which they would have positively thrived gave way to a more pessimistic era. A disputed U.S. presidential election, an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry in response to 9/11, and an unpopular war gave rise to a backlash that didn’t so much seek to defeat the neoconservatism of George W. Bush as sneer at it for being unfashionable. Bush was not only divisive, he was one of the easiest presidents in history to caricature, so that’s what happened. American and European liberals didn’t just want to defeat Bush, they wanted to feel superior to him. And this coincided with a decade of artistic snark and cynicism: hipsterism, the peak of pop punk, and a new rebirth of rockism.

Most of the backlash to “mainstream” culture, whatever that was, ended up being not much more trenchant than that which it lampooned. (Nothing Coldplay has done or ever will do will be as cringy or facile as Green Day’s immortal line, “Don’t want to be an American idiot / One nation controlled by the media.” Imagine the utopia we’d live in now if Coldplay had peaked in the 1990s and Rage Against the Machine in the early 2000s, instead of the other way around.)

This is not a phenomenon unique to Coldplay or the 2000s: Whatever is popular will always rankle people who don’t like it as much as the public consensus. But by the release of X&Y in 2005, hating Coldplay had become an easy way to position oneself as an intelligent free thinker, no matter that this opinion ended up being one of the most rote and boring in popular music discourse. What, exactly, was objectionable about Coldplay was never entirely clear, but it was also never summed up better than the seminal line in 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin: “You know how I know you’re gay? You like Coldplay.”

In the mid-2000s, Martin was an easier target than ever. He’d married Gwyneth Paltrow, America’s crunchiest movie star. (The two announced their separation in 2014 and in the process brought to mainstream attention the now-infamous phrase “conscious uncoupling.”) Radiohead’s Thom Yorke derided Coldplay as “lifestyle music,” a barb that Martin seemed genuinely wounded by when he responded to Newsweek: “I’m in love with a lot of things. Some of those things love me back. And some of them don’t—and one of them is Radiohead.”

Another single from X&Y, “Talk,” featured a killer opening guitar lick that seemed to augur a new era of Coldplay, a departure from piano-driven pop ballads to the burgeoning British post-punk revival of the 2000s. Only that guitar lick was taken from “Computer Love” by Kraftwerk, a band that granted Coldplay permission to use the motif but was engaged in two decades of lawsuits against rap producers over an unattributed sample. Even when Coldplay was good, critics could dismiss them as derivative.

But when “Fix You” came out, it was a revelation. In contrast to the sometimes soporific piano ballads of the past, Martin sang the first two verses over a warm, mellow synthesizer tone. The lyrics stem from Martin’s desire to help his wife cope with the death of her father, leading to a lead vocal part that’s all the more heart-rending for its simplicity and universality.

“Fix You” was the perfect outlet for Coldplay’s guileless earnestness; everyone, even a rock star, knows the special pain that comes from witnessing the suffering of a loved one, knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it. And Coldplay didn’t just express that pain, they provided catharsis with something that was desperately missing from “The Scientist”: a humongous crescendo, electric guitars into multi-part vocal harmonies, and then Martin ending the song with one last run through the chorus and only the piano behind him.

If “Talk” was Coldplay’s spin on post-punk revival, “Fix You” was the band’s definitive power ballad, and it turned into a huge hit, moving 1.8 million copies in the U.K. and half a million more in the U.S., where it peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Adult Alternative chart. But because this was Coldplay, a band that was everywhere and made music for everyone, it was only fitting that “Fix You” ended as a victim of its own success.

Seen as such an effective expression of grief and desperation, “Fix You” became the obvious choice for soundtracks in movies and TV. In the second half of the decade, you could hardly look at your remote without bumping into “Fix You” humming over a particularly pointed and sensitive emotional moment: The O.C., Glee, the most tearjerking moment of the acclaimed documentary Young@Heart.

By 2012, “Fix You” was playing over the climax of the fourth episode of The Newsroom, the TV show Aaron Sorkin made after he had surgery to remove the part of his brain that processes the phrase “Maybe that’s not such a good idea.”

Even at its inception, “Fix You” was never exactly subtle, but by 2012 it had been so overexposed, so frequently used as an instrument of emotional manipulation that the song itself had become hackneyed. After Sorkin built one of the most maudlin scenes in recent TV history—and “maudlin” hardly does it justice—around the hit Coldplday single, the ground was salted. It will be decades before “Fix You” ever again carries its original emotional heft and can be taken at face value.

But whose fault is that? Not Coldplay’s. The greatest sin Martin and his colleagues committed was to write a song that connected with so many people, that scratched so many emotional itches, that too many looked to for catharsis. It touched and moved its audience—what is that if not a resounding artistic success?

In the years since, Coldplay has continued to produce variations on its themes, experimenting with strings and synths, and occasionally hitting paydirt. “Violet Hill” has a piano-falling-off-a-cliff quality that lends an edge the band so sorely lacked in its early days, while “A Sky Full of Stars” takes the classic motifs from the band’s Rush of Blood era and buttresses them with a peppy synthesizer and electropop backbeat.

And Coldplay is just as big as ever, having posted 14 top-40 singles in the U.S. since “Fix You” (which topped out at 59). At this very moment, “My Universe,” a collaboration with K-Pop giants BTS, is no. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, having debuted in October at no. 1. After 20 years, they’re still churning out song after song with enormous mass appeal, committing no greater sin than wanting to be liked. We shouldn’t hold it against them that they got their wish.