By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What has a defunct British publication got to do with the genesis of one of Coldplay’s signature songs? ‘Yellow’ was very much the band’s breakthrough hit in the summer of 2000, and is perhaps the best-crafted song on their debut album, Parachutes. But why ‘Yellow’? What is the meaning of this now iconic song?
‘Yellow’: song meaning
When he appeared on The Howard Stern Show in November 2011, Chris Martin explained that the colour yellow doesn’t have any meaning whatsoever. That doesn’t sound too promising, but clearly the lyrics must mean something, for the song to have attained its status as a classic early noughties ballad.
Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics. The song owes its origins to a starry night in Wales.
The band were busy recording their debut album at the Quadrangle studio near Monmouth, South Wales. When they finished recording their track ‘Shiver’, late one night, they went outside for a break and a breath of fresh air. It was dark outside the studio, and a clear night.
Their producer, Ken Nelson, told the band to look at the stars, and Chris Martin was inspired to come up with the tune which would become the main melody of ‘Yellow’. And that is how the opening line of the song came about.
The song appears to be a kind of love song: the singer has written a song (this song?) for the addressee, and believes the stars shine for that special person he is singing to. The opening verses have the air of a romantic date where the singer is encouraging his beloved to look up at the stars and become convinced she is special.
But the starlight – which is not the silvery rays of a million love poems, but the more unusual yellow – does something magical to the woman’s skin and the contours of her face. She is made beautiful by the (yellow) starlight shining on her. And then we have the clincher, more powerful for having been withheld until the chorus: the singer loves her, and joyously declares this.
He had to ‘take his turn’: was he her first choice? Or did he have to sit back and wait it out, biding his time until she noticed him, or became available? Perhaps. Certainly he has done all sorts of things to attract her attention: scaling bodies of water and leaping across chasms to reach her.
And why did he do this? Because she’s ‘all yellow’: there is something about the elfin starlight when it meets her skin, the almost alchemical transformation that her skin (and bones) undergo, that makes her worth all this effort.
So, ultimately the meaning of the song is that ‘Yellow’ is a love song. It could have been another oh-so-cheesy declaration of devotion – all that swimming and jumping across great distances to be with her – but these conventional romantic elements are tempered by what T. E. Hulme would call a classical restraint.
After all, not many love poets would call their sweetheart ‘skin and bones’: it may be technically true (or at least partly true), but it makes her sound like a haggard old bundle of withering flesh rather than a (presumably) younger woman at the peak of her beauty and in full bloom.
Similarly, ‘yellow’ is not the most romantic of colours, and it surprises us when it is applied – among other things – to both the colour of the stars and the colour of the woman’s skin.
But where did the idea to build a song around the colour yellow come from, then? Martin himself said that it was only ever just a working title, a hook on which to hang the rest of the song as it developed, and he always intended to alter ‘yellow’ precisely because it didn’t really fit with the rest of the lyrics.
But he kept it, because it felt right. And one reason it feels right, perhaps, is that yellow, with its connotations of mellowness and soft warmth, is perfect for this slow, placid love ballad.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ is how Chris Martin alighted on this particular colour as he was developing the song’s melody and lyrics.
He struggled to find the right words for the tune, because he sensed that the song needed a word that could act as an ‘anchor’ and bring the rest of the song’s meaning together. Despairing, he looked around the studio and saw the Yellow Pages, that iconic telephone directory, famed for its bright yellow pages (which is now perhaps better known as a website, Yell).
‘Yellow’, as we suggested above, ‘works’ for the song because it brings just the right connotations for this kind of love song. There is something staid and subtle about it, with even the sound of the word – especially that soft, lyrical ‘l’ sound – which reins in the more romantic excesses of the song’s lyrics.
So what could have been another uninspired love ditty about stars and scaling great distances actually becomes something more unexpected and fresh. And this, perhaps, is one reason why ‘Yellow’ has become one of Coldplay’s signature songs.