The Super Bowl 50 halftime show had a common theme aside from “peace” and “love”: hating Coldplay. In between millions of viewers praising Beyoncé and being generally okay with Bruno Mars, Coldplay—the headliner of the spectacle—was either treated as an afterthought or dragged through the mud.
Critics were brutal to the British rock band: the New York Times described them as more “a stagehand than an actual performer,” SPIN declared that Beyoncé and Mars “undeniably won” the halftime show, and Buzzfeed went with a sub-headline of “Chris Martin who?” in their recap. The viewers were less focused on the headliners, too. According to Twitter, Beyoncé generated 1.3 million tweets during the halftime show, while Coldplay mustered 774,000 tweets despite performing the longest. At least no one mistook them for another popular pop-rock group! Oh, wait, Taraji P. Henson did. Woof.
Despite the halftime show doubling as the biggest opportunity of Coldplay’s career, the band was collectively treated like a footnote. And even with the star power of Beyoncé and Bruno surrounding them, that’s pretty strange!
After all, Coldplay is one of the biggest bands in the world, and has been for quite some time. They still sell hundreds of thousand of albums in their debut sales weeks (new album A Head Full of Dreams scored a sizable bow in December), and can still crank out crossover hits when they want to (“A Sky Full Of Stars” cracked the Top 10 of the Hot 100 in 2014). They are touring arenas this year, and will probably sell out quite a few of them. Chris Martin is one of the few rock frontmen left in our popular culture with name and face recognition. And most importantly, Coldplay has a soaring, extend-your-arms-joyously sound designed for football stadiums; it’s like they’ve been building toward a Super Bowl performance throughout their entire careers together.
So Coldplay must have really fumbled (pun intended) their halftime show to garner such bad reviews, right? Watching the Super Bowl performance, Coldplay… did a pretty good job! At least, there was nothing inherently wrong with the band’s performance, and while it wasn’t pulse-pounding, there were actual exciting moments. “Viva la Vida” still knocks, “Paradise” is a silly but deliriously enjoyable song to hear in a stadium, and Martin did a solid job with the crowd interaction/euphoric twirling schtick. Oh, and there were tiny violinists!
It didn’t help that the guys had to bookend an electric performance from Beyoncé, who had dropped a new single, “Formation,” one day before the Super Bowl. It also didn’t help that “Formation” is a politically charged banger with a daring message, and was performed after something pleasant but not galvanizing, like “Adventure of a Lifetime.” It also didn’t help that Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” is still really beloved, and that Bey and Bruno engaged in a dance-off to the song while Coldplay stood around, looking like the dudes in the back who couldn’t bust a move. The style, substance and messaging for Beyoncé and Bruno were on-point, whereas Coldplay Being Coldplay simply wasn’t as enthralling.
But the real problem with the halftime show was the constructed binary of the resulting hot takes: There had to be a loser to be a winner. Coldplay didn’t suck, but the narrative of the Super Bowl required them to suck, so it was ruled that they sucked. Compared to Beyonce and Bruno Mars, Coldplay is old; compared to their music, Coldplay’s mainstream rock is stodgier; compared to their brands, Coldplay’s is lamer.
And really, that last point is what sunk Coldplay on Sunday night. Call it “poptimism” if you want, but it’s more of a collective changing of the guard in popular music, in which audiences no longer want to see guys with guitars perform at the Super Bowl.
Coldplay would have been more successful had they performed at the Super Bowl in the late 2000s, following the success of their 2008 album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. At that point, the Super Bowl halftime programmers was still terrified of performers who were also female humans, following Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction in 2004. Tom Petty followed Prince followed the Rolling Stones followed Paul McCartney; by the time the Who played the Super Bowl in 2010, there was a sense of inevitability, as if no non-rock group would ever again grace the Super Bowl halftime.
That’s the time period Coldplay needed to dominate, but instead, they stumbled into a show in 2016 that had no time for a Rock Group Playing Rock Songs, after show-stopping pop performances from Katy Perry, Madonna, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé herself in recent years. Coldplay seemed to know this going into the affair, and even tried to garnish its performance with bells and whistles on Sunday night… but those bells and whistles ended up turning the band into a punchline, and “undeniably won” the evening.
Consider Coldplay’s Super Bowl halftime show a warning to other rock groups being approached by the Super Bowl in the near future—maybe a Foo Fighters, or AC/DC, or Guns N’ Roses. As Chris Martin and co. demonstrated, even the least embarrassing performance will still be seen as humiliating on Twitter. Coldplay is enjoying a predictable sales bump this week, but at what cost to the group's reputation? The Super Bowl is still the biggest stage on the planet, but at this point, it might be savvier for a rock group to punt on it.