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Beatific Love

Chris Martin or Jesus -- you decide.

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Sadder than Jesus: Even Gwyneth's love can't save Coldplay's Chris Martin (foreground).
  • Sadder than Jesus: Even Gwyneth's love can't save Coldplay's Chris Martin (foreground).

Popular opinion among music critics holds that Coldplay is a minor annoyance but a major attraction -- perhaps the most popular young rock band in the world, but likely, over the course of less than three more albums, to be barely remembered, with talk of its greatness the echo of a whisper.

Rock fans don't think Coldplay rocks hard enough, and art-rockers think Coldplay's ambitions are too pedestrian. They're both right. Coldplay's predictable lovelorn lyrics slink through laggardly ballads constructed with all the surface grandeur of a Hollywood set. The London quartet isn't particularly innovative or meaningful. For a guy who's sold tens of millions of albums and married actress Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin is one seriously sad, overwrought bastard. Critics don't see any grand scheme operating within Coldplay, aside from mediocre poetry. Which raises the question: Have rock critics ever read the Bible and Chris Martin's lyrics?

Martin's self-deification has been evident since Coldplay's first major success in 2000 with Parachutes, though writers have all but ignored the warning signs. Supposedly, it's Bono who has the Jesus complex, delivering Sermons on the Mount bathed in stereo-delay guitar, while Martin has always been the pretty British pop star with the broken heart. But consider Coldplay's first video, for "Yellow." While singing, Martin strolls the shore of a windy, dreary beach, his love song the single point of redemption as he struggles through a gale and heavy rain. Preach, brother.

Or what about the lyric "For you, I bleed myself dry," which he sings without a hint of irony, offering himself on the cross in service of love. "Look at the stars/ Look how they shine for you and everything you do," Martin, hitherto believed to be a mere mortal, tells the same lover. First, knowing that the stars shine for you is weighty, and it's not recommended as an invitation to carnal knowledge. But more important -- how does Chris Martin know whom the stars shine for? Why, he's God's first-born son . . .

Part of Madonna's appeal was built on her appropriation of Christian iconography, and the same fundamentals are key to Coldplay. Coldplay slips in the Jesus-and-savior-iconography on an almost subconscious level, using love as the central metaphor. Martin offers himself on the cross, and the kids gather around, familiar enough with tales of martyrdom to worship at his piano pedals.

And Martin is certainly aware of the power of deifying himself as a songwriter; he does it constantly. Throughout Parachutes, he claims powers of omniscience ("I'll always look out for you/Yeah, that's what I'll do") and omnipresence ("I'll be there by your side/Just you try and stop me"); then he assures his followers, as any good god will do, that they must trust in him ("Confidence in you is confidence in me").

The band's second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, opens with "Look at Earth from outer space." Oh, you mean Heaven? He then asserts that "Questions of science, science, and progress/Do not speak as loud as my heart." That's not quite creationism, but -- here and in his songwriting schematics as a whole -- Martin does suggest that reason is subservient to his misanthropic heart. Stop me, Reverend, if you've heard this one before.

This isn't your parents' love. Neither is this the Beatles' hold-my-hand love or hip-hop's occasional sex-is-crux axiom. No, this is love writ large, the kind of soul-crushing, bone-aching stuff in which a person's whole stability rests on whether the paramour reciprocates. Mixed with caffeine and fast food, this is the vision of anxious, quivering love that almost assures that modern teenagers -- who love this tripe -- will have very unhealthy hearts by the time they reach their seventies, if they last that long.

Martin's vision works simply because he delivers it all with such authority and conviction that you're convinced he is the world's reigning expert on how to acquire and overcome a broken heart via its prerequisite, love. With the finality that he pronounces himself as Eros, he trumps Zeus and runs wild within Mount Olympus.

Of course, not all of Chris Martin's lyrics are such obvious love-as-religion/Martin-as-King constructs. In several songs, he's a supplicant to love, a guy with a broken heart that will be difficult to fix. During "Green Eyes," he's just a man praising his beauty, "the rock upon which I stand," and in "Warning Sign," he's simply apologizing for walking out. But to rule the world, Christianity holds that God and son suffered at its hands; Martin and his band do the same in their pilgrimage for love.

It's important to consider that the most popular versions of Christianity at present -- especially among the teenage demographic that buys records -- aren't the proselytizing brand. Contemporary Sunday-morning praise-and-worship services are what sell -- not hellfire and brimstone. In those services, Jesus is humanized so that one is able to pity him, to feel for the man who was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate. Young Christians are taught not to resent their God's persecutors, but instead to learn about compassion and perseverance through his earthly manifestation, Jesus Christ, who rises three days after being nailed to a cross.

Fittingly, Martin is a savior on the band's third and latest album, X&Y. "Fix You" promises pat-on-the-back salvation and assistance for the down-and-out. Martin even insists that "the light will guide you home." He plays the role of a mentor on "Talk," a lyrical wasteland that finds Martin assuring a troubled friend that things would be better if they just talked them out.

Perhaps the most interesting X&Y track, though, is "What If?" Essentially, Martin becomes a high-school football coach, encouraging his players about to run through the goalposts of the biggest games of their lives that "every step that you take could be your biggest mistake/It could bend or it could break, but that's the risk that you take."

But Martin goes further, questioning, a verse before, whether his paramour needs him around, by "your side," presumably for protection. It's that fear of uncertainty that would certainly follow his absence that allows Martin to convince his meek herd to "take a breath, jump over the side." Wow, you tell 'em: With such a semantic strategy, Chris Martin -- beatific beard, charming accent, ideal sociopolitical platform -- could woo a nun from celibacy. And that's still not dangerous, but just kind of funny.

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