“New York Times” Writer Needs A Lesson In MySpace 101

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Of all the disastrous MySpaces I’ve seen, Coldplay’s current page does not exactly merit a second thought. It’s simple, tasteful, professionally designed, and easy to read. Perhaps the only thing remarkable about it is how good it looks for a MySpace. Yet New York Times media critic Virginia Heffernan seems to think it’s some sort of menacing pariah of the online world, a crudely cobbled-together middle finger to all those who crave browser-crashing Flash from their favorite artists’ online presence. Her piece in yesterday’s NYT Magazine is borderline embarrassing to read if you’ve ever so much as visited a MySpace page, not to mention rife with misconceptions about how the site actually works. But in the end she finally gets down to the bottom of Coldplay. Sort of. (Not really.)

Mine is the 21,120,387th visit to Coldplay’s MySpace page. I am not greeted warmly. The British band — which is known for giant pop hits, a sheen of fakery and the marriage of its lead singer to Gwyneth Paltrow — does not exactly rush out to greet me. The page is rudimentary and indifferently decorated, like the apartment of four couchbound soccer addicts who barely look up when a girlfriend comes in.

So Coldplay is that kind of band. I thought it might be the other kind. MySpace offers only two design choices for pop acts who create pages there, meaning every single pop act in the world (almost). You can create a lazy, placeholder, MySpace-is-idiotic page, barely shuffling your feet to the social-network tune, like a goth kid at a school dance. Or you can kick out the jams, expand the brand, offer free downloads and revel in the sound and light of multimedia narcissism. What’s an attention-hungry, ridicule-averse rock band to do?

If Coldplay were really “that kind of band” –the kind to nonchalantly brush off the importance of a flashy MySpace–their page would look like Bright Eyes’ standard-issue “maintained by Saddle Creek” profile, which is a lot closer to “a goth kid at a school dance” than Coldplay’s slick layout.

So in the last several years, virtually everyone trying to sell music has found it necessary to keep a presence on MySpace. It’s there that music fans and A.& R. people alike play new songs, watch music videos, check concert information and chat with cybergroupies. And no matter how intensely rock stars balk at every part of the commercial-studded site that is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, they cave in and post a page. (Oh, yes, even the musician identified as “Bob Dylan — NEW YORK, New York — Classic Rock/Folk Rock — www.myspace.com/bobdylan” has one.)

So Bob Dylan’s record company set up a MySpace under his name. You don’t say!

How, then, to interpret Coldplay’s standoffishness? On its MySpace page, the backdrop is plain white with a close-up of red-and-black brush strokes. Then, in the collagist style that holds MySpace in a chokehold, this black-white-and-red-all-over image is overlain with orderly boxes. One box is a banner ad. It reads, in turns: “Violet Hill video,” “We’re playing another free concert . . . ¡Barcelona!” and “Preorder new album on iTunes.” These words seem to be scratched in a streak of the red paint in essay-exam handwriting that looks somehow both rushed and forced.

What Heffernan describes as “standoffishness” is really just the work of a pro web designer looking to make the page easily accessible to the wide variety of people who tend to enjoy Coldplay–the kind of MySpace that wouldn’t seem daunting to a 50-year-old mom who heard some songs from the band’s new album during a feature on All Things Considered. Why this rather obvious fact isn’t apparent to a professional media critic for the flipping New York Times is anyone’s guess.

Two other boxes are sparsely furnished. One brings to mind the postcollegiate bedroom of a guy who keeps nothing but a futon and a clock radio. Scroll down and it frames a photo of the band, sitting (it seems) on the kind of tufted, circular sofa you might find in the waiting area of an old train station. I turn to the commentary on this photo in hopes of an ID — “Ah, Victoria Station!” — but I’m scolded in a red MySpace typeface: “You must be someone’s friend to make comments about them.” Hmm. Quite.

This paragraph reads as if Heffernan is a Victorian-era English gentleman who’s taken a time machine to present day and, upon recognizing the couch from Victoria Station, yearned to connect with his own time period, but was cruelly denied by modern technology. Quite distasteful indeed!

Why does Martin bow and scrape in this cringing way on MySpace? (Compare Coldplay’s page with that of Nas, another performer with a hit record; it’s all filmic strutting, with center-stage Nas in the superhero role, the Zeus role, the Christ role, the Barack Obama role.) One explanation for Martin’s assertive humility is that Coldplay’s music, for all its thundering and sparkling atmospherics, is often about one man’s wretched interior life. A lone individual’s grandiose psyche is typically the terrain of a solo artist, not a band. The fact that Martin has deputized his bandmates to help him carry out his own schemes and self-expression — like a full mariachi band called in for a romantic serenade — is maybe a little uncomfortable for him.

Coming from my computer’s built-in speakers, Coldplay’s music would sound tinny if I weren’t also staring at Coldplay’s screen-size MySpace “environment” — the scribbles, the spare illustrations. Because it lacks the conviction of a real, florid MySpace page, the environment is obscurely embarrassing. Yet, in a straightforward way, it underscores the embarrassment of Coldplay’s music — the mawkishness, suppressed arrogance, halfheartedness and squeamishness about rock stardom. When illustrated by the graphics here, embarrassment seems like an entirely worthy theme for very hard soft rock.

For the first time, staring at the bad MySpace page and listening to songs on a computer, I understand Coldplay’s music.

For the record, Nas’ MySpace–which takes 45 seconds to “initiate”–is the very definition of hot mess, with text spilling out all over the layout, endless video content, and header animation that sends lesser browsers like Safari into hysterics. It’s not exactly the pinnacle of web design, and arguably much less user-friendly than Coldplay’s page.

The one thing Heffernan seems to get right here is that Coldplay’s MySpace is supposed to reflect the band’s sound and personality. But it’s not “mawkishness, suppressed arrogance, halfheartedness and squeamishness about rock stardom” that come through; it’s bland stylishness and mass appeal–which, here, are reflected by the band’s unwillingness to crash users’ browsers for the sake of having an animated graphic at the top.

Coldpage [New York Times]Coldplay [MySpace]Bright Eyes [MySpace]Nas [MySpace]