Viva la Vida: A second take on the meaning of the lyrics


In October 2008, almost exactly a year ago, I posted an essay about a popular Coldplay song titled Viva la Vida. My interpretation of the meaning of the song, is not only my most popular blog post (eliciting in excess of 5000 views), it also generated a heap of comments which lead to some very interesting discussions, and alternate proposals for what the song means.

On the whole, I agreed with the comments that suggested that the song could have multiple meanings. I however still maintain that the less obvious ones could be closer to the meaning that Chris Martin intended; but it’s unlikely that we’re ever going to find out. But that should not stop us from speculating further.

Strangely enough, while on the road today between business meetings, I heard the song played on a radio station; and it hit me like a ton of bricks, that my first attempt at extracting meaning from the song could indeed be wrong; but not entirely so. While my first impression speaks of god and religion in general, I am now convinced that Chris Martin was actually much more specific about which supernatural entity and the religion itself, as you will see from my explanation below.

The first verse:

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sweep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing:
“Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!”
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of sand, pillars of sand

Consider that the song is being sung from the perspective of someone who was considered a king; a person who had supernatural powers and could command seas to rise when he gave the word. Imagine this person who by virtue of his sovereign status, owned the streets of a certain city, sweeping his detractors aside as he advocated a certain doctrine which made his followers sing his praises, while instilling fear in the eyes of the former. Consider this person, having lost that power and now feels alone. Consider that for a long time this doctrine sustained a key belief system; but which has now been exposed as standing on unsound pillars. Now consider that this person is the biblical Jesus Christ, the city is Jerusalem and the doctrine is Christianity.

The second verse:

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
Once you know there was never, never an honest word
That was when I ruled the world

Confirmation of the city and the era in the first verse is evidenced, in the context of biblical teachings, by the mention of Jerusalem and Roman Cavalry. The mirror, sword, shield and missionaries could have multiple meanings within the context of my interpretation, but for the purposes of this interpretation, they are biblical metaphors for Christ’s followers (missionaries) who fought (sword and shield) to spread the doctrine by imitating (mirror) their Master. The last two lines are a metaphor for the biblical troubled times (never an honest word) in which Jesus ruled over the world.

The third verse:

It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in.
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People could not believe what I’d become
Revolutionaries Wait For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?

The first four lines of this verse reflect the biblical narrative of Christ storming into a temple (wild wind blew down the doors) to disrupt the “unholy” activities being perpetrated there. People were shocked (could not believe what I’d become) when Jesus brought down the temple (shattered windows and the sound of drums). The fifth line is a biblical metaphor for the Romans (revolutionaries) wanting to kill him (Wait for my head), with an added reference to John the Baptist (head on a silver plate). The cryptic last two lines of this verse reveal that Jesus laments his lonely job as a leader (who would ever want to be king), while his actions are being controlled (puppet on a string) by someone else (ostensibly Christ’s biblical father, god).

The fourth verse:

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
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
(Ohhhhh Ohhh Ohhh)

Not much different from the second verse except for 6th line. In the context of the biblical teachings, Christ reveals that as the son of god, he does not have to account for his entrance into heaven (I know Saint Peter won’t call my name), as other mortals have to.

The last verse:

Hear Jerusalem bells are ringings
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
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
Oooooh Oooooh Oooooh

As with my original interpretation, the apparent contradiction in the 6th line, with the fourth verse is easily explainable. This being the last verse, the metaphor Saint Peter will [now] call [Christ’s] name, reveals the end of the road for Christianity, when Christ is relegated to a mere mortal and has to account for himself at the Pearly Gates. A clever metaphor for the decline of a doctrine and its purported teacher, as evidenced in the world today by the shift towards atheism, secularism, agnosticism, humanism and even new-age spirituality.

I don’t know why I didn’t see this before; it makes a lot more sense than my previous interpretation. Chris Martin is surely a genius…