Viva La Vida: What is Coldplay singing about?





“My missionaries in a foreign field”
I have to confess: that line in Coldplay’s new song “Viva La Vida” caught my ear. I bought the album a few weeks ago and really like it. I have played the number one song Viva La Vida a few times with my kids, reading the lyrics, and taking a few guesses as to the meaning. Is Chris Martin thinking of a historical figure (King Louis as the cover art suggests or Caesar in Rome?) or is he thinking of himself, having made himself a king with false words (castle on sand) and having a girlfriend leave him when she found out the truth – thus the tumbling down of the kingdom? Or is it a deeper spiritual song that goes beyond relational conflict and historical precedents? Its worth a ponder. Someone on askYahoo asks if it is a Christian song? No – but there are a lot of biblical references (pillar of salt, head on a silver plate, castles on sand, sword and shield, etc).

Any thoughts?

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

42 Comments

  • To compare a couple of similar lines towards the end of the song:
    1. For some reason I can not explain
    I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
    Never an honest word
    And that was when I ruled the world
    2. For some reason I can not explain
    I know Saint Peter will call my name
    Never an honest word
    But that was when I ruled the world
    The exchange of ‘will’ for ‘won’t’, and ‘but’ for ‘and’ in the second iteration is significant, it shows that the dishonest life of the King has been left behind, that he has chosen the honest life of the working man. He ties the ‘dishonest King’ role to damnation and the ‘honest working man’ role to salvation.
    This song (I am also alluding to the album cover) is about the struggle of the weak and downtrodden against the ‘kings’ of the world and their lack of ‘honest words.’ So perhaps while not overtly Christian in tone, Chris is definitely picking up on some pseudo-Kingdom themes. Short of an interview I can’t discern if that was his intent or not, but I likely expect he is alluding mainly to a civil in/just kingdom vs. a theistic one.

  • we are not talking about CCM, Derek, but rather we are talking about music that makes you think and ask questions. there is a big difference. . . . which is why i dont listen to CCM

  • Andrew – this sounds like some of Dylan’s lyrics – whenever anyone asked him about the “religious symbolism” behind his music, he would get pretty testy noting that what he had to say, he said in the song. Also, from what I’ve read about Bono, while he is more receptive to discussing the psalmody present in U2’s songs, he doesn’t care for the stream of books that explore the spirituality of U2.

  • I think the end of that last link got cut off. It ended with… _Mainstream_albums_old_and_new/31939/p1/
    Any ideas how to get links to work in the comments section?

  • i’m not sure about this particular song, but in the past of have heard (from a credible source) that chris martin used to be a worship leader in the uk. that might explain some of the biblical references. it doesn’t however shed a whole lot of light onto what the lyrics themselves mean.

  • there is no better way to put a link on these or any comments without writing a little code that turns it into a hypertext link. Its easy to learn and is worth remembering.
    here is it here

  • I recall Chris Martin saying in an interview that the lyrics to Viva La Vida aren’t told from a specific person’s viewpoint, but a composite. Something like that.
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/music/glimpses/2008/vivalavida.html
    Coldplay
    Viva la Vida (Capitol Records)
    by Russ Breimeier

    Also, Martin does not sing:
    “For some reason I can not explain”
    but
    “For some reason I can’t explain”
    Most reviews of the song I’ve read on the net have Martin only singing “I know Saint Peter _won’t_ call my name”
    In his 2006 sermon based on Coldplay’s music
    http://www.thetapestry.ca/tappodcasts/coldplay_jan_22_2006
    Pastor Albert Chu [The Tapestry Church, Richmond B.C.] said that as one listens to Coldplay’s Yellow, “…imagine it’s a love song, not a love song written by us to God, but just imagine that it is a love song written by God to us.
    ‘Look at the stars/Look how they shine for you/And all the things that you do.’
    [Chu: “These are the words of God who created the stars and the world for us.”]
    ‘I swam across/ I swam across…’
    Chu: “These are the words of Jesus who left the comforts of heaven and swam across the great divide to come to us.”
    ‘Your skin and bones/Turn into something beautiful …
    And you know for you, I’d bleed myself dry’
    Chu: “And these are the words of Jesus who bled himself dry on the cross to turn us into something beautiful.”

  • Chris Martin says he got the song (and album) title “Viva la Vida” from a Frida Kahlo. The literal translation of that title is “Long Live Life.” However, since Kahlo painting is of melons that isn’t much help.
    The album cover, though, is of Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” The use of that image and hints from the lyrics lead me to the conjecture that the song is about…King Louis XVI?
    At first the lyrics point to a religious figure, but upon closer examination I think they are the words of a man whose death is pending. For example, the line “I know Saint Peter won’t call my name” refers to being called into heaven.
    This section in particular leads me to think that it is about the king’s impending execution:
    Revolutionaries wait
    For my head on a silver plate
    Just a puppet on a lonely string
    Oh who would ever want to be king?

  • Andrew your post was great timing for me. I’ve been listening to Viva La Vida repeatedly over the last couple of days. I think the key to understanding this song is to remember that it is a legitimate work of art which causes listeners to reflect on more spiritual, philosophical things. While, on the one hand, we may be trying too hard to find Christian elements in the song that Chris did not intend to be there, these elements and hints of spiritual conversation have been present since Parachutes. As Christians we are likely to be more receptive to any possible Christian themes and symbolysm so we should be careful about jumping to conclusions. But it certainly is nice to hope that Chris may be revealing his Christianity through this song.

  • i agree with ben about ‘death and the weighing of a life’ as i think the whole album is about the struggle between holding on to life in all its fullness and facing down the shadow of death and all his friends – when i first heard this track i thought it was about a famous person embracing who they really are as a human being in the light of eternity, rather than the false figure that the media hypes them up to be and can’t wait to topple – for me it is a very spiritual song (in the sense of talking a lot about what it means to be fully a human being)about change and the potential to look at ourselves honestly and realistically as we make an appraisal of our past moves and mistakes – i don’t necessarily have to make it ‘Christian’ to understand it in that context – the religious symbolism and imagery that runs through the whole of the album always seems to be related to those two threads about making a sober judgement of the consequences and impact of our choices (especially how we allow ourselves to be influenced by morbid thoughts or the shock in middle age of facing the inevitability of death more quickly than we really want to) and the decision to ultimately choose life over death and all his friends – that’s my twopennyworth anyway

  • hey thanks but no one is saying this is a “Christian song” (except the one person that asked YAHOO) or trying to make it that way
    hellooo MATRIX!
    but there are some spiritual themes going on and so thanks julie and others for your thoughts. i should listen to the whole album to get a feel for what they are trying to express.

  • According to his own words in Rolling Stone, Chris Martin is repulsed by his Christian(fundamentalist) upbringing. So it’s safe to say, while using Biblical themes, he isn’t basing his worldview on them at all.
    Comparing him and Bono is comparing apples and oranges.

  • everyone who leaves the church blames it on their “oppressive” Christian upbringing. funny how in my family, two out of four of my siblings turned their back on the church, the other two seem indifferent, and i’m a year into my MDiv, madly in love with God and surrendered to His work. funny also how i grew up in rural, central missouri on a cattle farm, in a town of 2,000, but i’m an artist, musician, and urban culture hawk living in chicago. guess we’re all just products of our environment…

  • I brought up Dylan and Bono as two examples of artists whose work also contains strong religious symbolism but they have an aversion to books penned about the spiritual themes present in their work especially if said works are in the Christian cheesy category – Dylan in particular would get enraged at reporters who brought up a Q about his faith. Their argument seems to be that what they had to say they said it in the song — I do find if I overanalyze a particular song, then I can often miss the meaning behind the message.

  • Exactly, and Coldplay will not be touring with Michael W. Smith.
    which brings me back to the interpretation of the song. I like Joe Carter’s thoughts on King Louis XVI which is an immediate connection but i am still wondering what the relevance for now is – ie, a broken relationship? a personal transformation? a decision to move away from dominating?

  • how about the song as a memoir of George W’s? Sung from the presidents perspective it is a haunting tale of his downfall. The images of the overthrow of a king, religous justification for war, and the current state of backlash towards his reign always play out images of the last 8 years in my head.

  • I think both this song and the next one (violet hill) are about the crusades, and it is the church, not a person depicted as the entity that once “ruled the world”.

  • this song definitely reminds me of a “louis” – maybe XVI, or the one who actually ended up being beheaded (XVII?). don’t know that he ever “swept the streets (he) used to roam”, but he definitely experienced a shift from power. i also agree with jed & see connections with george w. also, i think the missionary part may speak to the connections of power between the catholic church & the government, where “missionaries” were often just conqueors, claiming whatever new land for their king & forcing their culture upon the people (which also might be the way chris martin sees modern day missionaries/fundamentalist-evangelical church & their connection to george w). i also see this theme in the talk of the “jerusalem bells” & their connection to the crusades.
    especially looking @ the album as a whole, for me the song is an expression of the rage of our human pride & arrogance, in it’s truest form. whoever the first person is, he sees everything from his point of view & even “for some reason (he) can’t explain, ” (he knows) st. peter will call (his) name.” that is maybe the ultimate of pride – to be a careless conqueoring person/king & also flippantly say for whatever reason, you will be given the ultimate reward – you will go to heaven.
    one more thing – i think it’s possible to have a good deal of loathing towards your fundamentalist christian background & also still be a christian.

  • hey, I was kidding about ccm (kind of the problem with printed words) and hells, aren’t you just the the bees frickin’ knees for not listening to ccm!
    Peace! 😉

  • well, actually, i should admit to listening to 1980’s Petra (Greg X Volz period like 83-86) and I do listen to Rich Mullins, and I also like some retro Stryper but i am not sure if they could be classified as contemporary christian music.
    Keith Green also finds his way into my iTunes.
    maybe its just CCM from 1986 on that i dont like.

  • I like the line in Violet Hill, “Priests clutched onto Bibles, hollowed out to fit their rifles.”
    Seems like an appropriate critique of the Christendom complex through the ages and of the current religiopolitical paradigm of American politics. I just smile when I see the image in my head: priests cutting out parts of the bible that don’t sit well with violence and ramming the cut up book down the barrel of a muzzle loader.

  • and something else that appears on the hard copy CD of Viva La Vida is a nice piece of red artwork with the inscription “Lord, lead me not into temptation”

  • I am a huge fan of Coldplay and I believe this is there best album yet. I think everyone is looking for one solid meaning to this song (and to the whole album for that matter), but theres a lot more to it then simply christianity, King Louis XVI, Chris’s personal turmoils, or modern politics. I think their album is trying to combine the past with the present; like showing how the past is reflected in the present and will continue into the future. This song is very much about King Louis XVI, but other songs in their album are about present issues such as “Lost!” Perhaps they are trying to show how our world today is crumbling just as it did in midieval times. I also think you can’t get the full picture by just listening to “Viva La Vida.” the whole album is the story of the everyday struggle for life and the inevitable death one is fighting against. Listen to the whole album and things become a lot clearer.

  • this is from
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viva_la_Vida_(song):
    ‘Q magazine asked Chris Martin about the line “I know Saint Peter won’t call my name” sung in “Viva la Vida”. Martin replied: “It’s about… You’re not on the list. I was a naughty boy. 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’s why people blow up buildings. Because they think they’re going to get lots of virgins. I always feel like saying, Just join a band (laughs). That is the most frightening thing you could possibly say to somebody. Eternal damnation. I know about this stuff because I studied it. I was into it all. I know it. It’s still mildly terrifying to me. And this is serious.” ‘

  • Maybe a metaphor of life? work your way up and replace someone at the top only to find out how epmty it is, then have the same done to you? then ponder who really wants to be at the top.
    be thankful for what you have is what I take away from the song.

  • I happened to be preparing a sermon series on on rethinking life after death (inspired by N.T. Wrights recent book “Surprised by Hope”) when I discovered the song on iTunes (it must’ve just been released). At the time they were were calling the song Viva la Vida or Death and All Her Friends (different on the album) but that last phrase caught my attention. As I listened to the song the first thing that came to my mind was the end of death. I took it as death’s lament. Jesus defeated death through the resurrection and now death is singing its woes, like pillars of sand, etc. The beautiful melody contrasted with the lament of the lyrics is the place we live as Christians. We suffer the pain of death but we can say Viva La Vida because of our hope. Anyways, this isn’t what Chris Martin was thinking but it works for me.

  • The song to me sounds very religous.
    ‘St peter’
    ‘jerusalem bells’
    overall the song may be about individuality. It outlines how being in power and having it all dosn’t make a happy life, or a happy death as the albums theme seems to flow.
    taking gambles and defeating anyone who tries to change you –
    ‘roll the dice/never an honest word.
    the song seems to outline chris as a modern day jesus? (don’t bite my head off)
    this song can be seen as a message on life and death, much like the message of god that jesus was trying to outline.
    being individual and trying to sell something differant to people who may not listen again shows the acts of jesus.
    ‘feel the fear in myenemies eyes’
    ‘i know st peter will call my name’
    ‘just a puppet on a lonely string’
    Overall this song is by far one of the greatest lyrical achivements ever produced by a singer. The music itself fits beautifully to martins words. i’d go as far to say that this is the best ever combination of music and words.
    btw: is there an offical video made for the song?

  • It’s not religious.
    The lyrics are based loosly on Tzar Nicholas II, the the aftermath of the February Revolution through the October Revolution and his final execution… sweeping streets, loved then hated, soldiers off fighting abroad in WW1, his fate out of his hands.
    It leans towards the literary and historical writings about him going from autocrat, anger, loathing and redemption in public eyes over the manner of his death and the noble way in which he bore humiliation for his family and the love of his nation no matter how poor a ruler he had been.
    More broadly speaking the song is about power, failing and uncertainty, not being in control of your own destiny when you once were.

  • While I think all of the postings have truth in them (like the “Sun King” concept) the larger question is why is the theme so popular?
    I think the song is about growing old and thinking back on victories and the made sacrifices – when young, people have a unbending feeling of self importance yet, when you grow older bending to the world and its care one ending up asking was it worth all I sacrificed? (Japanese saying: Old Rice plants bends, Young rice plants breaks). The young unbending get caught up in events and die and remembered young, the bending end up old and alone. The antagonist sacrificed everything for what they believed and they desired (gold, power and glory) however the cries for the long life of the king have changed into the desire for a new king, the castles that were built on friends and love lost can not hold up to time, revolutionary ideas are now mainstream and the very thing the young now fights against. It restates the old saying – what use is there winning the world and losing your soul- hence St Peter’s rejection? With a theme as old as time and as modern as Pink Floyds the Wall, a rock star (and us all) find that what matters seldom comes from anywhere else but with in. A theme older than religion or the western references mentioned with in the song the meaning of life and the desire of self-rightous passion turns to grey and , songs, like people and memories, fade away.

  • I don’t think this is a Christian song. I think that it is a song about America looking back at it former self after it has been dethroned at the de-facto world superpower. Just like a king would is overthrown by revolutionaries. The U.S. is following the same path. Our leaders are simply puppets of a larger force that rules the events of history.
    The chorus refers to Jerusalem bells ringing and Roman cavalry choirs singing and links them with sword and shield and missionaries in a foreign field makes me think of new world order with the political center in Jerusalem and religious center in Rome respectively.
    All this has been ushered in with the chaos created by 911 and will end with Obama taking the final steps of handing the U.S over to the world.
    I’m feeling rather conspiratorial and apocalyptic recently after I heard that the Maya predicted the end of the world to be 2012. Obama becomes president in Jan 2009, add 3.5 years for midway through the 7 year end times tribulation and you have June 2012 for the Obamanation of Desolation. That will be the time to run for the hills. However, if Obama is not the Anti-Christ, I hope he’s a good president.

  • Hey I think their talking about the elite that rules the world, and there are speaking about the future when the beast falls. When the Hierarchy collapses, this is the time we are in right now. They are from Europe they see the bigger picture than most americans, I mean most of the blood line families live in europe, and lets not forget the City of London is the financial district of the world. Listen to the lyrics it makes sense, once you’ve achieved that higher perspective of life you’ll easily understand what I am talking about.

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