The British rock band Coldplay has put out some of the greatest songs of this century such as “Fix You,” “Yellow,” “Paradise,” “The Scientist,” “A Sky Full of Stars,” and the list goes on. Another highly acclaimed entry into this list would be “Viva La Vida” from their fourth studio album from 2008. The song encompasses a revolutionary theme with a sprinkle of religion.
“Viva La Vida” was released as the second single off of Coldplay’s fourth studio album ‘Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends’ in 2008. The song was written by all four members of Coldplay and released on June 13, 2008. The song was an instant success both critically and commercially.
The song reached #1 on Billboard Hot 100, UK Singles Chart, and in the Netherlands, and Poland. The single has sold over 10 million copies worldwide to date, with almost 7 million from the USA, and 2 million from the UK. These stats make “Viva La Vida” the 25th best-selling digital single of all time.
However, the highest honor “Viva La Vida” has received is being nominated for ‘Record of the Year,’ ‘Song of the Year,’ and ‘Best Pop Performance by a Duo or a Group’ at the 2009 Grammy Awards. The song won the latter two nominations.
Watch “Viva La Vida” Music Video by Coldplay
Download ‘Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends’ Album on Apple Music & Amazon
“Viva La Vida” Lyrics Meaning and Song Review
Overall, “Viva La Vida” is presented as a song of revolutions. Coldplay’s guitarist Guy Berryman explained the idea behind the song;
It’s a story about a king who’s lost his kingdom, and all the album’s artwork is based on the idea of revolutionaries and guerrillas. There’s this slightly anti-authoritarian viewpoint that’s crept into some of the lyrics and it’s some of the pay-off between being surrounded by governments on one side, but also we’re human beings with emotions and we’re all going to die and the stupidity of what we have to put up with every day. Hence the album title.
The song title “Viva La Vida” in Spanish translates to English as ‘long live life’ and is a tribute to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s last painting before her death.
When asked about the song title, Chris Martin of Coldplay said to Rolling Stone magazine; “She went through a lot of pain, of course, and then she started a big painting in her house that said ‘Viva la Vida’, I just loved the boldness of it.”
There is a very strong start to the song with a massive emphasis on setting the theme for the rest of the song; “I used to rule the world.” Right away, we know that this song is about the cries of a man who has fallen a great deal.
‘A king losing his throne’ fits perfectly into the context of the song, and hence “Viva La Vida” has been associated with the stories of several kings throughout the history of the world. The most notable of such is the story of King Louis XVI (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793), the last king of France. He is the last monarch of France as a result of the French Revolution. But almost all successful revolutions to overthrow a central power, have a similar story to above.
However, the context of the song can be quite universal too. Anyone can feel like a king in different circumstances in life. You can feel like a king with the right woman by your side. You can feel like you conquered the world when you hold your first child. Being the top dog in your company can certainly make you feel like a king. But as does the old saying goes “the higher you fly, the harder you fall.”
The remainder of the first verse speaks about the song’s protagonist’s downfall. He was a man of so much power. Kings had absolute power over their kingdoms. Their word was the law of the kingdom. This is what the song attempts to say with the lyric “Seas would rise when I gave the word.” Whilst this is far from reality, this speaks to the mindset of a king, and why revolutions did come up throughout the history of the world.
However, the fall is here, and the former-king is left to nothing but himself now. A man who was once surrounded by servants, women, and guards, now sleeps alone in his shack. ‘Sweeping the streets’ can be considered an act far beneath for a king. But, this is his life now–shredded from power and fortune.
Watch Coldplay Perform “Viva La Vida” Live in São Paulo
The second verse of “Viva La Vida” continues to draw comparisons between the protagonist’s highs and lows in his life.
‘Rolling the dice’ insinuates raking risks. In the context of the song, it could mean how this king managed to gamble the lives of his men in battles to conquer other empires. It was a mere decision for him, while it also meant the lives of his subjects. The king was successful in some of these battles as he crushed his enemies and watched the fear in his enemy’s eyes. But, what he did not expect was the same fear in his own eyes.
‘Long live the king’ is a common chant by the common folk for their king, most usually during the coronation ceremony, and in other events attended by the king. How sincere is this chant? That is the question for the ages!
The former king mourns the loss of his kingdom. One minute he held the keys to his castle and the next, it was gone. Even the city walls were closed on him. Only when he lost everything, he took a minute to reflect on everything and discovered that his castle had no strong footing. It was all built on “pillars of salt and pillars of sand” which are symbolic of deceit, traitors, and a false sense of strength.
In the situation of King Louis XVI, he inherited a kingdom built on pain and sorrow of the commonfolk caused by the monarchs before him. People may have chanted ‘long live the king’ at his ceremony, but this glory was severely exaggerated. The predecessor to the throne was, King Louis XVI’s grandfather, King Louis XV, whose reign is recorded as full of corruption and heavy drain and stress on treasury and people alike due to prolonged wars.
The chorus of the song can be interpreted as the last cry of the former king who is now being escorted for his execution. This is where the song draws religious and Biblical themes hinting at the last moment of Jesus Christ himself.
According to the lore, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Calvary, on the same cross he was made to carry. The crucifixion is carried on by Roman soldiers in Jerusalem. All these references appear in the chorus of the song.
King Lois XVI suffered a similar fate in his last days as he was beheaded by guillotine on January 21, 1793. According to historians, the former king appeared “dignified and refined.” He made a short speech about his innocence for the charges he is accused of. It is also said that he wanted to speak more but was cut short by a drum roll ordered by the General of the National Guard present at the moment.
The lyric “Be my mirror, my sword and shield” might be the king’s final plea for Lord for forgiveness. A man who led a thousand armies a few months back now has to rely solely on his spirituality for his defense. He has been reduced to nothing, publicly shamed, and his reign is mocked. So, when he was ‘gone’ from his throne, the historians had a blast recording only the negative aspects of the king’s reign. The former king claims these were no honest words since his fall.
Watch Chris Martin Perform an Acoustic Guitar Cover of “Viva La Vida”
In the third verse of “Viva La Vida,” Coldplay sings of the chaotic period of the fallen king. He talks about the “wicked and wild wind” that let him into the castle. And as it turns out, it was the same wind that knocked him out of his castle. The ‘wicked and wild wind’ could be the commonfolk who ushered in the king hoping for better times, and the same people who became revolutionaries when they saw the king had no good intentions for the people.
“Shattered windows and the sound of drums” hint at a chaotic period in the king’s reign. Windows get shattered when riots take place in the streets of the kingdom. And there will be drumrolls when the king executes his orders, forcefully. And as things keep on spiraling down, the king knows his days are numbered. Eventually, the power of the people outgrows that of the king’s. The king knows the revolutionaries outside (and maybe even inside) his castle want his head on a silver platter.
As the last lines on the final verse of the song, the former king contemplates why would anyone even want to be a king?! “Heavy is The Head That Wears The Crown” is an idiom that sums up the life of a king. There is great power under his thumb, but he has to worry about retaining such power in every minute of his life. And especially for a king, his reign is as strong as the weakest ‘friend’ around the king, which makes the king think that he is merely a “Just a puppet on a lonely string.”
The only change in the second chorus of the song is the addition of the line “I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.” In the Christian lore, Saint Peter is the guardian of the gates of Heaven. Anyone getting to go to heaven in their afterlife has to be called upon by Saint Peter. The king, in his last moments alive, realizes that he has failed his people and lived a life that does not please God. So, he makes his bed that he is not getting an invite to Heaven!
And so ends “Viva La Vida” with a beautiful hymn following the verses and the choruses. The song captures the emotions of a fallen king. But as we mentioned above, the same theme can be related to many elements of any person in this world. So, always be humble, and be a good human being! And your highs and lows will be more or less a better experience!
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics and further meaning breakdown on Genius.