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  • Parika Sikder

Coldplay & Linkin Park: Remnants of the South Asian ‘Emo/Hard-Rock’ Phase

In 2007, on my twelfth birthday, I received a generous gift of fifty dollars to spend at our local chain music store, hmv. For a kid who made sure to keep her MSN messenger status set to “show the music I’m listening to” and write song lyrics all over her plastic school binders, this was a fantastic gift.

I decided it would be a great idea to spend this gift card on the entire Coldplay catalogue of studio albums up until that time (Parachutes, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, X&Y, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends). They were my favourite band from 2005 to 2013 and the first band I’d ever seen live.

I remember leaving hmv that day with a stack of CDs and thinking to myself, ‘I want to work here someday.’ A few years later, I did just that. It was all part of my plan as a kid who desperately needed to be seen beyond her exterior. Plus, all the cool, ‘un-basic’ white kids on tv worked at record stores. I thought if people saw that I was different on the outside, they’d realize I was different on the inside — just like the characters on tv.

I laugh at the logic now, but I also recognize that at the time, I was experiencing some complex emotions with pretty much no support other than the songs on my Sandisk mp3 player (and later iPod Touch).

In my life, I’ve seen the way bands like Coldplay, Linkin Park, Oasis, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Radiohead have sustained kids who felt like me. While I don’t have much other than my lived experiences to prove this topic is worthy of discussion, I know that the stories of many brown kids who go through an ‘emo phase’ get clumped into the overall emo stereotypes.

But I believe a few cultural reasons have and continue to lead South Asian kids towards ‘moody’ music even today. My theory is that listening to ‘moody music’ actually helps South Asian kids cope with the feeling that it’s unacceptable to experience powerful emotions, specifically around love and sadness.

Love and sadness are two emotions that are heavily policed in South Asian communities.

Have you ever told your parents you were feeling sad overall only for them to say, “What do you have to be sad about?” “Eat some fruit.” or “Take a shower, you’ll feel better.”? For those who were courageous and vulnerable enough, have you ever tried to tell your parents about a crush at school (like the white kids on tv) only to be met with “Always focus on you, marriage will come.”? Or perhaps you received punishment like having your phone/computer privileges taken away. If you’re a woman, you might’ve experienced a breach of privacy, like the sudden appearance of a family friend spying on you at school as they pick their kid up and make sure you’re not doing anything the overall South Asian community wouldn’t approve of.

Many of us grew up in fear of communicating our feelings with our caretakers because of their avoidant responses. We learned that it was best to avoid getting to the root of our feelings and even identifying them because that’s what our parents did. But when big feelings of love or sadness were not explored and explained, it left us feeling incredibly lonely and misunderstood. We didn’t always feel safe talking about it, so we let the music talk for us. We might have even thought we’d be lonely forever, mainly because the people closest to us didn’t understand us.

It’s important to mention that not every South Asian kid subscribed to the typical edgy kid aesthetic. Many of us were and still are covert emo/hard-rock kids at heart to this day. For many of us, we stayed covert because our family’s opinions of our appearance had a big say on how we dressed. And with their opinions came judgement for deviation. Being able to dress the way we felt required an incredible level of vulnerability, especially if your household was strict on appearance.

We can’t blame our parents for wanting us to dress like obedient children. They were likely forced to do the same.

I can’t even count how many times my parents have asked why I only wear black clothing. The answer?

To hide, mom. To hide.

Back then, South Asian caretakers were not always equipped to help us understand our emotions because their concepts and coping mechanisms for love and sadness were too narrow to match what we saw through our dual-cultural lens. I’m not sure that any other group of people focus on whether or not a wedding is a ‘love marriage’ or an ‘arranged marriage’ the way South Asians do. This language holds shame around love and sadness just by existence. I remember wanting to hide away from the pressure until I was old enough to call the shots in my life and all the tangled headphones I’ve gone through are proof of that.

Also, can we talk about the weight and ambiguous beauty of the lyrics across the alternative genre? Here’s a snippet from one of my favourite Coldplay songs to this day, Swallowed In The Sea:

Oh what good is it to live

With nothing left to give

Forget, but not forgive

Not loving all you see

All the streets you're walking on

A thousand houses long

Well that's where I belong

And you belong with me

Not swallowed in the sea

Bear with me as I’m about to get a bit dramatic, but I need to share how such lyrics directly correlated with life questions I pondered at twelve years old.

What good is it to live if I’m not living by your own rules? Why should I keep giving to people who only take? Why should I forgive people for the way they’ve made me feel?

Will the passing of time make me forget my childhood?

Why did I have to move to the suburbs where all the houses look the same, and all the people act the same?

Is this going to be my home forever?

Will I find ‘the one’ in a sea of people who I feel like don’t understand me?

Are you cringing? Me too. Youth existentialism aside, I know the answers to a few of these questions now, but boy did it feel like the end of the world as I waited years to find them. The great thing about bands like Coldplay was that they put these big questions into digestible thoughts. As a singer, I loved the amount of space for interpretation in the lyrics. Alternative music as a genre was and still is a melting pot of all the emotions that mainstream songs about love, sex, drugs, and partying can’t cover. It’s about the raw emotions you experience once the party’s over, and it’s just you alone with your thoughts. I guess you could say that about the great songs of any genre, but the entire alternative genre at the time was uniquely built around the experience of being an outcast. And there were levels to feeling like an outcast too.

Let’s take a moment to center Linkin Park and how their music put societal events into context in our lives.

While Coldplay came in with delicious melodies, simple-to-learn guitar riffs, and a steady beat that crescendoed at the height of emotions, Linkin Park brought us closer to the actual emo/rock/punk/metal culture that we saw white kids participating in, without requiring us to commit to the aesthetic. Chester’s (Rest In Peace) delivery of melodic yet borderline screamo lyrics helped us camouflage our understanding of pain in a more aggressive space. At the same time, Mike Shinoda brought more familiar texture and verses to rap along with (because rapping an entire song was essential to fitting in). Some of my favourites radio hits include Somewhere I Belong, What I’ve Done, Breaking The Habit, Bleed It Out and Waiting For The End.

As well, both Coldplay and Linkin Park’s hits offered the perfect moody masala for all the South Asian kids who put their emotions into hip-hop or mainstream genres. Remember when Jay-Z bridged the worlds of iconic hip-hop and hard-rock on the Encore version of Numb? And who could forget the insanely accurate bars Mike Shinoda delivered on Hands Held High paired with the eerie chorus singing ‘Amen’ in the background:

Do you see the soldiers that are out today? They brush the dust from bulletproof vests away

It's ironic, at times like this you'd pray

But a bomb blew the mosque up yesterday

There's bombs on the buses, bikes, roads

Inside your market, your shops, and your clothes

My dad, he's got a lot of fear, I know

But enough pride inside not to let that show

My brother had a book he would hold with pride

A little red cover with a broken spine on the back

He hand-wrote a quote inside

"When the rich wage war, it's the poor who die"

Meanwhile, the leader just talks away

Stuttering and mumbling for nightly news to replay

The rest of the world watching at the end of the day

Both scared and angry, like "What did he say?"

For a generation that lived through 9/11, the 2008 recession, and now a global pandemic that’s brought nearly every form of injustice to light, bands like Linkin Park set the stage for our collective consciousness to rise. They gave us something to do with all the anger we felt towards the world powers we had no control over and yet saw our friends and families endure. I’d even go as far as to say that our hard-rock phase built parts of the societal and self-awareness stage, which currently allows Gen Z South Asian activists to thrive today.

The South Asian emo/hard-rock phase was a turning point for our internal sense of independence, even if it didn’t show on the outside. It was a point of deviation from what our ethnic and societal cultures asked us to be. We made do with what we had before we even knew how to take care of our mental health. Some of us are still figuring it all out, and that’s 100% okay. I’d say music is one of the healthiest coping mechanisms out there. What we listen to typically doesn’t harm others, and it offers some of us a hobby or skill that we could take up at any age.

When I reflect on this phase of my life, I cringe with gratitude. I know it sounds contradictory, but I couldn’t have stepped off the rollercoaster of emotions without using moody music as an outlet to process big emotions. The effort to understand ourselves at such a young age is also worth appreciating because the kid who clung to moody music as a crutch still lives inside us. We feel their existence every time we hear an old favourite song. It’s not our adult selves that come alive with the lyrics and sounds; it’s the kid inside who still remembers what it’s like to experience love and sadness with less of their adult logic and more of their heart.

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