I love music videos. Growing up in the late 90s—the last great heyday of music videos as a mainstream phenomenon—I primarily experienced most music in video-form during my childhood and teens. The idea of accompanying singles with short film was an fundamental aspect of the music industry, and those visuals were often key to whether or not a particular track resonated with the audience.
Music videos aren’t quite dead and gone just yet, but today they are now largely an afterthought, especially compared to the golden age during the 80’s and 90’s. They certainly aren’t as ubiquitous as they used to be, and bands commonly use much more economical “lyric videos” instead. This makes sense, given the often astronomical production costs for most mainstream videos at the time. However, with the medium’s decline, we’re slowly losing an art-form that can be an important means of experiencing and appreciating music.
And this is where I bring up Coldplay.
I’ll Start Before I Can Stop
Speed of Sound was released on the 16th April 2005 as the first single from the band’s then upcoming third album X&Y. While a big hit at the time, the band have since expressed their dislike for their song, often singling it out as their least favourite. They never perform it live anymore, and its popularity has since been overshadowed by its follow-up single Fix You.
However, back in 2005, as Coldplay were quickly becoming the biggest band in the world, Speed of Sound had a lot of hype surrounding it. There was a lot riding on this one song to cement the band’s position and help ensure the album’s success. Naturally, this also meant that a lot of pressure was on the music video.
The video in question was directed by Mark Romanek, shot by Harris Savides, and edited by Adam Pertofsky. It’s a deceptively simple concept, consisting entirely of the band performing the song in a large room in front of a two-story high wall of coloured LED lights.
(Unfortunately, the only official version of the video available online is this 360p version on Coldplay’s Youtube channel. For illustrative fair use purposes only, I’ve uploaded a HD version below, for which I stand to gain no profit.)
I also think it’s a perfect music video. Not the best video ever made, but definitely one of my personal favourites, and a prime example of how one can be used to not just complement a song, but actually make it better.
By creating visuals that emphasise the song’s strengths, it actually enhances them and makes the visual aspect an intrinsic part of the musical experience.
This is a trick incredibly hard to pull off and very easy to completely botch, and when it works it’s largely invisible to the viewer. Simply describing the video, as I’ve done above, completely misses out what I think it manages to accomplish, so let’s slow down and take a closer look.
First of all, what struck me when watching the video again is how energetic it is, especially compared to the song. Speed of Sound is basically a slightly faster power ballad, but the video is intense, colourful, and frenetic. Parts of the video are even shot and edited almost like a metal video.
The second thing that I noticed is how strong the visual narrative is. This is most noticeably achieved with the LED animations playing behind the band, which match each segment of the song. They’re not directly synced to the music, but suit each segment’s mood and intensity. This also gives every part of the song its own stylistic feel, making them stand out more to create a sense that the song is more dynamic than it actually is.
This is also accomplished through the shot composition and editing. In fact, every part of the song uses a different editing style and focuses on different types of shots. Let’s do a quick tour of each segment and how it lines up with the song’s structure.
When You See It, Then You’ll Understand
We start with the intro, which features the piano hook and focuses only on Chris Martin playing and singing. At this point, the set is completely dark and all shots are varying types of close-ups.
As the rest of the band come in, we get some low lighting and more mid-shots of each member in silhouette. The shots are held for a few seconds with little noticeable movement. We also get the first animation, with dim white lights flickering, accompanied by a slight camera shake in most shots.
As the pre-chorus starts and the music begins to build, we get our first real wide shot of the stage as it fills with bright lights. Cuts are now faster and shots vary from quick extreme close-ups, mid-shots, and wide-shots.
When the chorus hits, a more elaborate animation kicks in, with waves of blue light enveloping the stage. At this point, the camera is wobbling and shaking a lot to add some oomph to the rousing chorus.
As soon as the chorus is over, the lights fade away, replaced by falling red and blue lights. This mimics the look from the previous verse, but this time combining the colours and with some of the momentum from the chorus.
Next up is a flickering, glitchy animation. By now cuts are quicker and at this point the camera shake is used liberally to emphasise Martin’s vocals. They’re blurry and energetic, and shots often linger close to his face or on the instruments.
As the second chorus ends, we get an instrumental break where the lights go into a deep, dark red.
This is followed by the bridge, where we get rapidly changing colours while the editing becomes more frenetic than ever. Most of the shots are just a few frames each, often focusing on rows of lights to create a neat bokeh effect while building to the song’s climax.
As the crescendo hits, the stage explodes with colour.
The whole video has been building to this moment. It’s pure euphoria and combines everything we’ve seen so far into one extraordinary emotional release. The camera wobbles to enhance the climax, and the shots highlight each band member’s movements as the final guitar hook lifts off.
Right before the end, a golden shimmer takes over and at this point almost every shot is either a wide or a close-up.
Until the very end, which cuts to a static shot of the band. This lasts for 15 seconds as the lights turn white and slowly fade away along with the music.
Some Things You Can Invent
You might still think that this is nothing special. It’s just a fairly standard performance video after all, even after picking apart the details. However, to illustrate just how successful the Speed of Sound video is, let’s compare it to a very similar video of a similar song by the same band, shot only a few years earlier:
Even though they both focus on the band performing similar-sounding songs with some colourful lighting effects, I think the difference is enormous. In comparison, Clocks feels so much more anaemic and stale. The shots are all flat angles and the cuts hardly ever meaningfully match the music.
It’s a fairly straightforward filmed performance with no real flourish to accompany or enhance the musical experience. It’s probably closer to what an actual performance of the song would look like, but it’s got hardly any energy.
By contrast, in Speed of Sound each decision in framing and editing serves to make the song feel just as dynamic as the video. It’s so perfectly in tune with the music that it becomes part of it.
It’s as if the emotions from the video have somehow become attached to my memory of the song. I’m sure that had I never seen it I would have experienced the song completely differently, but the visuals add a power to it that lingers when I listen to the song without also watching the video.
The editing is rapid but not chaotic. The camera shakes but never disorients. Making each shot linger for just a little longer would have made the song feel sedate, while making them faster would have felt out-of-place with the song’s tone.
Instead, the director, cinematographer, and editor all worked to create something that elevated the song. This isn’t what an actual performance of Speed of Sound by the band Coldplay would actually look like, and it probably isn’t even how it feels like. But it definitely is how it could feel. How it should feel.
All That Noise, And All That Sound
One could argue that this is no different from many other performance-based music videos. Videos like Foo Fighters’ All My Life, Linkin Park’s Faint, or Audioslave’s Cochise (the latter two of which were also directed by Mark Romanek).
That’s my point.
Ultimately, a music video’s purpose is to take the emotional core of the song and amplify it. Considering that Speed of Sound is an rousing, anthemic song with a slow build leading up to an exhilarating climax, every part of the video works towards this purpose.
How it subtly leads you to pay attention to the vocals and instruments at specific points, making them feel louder and larger in your mind. How repeating patterns in the lighting are used to highlight specific sections of the song. How the build to the final chorus is punctuated by the camera movements and cutting becoming more lively.
In an interview, Chris Martin explained that they don’t like to play Speed of Sound live anymore because “an audience can pick up real fast if you’re not convinced by something“. I find that fascinating because none of that disesteem comes through in the video, and it’s almost exclusively thanks to amazing film-making.
It’s definitely not as iconic as Smooth Criminal, as inventive as Star Guitar, as cool as Weapon of Choice, as emotionally devastating as Hurt, or as elaborate as Let Forever Be. But like those videos, it’s the perfect visual representation of the song the accompanies it, to the point where it’s practically impossible to separate the two from each other.
I wanted to talk about the Speed of Sound video in particular partly because I genuinely love it, but also because it’s a pure demonstration of the possibilities in the medium. Performance-based music videos rarely get the same recognition, but they can be just as effective and well-crafted. It doesn’t feature advanced choreography, mind-blowing visual effects, or an amazing real-life backstory behind it, but it still manages to create the same effective coalescence of visuals and sound to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.
It’s a great demonstration of how talented filmmakers can produce something that not only supplements a song, but actually improves it. That’s an art that I believe is worth both celebrating and preserving.