I bet that Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” gives you shivers, although you cannot truly tell what specifically transposes you in another world. It is that “I used to” that generates a melancholic feeling in Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”. The song is mostly set in a glorious past, as it compulsively dominating the thoughts in the present. Further in this article I aim to decompose this song, examining the strength of its lyrics, the appeal to its listeners, the instrumental part and the clarity of the speech that resides from the song.
Living in the past, back when “I used to rule the world” makes Coldplay’s song sensitive, reaching its audiences through the emotional bound and aesthetic feeling that represent the pathos in the discourse of the song. Comparing the past with the present is painful and you can sense this emotion from these lyrics: “I used to rule the world/Seas would rise when I gave the word/Now in the Morning I sleep alone/Sweep the streets that I used to own” (Coldplay, “Viva la Vida”).
Not exactly a fabulous present compared to the past, is it? What is behind these lyrics? There is one clue in the verses “I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing/Roman Cavalry choirs are singing”, which indicate indeed, a glorious past. A page of history set in the time of the Roman Cavalry, in a catholic country. The relation with the song’s name “Viva la Vida” (Long Live Life), taken from the Spanish language might indicate that this past is set in Spain or a Latin Catholic country.
But wait! Did you hear the reference to Saint Peter? In Orthodox religion Saint Peter is one of Jesus’ apostles, the keeper of the gates of Eden. In a practical, but serene and resigned tone, the character of the song says “I know Saint Peter won’t call my name”. This is a reflection to the future, to the moment when he, the protagonist of the song, will be called for the Judgment Day. He has no reason to explain why, but he knows for sure that his name will not be on the list for Heaven. This might induce the fact that he committed sins in this life and he is aware of them or that he lived the life at its fullest, contradicting the Christian morals.
The song is filled with historical and biblical references: “Now the old king is dead! Long live the king” – is directed to the English tradition of saluting their former king who died and welcoming the new king. The song mentions in the upcoming verses the king condition in a state of war “revolutionaries wait/For my head on a silver plate/Just a puppet on a lonely string/Oh who would ever want to be king?” (Coldplay, “Viva la Vida”).
This makes pregnant the fact that the protagonist of the song is a king, a former king, who tells his story of glory. As a king, the man has credibility. You must agree that he states the facts with accuracy, convincing his listeners of the facts that happened in the past by linking them with strong Christian symbols (“Jerusalem bells”, “pillars of salt, pillars of sand”, “Saint Peter”) and historical elements (“Now the old king is dead!/Long live the king!”, “Roman Cavalry”, “my sword and shield”, “missionaries in a foreign field”). Moreover it has an ethical conduct because he reflects on his past, from a political perspective: “Never an honest word/But that was when I ruled the world”, disclaiming his behavior in a world of mass manipulation.
I hear a good speech coming out of this song, with strong arguments and a solid critical thinking. Therefore, the King has what it takes to rock his past in a logical manner, setting logos elements in the song, creating a symphony dedicated to the ecstasy of life.
The song moves even deeper in the nostalgic grip, as it is accompanied by the instruments that deepen the drama and the sadness that come out of the song to flood the listener. The soft violin from the beginning of the song tells the story with its strings, announcing an important communication. The drums seem to articulate the greatness of the past, setting a tranquil peace, but waiting to burst out at any moment. Throughout the song, the piano gently follows the music, covering up the idea of solitude and remorse expressed in the song. A bass and an electric guitar are also included for putting some rock & roll into the classic background. For a little bit more credibility and for transposing the listeners into the past, the band introduced elements specific to Christianity evoking the bells of the Catholicism: the timpani and the church bells. That’s quite an interesting instrumental mix for a rock composition, wouldn’t you say?
The sensitive voice of Chris Martin embodies the king’s adventures, as he passionately runs through the past pages of history, takes a peak in the bible and compares the past (“I used to”) with the present (“now”). In the end of the song, a something extra shapes the biblical and historical references: the chorus accompanied by the violin in the undertone.
Let’s recap: we’ve got strings and rhythm that unites the past with the present. We’ve got an engaging story, mingling the adventures of a Catholic king with his clear self-awareness speech set in the context of discussing about human condition and Christian religion. We’ve got a sensitive and passionate voice that carries the adventures of a glorious king. The mix of classical and modern instruments is, of course, original and catchy. For truly appreciating the lyrics of this song, you need to do some research in the pages of history and through the passages of the bible, but for sure you will have some fun with this. Write to me when you’re done, I’d love to hear your thoughts and to hear your theories about the identity of this king.
Coldplay. Viva la Vida. Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. Parlaphone, Capitol: United Kingdom. 2008. Album.