Song Analysis “Viva La Vida” Coldplay

Viva La Vida
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
[If I wrote this song, I would probably give it the title “When I Ruled the World” because that reflects the gist of the song and it is a line repeated throughout the song. “Viva La Vida” is Spanish for “Live the Life.” The speaker describes having tremendous power. He says that he could control the oceans. It seems to me an allusion to Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) who parted the Red Sea. Incidentally, the lead singer of Coldplay, Chris Martin, named his son Moses. This is like a rags-to-riches story in reverse. The character went from a position of power to a lowly job as a streetsweeper.]


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!”
[The character recalls having the power to make his enemies suffer. It seems like he led a revolt against a monarch. There is irony in the last line of the stanza. The people see that their king has just died but express hope that the next king will fare better. Yet as Dr. Phil says, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If the last king died in a revolt, what reason does the next king have to hope for a long life?]


One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

[Looking back, the speaker feels that it all happened so fast. It was if one minute, he held the keys of power and the next he was in a kind of prison of poverty. The idea of castles standing on pillars of sand highlights the transitory nature of power. Just as a building on a weak foundation quickly sinks, a person with power can quickly fall into poverty. The pillars of salt may be a reference to the story of Prophet Lot, peace be upon him, whose wife turned into a pillar of salt in the Bible. I believe her transformation was a punishment for lacking faith. Maybe he is saying that when people lose power, it is a punishment for their lack of faith.]

I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my Mirror my Sword and Shield
My Missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
Once you go there was never
Never an honest word
That was when I Ruled the World

[This stanza is more cryptic than the previous ones. Jerusalem is, of course, the primary city of the Holy Land. Some of the most sacred churches in the world are in Jerusalem. I don’t know how to interpret “Roman Cavalry choirs.” When I hear the song, it sounds to me like “Roman Catholic choirs” which makes more sense as there are choirs in the Catholic Church. From my knowledge of Roman history I do not recall the Roman Cavalry having choirs. Why would soldiers mounted on horses need choirs? The line, “Be my Mirror, my Sword and Shield,” suggests to me two possible interpretations. One would be that it is a request to the woman he loves to be a mirror to him, like his other half. The second would be that it is a prayer asking God to be his Sword, to ask God to defend him and protect him.]

It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in.
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn’t believe what I’d become

[The wind here may represent change or time. Time is like a current carrying people along.]
Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?


[He is describing losing his power and sinking into obscurity. Just as he replaced the previous king, he becomes replaced by another ruler.]


I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my Mirror my Sword and Shield
My Missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world

[In Christian theology, St. Peter is the gatekeeper of heaven. The speaker seems to regret his life and worries he will face retribution in the afterlife.]


Ohhh
Ohhh
Ohhh
Ohhh

Hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my Mirror my Sword and Shield
My Missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world

[Song by Coldplay – The group comprises vocalist/pianist/guitarist Chris Martin, lead guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman, and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Will Champion. Lyrics courtesy of lyrics.astraweb.com, a fantastic free site for contemporary lyrics.]

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  1. #1 by Jayleigh on July 11, 2008 - 4:10 am

    Hmmm. Don’t know if I’ve heard that one or not… it must be rather new?

    Overall to me, the song seems rather regretful… like “if I still had the power, I would be happier.”

    Thanks for your take on this. Really cool!

  2. #2 by Faye on July 27, 2008 - 2:21 am

    We have been sitting here for one whole evening discussing this song and who it might be about? So far we have Joan of Arc, The Prophet Moses, The prophet Mohammed, Ceasar,Napolean,and The Arc Angel Gabriel. We all seem to agree that this song is about a fallen King that has lost his power and looks back over his life and sees his sadness. But… we are not sure that we are even on the right track. I hope someone can shed light on this idea. I do think that this would be a wonderful project for a History class to undertake

  3. #3 by Faye on July 27, 2008 - 2:49 am

    OK what about this? The song strikes an amazing likeness to Hitlers rise and fall just as the Roman empire. Hitler based his ideals on Roamn ideas..ie..his army the way they marched the way he controlled his people ect ect…Just a theory

  4. #4 by Suzanne on August 9, 2008 - 2:09 pm

    I agree: It’s “Roman Catholic” choirs are singing. Quite humorous to see how often the wrong lyrics to this song have been published. It is to the credit of every artist to publish his/her own lyrics with the album, that is, if the poetry and the message are important to him/her. Unless a song is purely instrumental, I think the attendant lyrics would be VERY important.

    Regarding the depth of the message and the accuracy of your particular interpretation, I think you expect too much of this artist. If you viewed him/them as less educated, informed, or enlightened, as opposed to the infallible pop “gods” they have become for other reasons, would you interpret differently? I believe you sell yourself short by assuming Coldplay expressed very well what they intend to say. You are correct: The lyrics could have used quite a bit more polishing up.

    Chris is a new husband and father. The life of following his muse and being responsible only for himself has changed radically. He may be reminiscing about his life before Gwyneth — a sense of power as his music took off, the “throne” of the performing stage, the false sense of security fostered by those around him. Perhaps he is reflecting on his feelings when he first met Gwyneth who may have “blown” him away. Often, the responsibilities of a husband and father cause a man to feel a bit claustrophobic. He may feel surprisingly inadequate in providing a stable family life (pillars of salt — tears? the weak faith of Lot’s wife? — and sand). He may have gone from feeling omnipotent to feeling utterly humble in the face of the care of his children, as many parents do. My hope is that he will find balance, traveling a more moderate path between the two extremes.

  5. #5 by Wayne on August 20, 2008 - 5:05 pm

    Suzanne, are you saying the word actually *is* Catholic rather than Cavalry? I agree “Cavalry choir” doesn’t make any sense. But all the lyrics sites say Cavalry.

    Even if the CD insert itself said that the word was Cavalry, I would bet that the original lyric was Catholic, and they decided to change it for some reason, either humorous, legal, or something.

    Also Asad, I agree they should have named it When I Ruled the World. Viva La Vida is Spanish for “Ricky Martin at his most embarrassing.”

  6. #6 by Adam G. on September 9, 2008 - 1:19 pm

    It’s always sounded like “Roman Catholic choirs” to me, and that by itself would make more sense. On the other hand, I tend to suspect that this song is about the British Empire personified, so this impossibly odd “Roman cavalry choir” line could make more sense if that’s the case. What is now England was the last outpost of the Roman empire in ancient times, and of course the official church there now is the Church of England, not the Roman Catholic Church.

  7. #7 by paul on January 10, 2009 - 6:32 am

    first of all it is cavalry choirs
    the lyrics are not wrong
    and it does make sense if you put it in the right context
    it also helps to know a little history of the crusades

  8. #8 by paul on January 10, 2009 - 6:35 am

    all of you are just looking at this song’s surface. It does in fact have a deeper meaning as most art does.

  9. #9 by paul on January 10, 2009 - 7:06 am

    It’s about a pure thought or ideal that understands it has become the facade of a corrupt plan to gain power. For me the song uses the crusades as an anchor for compairing, throughout history,any hidden agenda to gain control masked by a good intention or higher idea.

    when the crusaders would march, some soilders would walk while the cavalry rode on horseback. The priests would also accompany the military and would sing hymns and chants.
    Back then if you were a Christian you belonged to one church.
    The Church of Rome. Every Christian was a Roman Catholic so Roman cavalry choirs makes since.

    Religious belief and ideaology were use to gain power and control. while the song references the crusade this idea can apply to any point in history were corruption uses noble ideals to cover up it true agenda to gain more power.

    Imagine realizing everything you believed in was a lye. I’m not saying religion is a lie. I’m saying religious propaganda was used by the Church of Rome for political gain.

    I like the song because it makes people think. plain and simple.
    I’m happy to see it’s turned up this much dialogue

  10. #10 by paul on January 10, 2009 - 7:12 am

    I’m reading what I wrote and something is wrong.
    There was the Eastern Orthodox Church. So not every Christian was of the Church of Rome.
    my bad

  11. #11 by paul on January 10, 2009 - 11:20 pm

    It is roman cavalry choirs
    back during the crusades there was the church of rome.
    the crusaders would march and the priest would sing hymns
    so they are the roman cavalry choirs who are singing

  12. #12 by Jay on February 12, 2009 - 11:05 am

    I think the chorus is about death…

    I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
    Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
    (Don’t some people say they hear angels singing when they’re dying?)

    Be my Mirror my Sword and Shield
    (This line means be just like me, as followers, and fight for me and defend my name when I’m gone.)

    My Missionaries in a foreign field
    (Spread my name around the world. Make sure I’m remembered)

    For some reason I can’t explain
    I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
    (I’m on my way now to Heaven’s gates)

  13. #13 by Missy on February 21, 2009 - 7:58 pm

    I think the lyrics refer generally to a King who was given power, grew corrupt, was dethroned and now regrets his actions and knows he won’t enter heaven. Specifically, the lyrics do seem to fit King Charles X who went to live in England after being toppled by the Revolution. During his short reign, they passed the Anti Sacrilege Act, which was harsh in its punishment for “acts of profanity” against the Roman Catholic religion.

  14. #14 by xabi on April 4, 2009 - 6:58 am

    taking into consideration that the CD´s cover displays a revolutionary drawing from Delacroix I go for the Napoleon possibility.

    By the way, i think that “be my mirror my sword and shield” he literally means that his only mirrors (the places where you look at to see yourself) are swords and shields therefore he is a warrior, a king, a ruler.

    So napoleon, it is for me then.

  15. #15 by Bellringer on April 6, 2009 - 1:38 pm

    Head on a silver plate is another Christian reference.
    It refers to the beheading of John the Baptist, at the behest of Salome to Herod. It was given to Salome on a silver platter.

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