Coldplay’s "Viva La Vida": The Meaning Of The Masterpiece
If you could name a single song that best exemplifies Coldplay’s greatness it would be “Viva La Vida.” It was musically unlike anything they’d ever done before, lushly orchestrated, hardly a rock song at all. But the musical power is self-evident. And the lyrics were easily the best they (or anyone else) had ever written.
“Viva La Vida” is, without a doubt, one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever had the “pleasure” to hear… and it isn’t even a love song! Even the song/album title are heartbreaking. “Viva La Vida”, which means “Long live life”, was chosen after vocalist Chris Martin saw the words on a painting by Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist who survived polio, a broken spine, and years of chronic pain.
The song is just as bold and unusual. The singer is someone who was once so powerful that his greatness bestrode the world, or as bassist Guy Berryman explained to Q magazine, “It’s a story about a king who’s lost his kingdom” The man singing the song was a colossus, a king, all-powerful, all-mighty. He was stunning to behold. His military might could reduce resisting doors to splinters. His worst enemies were thoroughly frightened of him. Even the seas themselves were under his command.
But now his power has been stripped and he has become the meanest, lowest creature of the realm, or (as the singer himself says it so simply) he now “sweeps the streets I used to own.” He discovered that his strength was as fragile as it was immense. Bells and choirs now herald his downfall. And even though he can’t describe precisely how he knows it to be true he’s certain that when he dies he will be refused entrance to heaven.
Part of the lyrical power comes from the use of biblical imagery. In the Old Testament Lot’s wife is turned into a “pillar of salt” when she looks back to see the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. In the New Testament Jesus tells the parable of a wise man who built his house upon rock while a fool builds his house on sand; wind, rain, and floods destroy the latter but spare the former. Add to that the references to Jerusalem, Roman Cavalry, and St. Peter.
Did the band members have anybody specific in mind when they composed the song? Evidently not. Even though the album cover is Eugène Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading The People, inspired by the French Revolution of 1830 the band members have been firm that they were talking about kings in general, not any specific monarch. Still, as vocalist Chris Martin described the lyric about St. Peter to Q Magazine, “It’s always fascinated me that idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it. And it’s that runs through most religions… That is the most frightening thing you could possibly say to somebody. Eternal damnation… It’s still mildly terrifying to me.”