The Mandalorian is Here, So Where is Pedro Pascal?

Disney, Star Wars, and the Preeminence of Iconography

One of the reasons Star Wars has and will continue to dominate entertainment after signing Disney’s treaty[1] is a mutual mastery of iconography. Star Wars has embedded itself in the popular imagination through visual branding as simple and recognizable as a swoosh, a golden arch, or a caffeinated mermaid: Darth Vader’s helmet, Stormtroopers, lightsabers, R2-D2 and C-3PO. And since 2012, that intellectual property has been in the hands of the leviathan bedecked in mouse ears living in a German castle. So the most powerful entertainment conglomerate in the world controls the most important film franchise of all time which built its success on an entire legion of the things that the company is good at selling. Ah. I see. What might Palpatine say?

The promotional material for The Mandalorian (a Star Wars series premiering on Disney+ on November 12), including the most recent trailer, suggests that Disney is continuing to lean into the power of iconography. Never mind that the very first shot of the trailer is a Stormtrooper helmet – the trailer makes much of the titular character, whose helmet and armor looks, of course, like Star Wars icon and fellow Mandalorian Boba Fett. Fett, appearing for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, looked so cool that he sold a galaxy full of merch, got his “father” written into Attack of the Clones, made numerous appearances in video games and other expanded universe content, and inspired the creation of the now iconic Mandalorian sigil, all without, well, actually doing very much in the film and going out like a real punk in Return of the Jedi. Even though The Mandalorian is not the once-rumored Boba Fett film/series, it is capitalizing on the way audiences react to that bounty hunter’s visage.

However, the emphasis on the helmet has come at complete expense of the man behind the mask. The titular Mandalorian is played by Pedro Pascal, but all of the promotional material has avoided showing us his face, and the most recent trailer gave us two words of his dialogue. The first big piece of original content on Disney’s foray into the streaming wars has opted to promote itself with a symbol – a helmet – to the exclusion of the star at the center of it.

And that. Is. Fascinating.

Star Wars has used masks before, of course. In the case of Fett, Stormtroopers, and Vader, it was fundamental to the character. In the case of Darth Revan (in the popular video game Knights of the Old Republic), it facilitated a superb plot twist. And, in The Force Awakens, it was an uncomfortable mix of Kylo Ren’s character development and gimmicky mystery-building as we wondered if the person behind the mask was actually Luke Skywalker or Jar Jar Binks. It is, for the reasons above, perfectly understandable that Disney would use an iconic look to sell a new series, but that could be done without completely concealing the human being inside the suit.

And what a human to conceal. Pedro Pascal is very handsome and very good at acting. He played one of the most charismatic and bad-ass characters in Game of Thrones. He starred in a season of Narcos and was one of the five leads in Triple Frontier. No, he’s not a bona fide movie star, but he should be marketable. What would be lost if there just one shot of him unmasked? Wouldn’t it be a cool trailer moment to see him donning the helmet?

One possible – though I think unlikely – reason for this is racist xenophobia. Pascal is Chilean-American, and maybe seen as less marketable when many Americans hold bigoted opinions about Latin Americans and when some Star Wars fanboys have complained about how many people of color have been featured in the new trilogy[2]. If Chris Evans was playing the Mandalorian, is there any way they would hide him through all the promotional content? If Adam Driver was the transcendent star he is now back when The Force Awakens was released, do you really think they would have bothered with that ridiculous mask? However, I’m hesitant to make this claim as, despite Star Wars’ rocky history with racist tropes and stereotypes, as the recent projects have had relatively diverse casts, and one of the scheduled projects is a series focused on Cassian Andor, played by (also very handsome and talented) Mexican actor Diego Luna. Furthermore, Disney is a global company, and so it would seem Pascal would appeal to some international markets in the way a Chris might not. Perhaps racism and xenophobia play a role in the decision to forego the marketability of this particular person of color, but I don’t believe it’s that simple.

We return, then, to the top – Disney knows how to use icons, and they appear committed to using the embarrassment of visual riches Star Wars has even at the expense of the actors they choose to employ. This aligns with two trends in Hollywood: movie stars have much less power to draw audiences to the theater than they used to, and preexisting intellectual properties are the only surefire box office earners. It follows, then, that Disney would not worry about promoting their actors, and would instead double down on the popular mythology. Heck, I think the trailer for Solo gave more screentime to the name “Solo” in that iconic yellow font than it did to Alden Ehrenreich. Extreme as the commitment to this strategy seems, I’m not going to doubt Disney knows what they’re doing.

I do, however, have some questions going forward. In the specific case of The Mandalorian, how much time is Pascal going to spend behind the mask? Surely the character is going to fit that trope of the cool, mysterious gunslinger, and the Mandalorian helmet plays up that effect, but how much mileage can a series hope to get out of that? How compelling can an armored, shrouded lead character be? I want to see Pascal’s face – yes because he’s handsome – but also because that’s part of the experience in watching actors; I want to see human expression and interaction. Think about what will be lost if there’s a scene between Pascal and Giancarlo Esposito and one of them is wearing a helmet the entire time. I would dare say it will be a mistake if the Mandalorian has his helmet on more often than he doesn’t, even if this is all happening because the original Mandalorian swagged his way through less than ten minutes of screentime, in full regalia all the while.

My other questions concern the big picture of Star Wars, Marvel, and other big entertainment properties, particularly those loaded with iconography. Who will be cast to play these famous characters, and how will they be marketed? Will it matter? Will these properties attract stars, and will they develop stars? Can famous symbols continue to thrive independent of the humans involved?

I won’t even try to answer any of these questions right now, nor will I try to answer what might be the two most important questions which this boils down to. First, will our perception of dramatic human performance change because of this? It’s possible that our consciousness and awareness will change so that the subtleties of acting and the human connection it inspires will be altered or diminished as our attention is constantly focused on symbols and icons. Remember that acting has been around for thousands of years, but once upon a time all the actors wore masks which totally concealed their face. Second, how will this affect the creation of new iconography and visual vocabularies? If Hollywood continues to go back to the same IP wells, will creative minds lose the motivation to create new visually arresting styles and symbols, and, whether they do or don’t, will there be audiences and markets looking for them?

The Mandalorian is going to be the much more lowkey Star Wars release this season in comparison to The Rise of Skywalker, but even so it will provide much reason for discussion and speculation about the future of Star Wars and popular entertainment.

Just like Disney planned it.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 The Phantom Menace was my introduction to the word treaty. There’s just something about the way Padmé says it. The word association has remained, even as I’ve had to memorize many other versions like Versailles, Ghent, Tordesillas, and Paris.
2 White men really are…we’re the worst.

Kanye’s New Place in Christian Culture

Rozette Rago/NYT

Something very strange happened a couple weeks ago.

My mother texted me about Kanye West.

This was…unexpected. My mother has known for many years that I am a fan of Kanye West, but has always regarded him as one of my less admirable interests, like tattoos and liberalism.

And then, on Friday, as we waited for the arrival of Jesus is King, non-MAGA evangelical Twitter started tweeting about Kanye. There was even a disarmingly clever tweet from @ChurchCurmudgeon:

My father, who I believe has always regarded my Kanye fandom with a bemused expression, and who is a pastor (evangelical but not exactly non-MAGA) DM’d me on Twitter, sharing a Tweet referring to a reading of Kanye via Augstine:

This new, premarital sex-opposed Yeezy was obviously reaching a new audience in a new way.

And then the album arrived and there was a stampede of opinions and reactions which was as large as the herd of pigs into which Jesus sent Legion and charged downhill just as heedlessly. I expect many people are already done listening to it, but it’s clear we’re not done talking about it, as a variety of reactions continue to be published not only on the usual outlets, but on evangelical sites as well, such as The Gospel Coalition.

The writing and production of Jesus is King is almost besides the point.
The run-up, roll-out, release, and reception has revolved instead around this album as a very public, very high-profile declaration of Christian faith, and the conversation has proceeded accordingly. Opinions about the quality of the project are still coming, now that critics have had time to sit with it for a little while, but the discourse has been and remains concerned primarily with the Gospel declarations of a man who once styled himself as a god. One of the most famous celebrities in the world, and one of the greatest artists of his time, is praising God in public, and it demands a unique hold on the public imagination.

The week before, another rapper who is a Christian released a long-awaited album, significant for its musical quality as well a milestone in a fascinating career, only the most notable public discussion of it is from a guy on a blog called Intentional Nachos.

The album is Domino by JGivens, which appeared on streaming platforms on October 20 without any think pieces in The Atlantic or the protestant blogosphere. Domino arrives four years after J’s masterful Fly Exam. At the time of that album, JGivens was one of the rising stars in “Christian” hip-hop and signed to its best label (Humble Beast), exhibiting a unique artistic vision and unsurpassed lyricism affected by his personal demons and keen theology. In the four years since Fly Exam, JGivens left Humble Beast, came out as gay, and revealed that he is HIV-positive. The long-awaited follow-up album was released independently through a Patreon campaign.

And it’s *Tim Kurkjian voice* really good. It is, first and foremost, another excellent project from a talented and committed artist in command of his craft even as he pushes its limits. But Domino is also a compelling cultural artifact coming from a rapper who is gay, Black, and Christian. It’s a public expression of Christian life, even if its sound and style is a far cry from a Sunday sermon.

I do not mean to put up a fence between Jesus is King and Domino or between Kanye and J – in fact, JGivens has been outspoken as a prayerful fan of West. I also don’t mean to turn this into a complaint about which artists are and are not famous. But I do think it’s worth juxtaposing these two albums, artists, and their receptions in order to critique our reactions to public expressions of faith.

Rappers who are Christians are not new; Kanye won a Grammy for “Jesus Walks” 15 years ago, and the subgenre of “Christian” hip-hop has been producing first-rate music for at least ten years. And while some of us have engaged thoughtfully (and, well, not so thoughtfully in some cases) Kanye’s faith and CHH’s legitimacy have remained fairly niche topics. It has only been in the last few years that a larger segment of the population has latched onto this phenomenon, with the volume rising with the public declarations of Kendrick Lamar, then Chance the Rapper, and then Kanye [insert obvious Holy Trinity reference]. This has become a thing, and a thing for an audience that would have previously been unaware or uncaring. The reaction to Jesus is King is unprecedented.

But, as it so happens, the musical testimony with which we have decided to engage is so over-the-top that it renders our usual critical approaches insufficient. Just as the album goes for big sounds on a short run-time, it makes bold declarations of faith with bland platitudes. Like throwing a Clipse reunion on the same song with Kenny G, it implores listeners to trust in God while also making a defense for why Kanye’s merchandise is so expensive. It alludes to vulnerability but it also endorses the prosperity Gospel. Albums don’t usually sound like this, and artists don’t usually act like this.

But what this album doesn’t do is also significant and singular. Unlike most Christian rap albums, Jesus is King makes almost no reference to racism and other social issues. It does not utilize significant personal anecdotes. It is not countercultural, and it comes from a man who has given his approval to Donald Trump and suggested that slavery was a choice. The Christianity of Jesus is King is antiseptic and removed from its cultural context and the imperative of social justice, the kind of Christianity which edited out Kirk Franklin’s remarks at the Dove awards and the kind that led thousands of fans to desert artists like Lecrae.

An inordinate amount of attention is being given, then, to a public declaration which is fairly bland, simple, and commercial – words which don’t compute with subversive Christianity.

And yet, this album declares the glory of God. We can criticize the messenger and be skeptical of his motives, but Christians should celebrate when faith is declared to the masses. The Apostle Paul was not picky about how the Word got out. Christianity is a missional religion, and so millions of downloads of an album extolling the virtues of the Christian God is cause to celebrate and a reason to light up evangelical twitter. Quite unexpectedly, Kanye West becomes a Christian culture warrior, and Christians love when they find out a famous person is one of theirs. It’s why Tim Tebow’s fame outstripped his athletic merits.

But perhaps there is a little too much stock set in Christianity gaining celebrity endorsements. In the words of Bryan Winchester, aka Braille, (JGivens’ former labelmate), “We don’t need more superstars / We need more Gospel-centered churches.”[1] And it’s true; Gospel advancement is hindered far more by ineffective churches than by a lack of famous Christians. The Gospel Coalition writes much more, of course, about church life than it does about celebrities, but does this hold true for the masses? It is possible that celebrity Christians hold a a disproportionate importance in the minds of the average Christian, and that, in turn, Christians and Christianity in the secular imagination looks much more like its most famous adherents than it should.

People are talking about Jesus is King instead of Domino because Kanye West is one of the most famous people in the world and Jeremiah Givens is not. However, if fame is what determines which public declarations of faith are worthy of attention, then it is possible that public discourse will be dominated by personalities and projects that lack the traits which define voices like JGivens’. Domino is a more realistic, more human, more challenging portrait of a Christian. Jesus is King, with its overt, expansive, simple vision is easy. The latter may serve as a way to make much of God in public, but the former is moves us to answer the tough questions and to engage with what Christian faith means for humans as messy works-in-progress. Perhaps the audience of Domino is closer to two copper coins, but those can mean a great deal.

I am interested in how Kanye will continue to perform his faith in public, and it’s clear I am not the only one. But I’m also interested in following along with JGivens and the parts of his life he shares with the world. The fact that one of those stories caught the attention of my parents and the other remains underground is not surprising, but it is potentially concerning. The world is watching Kanye, but they’re also watching Christians, and the way we respond to celebrity faith will say a lot about where we are putting our precious time and attention. For where our treasure is, there are hearts will be also.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 I have seen Braille rap this a few times when Beautiful Eulogy does “Exile Dial Tone” and it is awesome how the crowd gets so hyped about it.

Aaron Jones is Here! For Now.

The history of running backs in Green Bay doesn’t bode well for the newest Packer hero.

“When you bring 33 back on the field like we did last week, you kind of forget the type of dynamic abilities he can bring to a game with his running style. He’s a different type of runner than we’ve had here in a while. You’ve gotta find ways to get him the ball.”

Said Aaron Rodgers, last September, about running back Aaron Jones. Throughout the disappointing 2018 season, Jones’ level of involvement was controversial, and despite his flashes of excellence, it never felt like he was given the keys to the featured-back car.

Last Sunday, he ran over America’s Team, scoring four touchdowns, and it felt like a long-awaited coming out party, marking the beginning of Jones’ status as *extremely Petey Jones voice* running back, the running back. Which is to say I expect Aaron Jones to be very good for about 16 more months and then disappear into the void.

Finding a main man to carry the ball has been a curious endeavor for the Packers, even in a league where the workhorse running back is no longer in vogue (with a few exceptions). While they have been unmatched in stability at quarterback, and have (almost) always employed at least one excellent pass-catcher, the running back position has been a hodge-podge of short-lived leading men, a revolving door of various talents never lasting more than a few seasons. Many teams have gone through running backs like Hogwarts goes through Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, but this Sisyphean aspect of roster-building feels unique in some ways to Green Bay, given its particular cast of characters and the way the fanbase so readily makes those who succeed into folk heroes.

And so, enter Aaron Jones, and after his ascent to Fantasy Football God-status last week, I expect his jersey to be as popular as any Packer this season[1]. As we look forward to the one or two good seasons he looks ready to deliver, let’s take a few moments to look back, season-by-season, on the fleeting champions who have gone before him.

It begins, of course, with the last true iron man, whose shoes have never been filled:

2000-2004: Ahman Green

What a legend. Green took over for Dorsey Levens in 2000 and was the undisputed number one for five seasons, with a gob-smacking 2003 campaign in which he totaled 1,883 yards and 15 touchdowns on over 5 yards per carry. In those five seasons, he led the entire NFL in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. But, as is so often the case, the end of Green’s reign began with injuries, meaning that in 2005 the Packers had a new leading rusher. And his name was…

2005: Samkon Gado

With Green and Najeh Davenport injured, the little-known Liberty grad from Kufai, Nigeria, earned an unlikely opportunity and made the most of it. He was a feel-good story, drawing the love of the media through his humble and polite personality. And then he scored three touchdowns in his first start and Packer fans lost their minds[2]. He was an instant household name who kept winning Rookie of the Week, until an MCL tear ended his season early. He failed to impress in the following preseason and was traded after Week 1 to the Texans. It was a fun, but short-lived story. In retrospect, it foreshadowed the new normal in Green Bay.

2006: Ahman Green

Green was the starter again after returning from injury. He had a decent season, but was clearly on the decline. He left for the Texans in free agency after the season ended.

2007-2009: Ryan Grant

The post-Green years began by committee, which included a former undrafted free agent named Ryan Grant. Grant steadily emerged as the leading man, until he planted his flag in an iconic game: the 2007 Divisional Playoff game versus Seattle. Grant was the story of that snowy day in Lambeau. After fumbling twice in the first quarter, he ran wild, totaling 201 yards and 3 touchdowns in a thrashing of the Seahawks[3]. And so, clearly, Ryan Grant was Jim Taylor reincarnated and a clear successor to Green.

Not so. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2008, but on less than 4 yards per carry, and never seemed a real threat. Still, the Packers and the fans felt they had their man, and so Grant took the lead again in 2009, and had a more productive season. Sometime in this three year run, I saw Grant at a Green Bay Starbucks. This would have been pre-coffee drinking years, so I was probably waiting for a Strawberries and Creme drink my dad bought for me (those were damn good). Dad joked that Grant would be waiting for some fancy flavored drink with skim milk, and then, to our surprise, he did in fact pick up a skinny soy latte. Also in this same trip to Starbucks, we saw former Packer Frank Winters (or at least that’s who my dad said it was). Also during this time, the Packers re-signed Ahman Green as a backup, and while he could barely move around he managed to become the all-time leading rusher for the franchise.

Maybe Ryan Grant was for real, maybe not. He suffered an early ankle injury early in 2010 and would miss out on their Super Bowl-winning season. His time as the man was over.

2010: Brandon Jackson

The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, and a small footnote in that regular season is Brandon Jackson. In the Playoffs, Jackson, who never inspired a great deal of confidence, lost most of his carries to a rookie.

2011: James Starks

That rookie was James Starks. The Packers went 15-1 in 2011, and Packer fans were very, very annoying.

2012: John Kuhn

Just kidding! But the big bearded white guy is worth mentioning, as his popularity as a short-yardage “specialist” and special-teamer says something about who Packer fans tend to adore and something about the state of Packers running backs during this time. The real leading rusher in 2012 was A. Green, and for a second I thought that meant Ahman Green (and that says something about the positional carousel), but it’s Alex Green, who I forgot all about. He was the leading rusher on a depth chart including Starks, the returned-from-exile Grant, classically anonymous Packers running back DuJuan Harris, and the late Cedric Benson well past his prime. Yikes.

2013-2015: Eddie Lacy

The Packers splurged a second-round pick to get a blue-chipper to alleviate their running game struggles, and their great need was finally met by the nimble wrecking ball named Eddie Lacy. Lacy won Offensive Rookie of the Year and was the first Packer to rush for 1,000 yards since Grant. Not surprisingly, the rotund Lacy became a hero in Wisconsin, a land of pleasure and gluttony. However, after an excellent sophomore season, Lacy’s production tailed off due to injuries and to his struggles to keep himself in shape, which compounded the problem as these struggles became fodder for public ridicule. He was no longer the same player, and after an injury brought his 2016 season to an end, he was no longer a Packer.

2016: Ty Montgomery

“Now the reason you see the running back wearing number 88 is because Montgomery is actually a wide receiver who…” cue the groans from Packer fans hearing yet another broadcaster point out the obvious like it’s the most fascinating thing in the world.

The running back situation was so bad that the Packers had a receiver carrying the ball enough times to finish as the leading rusher (Rodgers was second, if my memory serves). Montgomery was legitimately good, which was the sort of unexpected answer that fits right into this history. So too does the rest of his time in Green Bay, but in a very different way: he ended the 2017 season on IR, and he ended the 2018 season on a different team after he basically committed treason in the final minutes of a crucial game versus the Rams. If any character in this saga proves that Ahman Green is actually Lord Voldemort and cursed the position after leaving, it’s Montgomery.

2017: Aaron Ripkowski

Just kidding again! But Packer fans were so sure they had the successor to John Kuhn that some may have even believed he was the best option as ball-carrier. Again, this says something about Packer fans and about the running back situation. Jamaal Williams, who is still with the team, was the real rushing leader (with a measly 556 yard total).

Which brings us to 2018, when Williams and Jones struck an uneasy balance, one of the many decisions from head coach Mike McCarthy which counted against him and led to his unceremonious (albeit overdue) dismissal at the end of the season.

After an awful head injury (sometimes I hate this sport), Williams has been sidelined with a concussion, leaving Aaron Jones as the undisputed main man in the Green Bay backfield. His ascent comes just as the Packers are starting to look convincing as a contender in the NFC. He’s poised to become one of the most popular players on a successful team, and after the dismal 2018 Packers season, anyone who leads the way this year is going to have a special place in the hearts of fans.

Maybe Jones will go on to have a great season – he looks to have the talent and the offense is improving. But we’ve seen this before, and it would fit right in with this story if Jones goes on to lead the league in rushing touchdowns only to fade into anonymity by next season. Such is life in the NFL, especially for running backs, and especially in the curious case in Green Bay. While Jones’ future is uncertain, one thing is sure: Packer fans will embrace him and hope for the best, undaunted by their recent history of short-lived running back relationships. He’s their guy.

Even if he isn’t a big white guy.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 I would guess the defensive newcomers will also be popular, so look for Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander, and Adrian Amos jerseys. There are going to be a lot of middle-school boys asking for a Darnell Savage jersey for Christmas, and a lot of conservative parents hesitant to give their son a shirt that says “Savage,” especially just a few years after reluctantly giving him one that said “Clinton-Dix.”
2 So, there are probably some complicated racial dynamics involved in the story of Samkon. Not that embracing a young black man for being a humble and polite Christian is wrong, but it is telling when compared to the way white folks in Wisconsin regard other immigrants and other players who are black and aren’t humble and polite. But let’s also not forget that Samkon is a truly decent human being who is currently in school preparing to be a missionary doctor.
3 In my memory, this game was the same as the one in which Matt Hasselbeck tragically declared, “We want the ball and we’re gonna score,” but that happened a few years earlier. It’s been about 15 years of memorable encounters between the two teams, from Hasselbeck, to Grant, to the Fail Mary, to the onside-kick collapse. Seems like we’re due for another one.

Is “Viva la Vida” Very Good, Or Is it Very Bad?

A retrospective you didn’t know you needed.

“Viva la Vida” was a very important song for me. Actually, I think it’s not too much to say it was a formative experience.

I first heard the song in part by way of an iTunes commercial, which is a thing that doesn’t exist anymore. This commercial, if you’re not familiar:

And, judging by the YouTube comments, I’m not the only one who found this ad compelling and can call it the beginning of a real interest in Coldplay, nor am I the only one who thought this was better than the official music video.

It’s a stylish commercial from a time when Apple had their aesthetic on lockdown, a recognizable pallet which utilized candy colors and silhouettes just ahead of the curve. It’s a sonic bouquet of Chris Martin’s pained-yet-dulcet tones, the driving strings, and the soaring backing vocals. It was overwhelming for fourteen-year-old me: here was this commercial by these men I didn’t know, and they were playing this song that sounded like Baroque music but also like U2 and also like pop radio. And they were singing about something important with poetic words I didn’t quite understand. It was…well, it was cool. It had pubescent energy and adult maturity. I was also affected – I now realize – by some nascent sexuality, too, in part because Chris Martin’s voice is undeniably sensual and the visuals are off the chart of the elegant/energetic matrix. At that age, I was barely able to process feelings of attraction to women; I was nowhere near cognizant of the way I might find men playing music arousing in its way[1].

I spent the $1.29 to buy it on iTunes and never looked back. I found what was definitely an illegal copy of the first page of the piano music and learned how to play that signature chord progression, and have since played it hundreds of times. I dialed up my church’s digital keyboard to various stringed sounds, and was dismayed when it didn’t register the right punchiness. I tried to sing it and suddenly regretted the way my voice was beginning to drop.

I would gradually discover the rest of Coldplay’s discography[2], but through high school “Viva la Vida” remained one of my signature songs, and for some time it was the song. I wasn’t alone, as it topped the charts in the UK and the US and won Song of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

About ten years after their breakthrough, Coldplay was on the verge of World’s Biggest Band status. Now, about ten years on, Coldplay has gone the way of many other WBBs, becoming a punchline, and now the lyrics of “Viva la Vida” have been fulfilled:

Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn’t 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?

As is so often the case with WBBs that find their “castles stand upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand,” Coldplay has suffered indiscriminate historical revisionism, the kind of anti-pop sentiments that have led some people to lazy opinions like, “U2 hasn’t made a good album in 30 years.” Yes; Coldplay is bad now (and U2’s most recent album is bad by their standards). But Coldplay was, for a time, good, even if you are of the opinion they’re derivative of other lesser-known bands. Debating the greatness of their early singles and the excellence of their first three albums is a moot point as far as I’m concerned, but it is worthwhile to re-evaluate “Viva la Vida” and the album it headlined (which was nominated for Album of the Year), given its popularity and its place in the band’s development, as well as the fact that we have a much better idea of what should win awards five and ten years down the road[3]. And, personally, reassessing the opinions, beliefs, and likes/dislikes of high school me is a near-daily exercise.

If we consider the song as the crowning achievement on ten years of excellence, it might be an underappreciated masterpiece worthy of a place in the cultural canon. If we understand it as the first step in ten years of decline, it could be a campy, commercialized, run-of-the-mill pop song not worth another spin[4].

So, could “Viva la Vida” actually be bad? It does have some of the hallmarks of the most unsubstantial pop songs:

  • A catchy instrumental riff – just because a song uses traditional instruments doesn’t mean it’s sophisticated. Sometimes it’s a manipulative gimmick. This song is built upon strings, to the point where one can imagine a teenager using it as an example when someone asks if they like classical music.
  • Ohhhhhh’s – If there’s one thing that always works, it’s crooning with sounds like “oh and “ah” instead of words, or extending words like “hey.” It’s only because Lady Gaga is a goddess that that part of “Shallow” doesn’t ruin the entire song.
  • Arty lyrics – Does “I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing/ Roman Catholic choirs are singing / Be my mirror my sword and shield / My missionary in a foreign field” actually mean anything? Or is it just a cool arrangement of words designed to sound like actually compelling lyrics?
  • Woe is me – If Martin is singing from his perspective, then we have to ask, what happened, Chris!? You just made a number one hit – what streets are you sweeping? It’s like when rappers talk about their haters, whoever those haters are.
  • The feels – This song is trying really, really hard to sound serious and sad and important while also triumphant and exhilarating. The title means “Live Life.” Is a song – a pop song no less – allowed to go for it like that?

These traits contain the seeds of what people hate about Coldplay now, all their “diabolical clichés” which Amanda Petrusich wrote about so well in a New Yorker review of A Head Full of Dreams which you should really read. I mean, they basically ran it back with “Paradise,” and they mailed it in for a paycheck with “Atlas” designed specifically for the credits of the second Hunger Games movie. If “Viva la Vida” had never happened – let’s say the album was released with “Glass of Water” in its place – and the band recorded and released it as a single tomorrow, it would be mocked, wouldn’t it? We’d find a way to call it the most recent failure of a bunch of hacks.

So, could it be a bad song? Plenty of bad songs have been wildly popular and won Grammys. Is it just another combination of catchy instrumentals and soaring vocals, a damn good pop song and nothing more?

Well, counterpoint: maybe “Viva la Vida” is a masterpiece.

It’s a catchy instrumental riff, but it’s also unique – not to say that no one has used strings as the basis of a pop song, but this sound is so instantly recognizable. There’s more going on with layers of sound and counter-melodies, which tends to happen when Brian Eno is involved. There’s also nothing inherently wrong about a song being catchy, because – sue me – I like being able to hum my favorite songs. Go ahead: sing me a little of your favorite Radiohead song. No? How about Frank Ocean? Bon Iver? Hm. Too bad.

The lyrics are, indeed, arty, but I stand by them. They’re abstract, but not illegible, embellished, but not unmeasured.

The laments about the old king being dead (long live the king) gain something in retrospect, as things really have changed for Martin and Co. since 2008, but that mournful sentiment which is now a staple of so much popular music from Post Malone to Billie Eilish is also safely ensconced in impersonal grandiosity. Since I’m my own editor and didn’t stet that abominable sentence, I have to explain what I mean: “Viva la Vida” mourns waking up alone, but configures it in religious and revolutionary imagery rather than beer bongs and Bentleys. It’s an expression of one man’s pain and alludes to suicidal thoughts, but it also reaches out for the global and the transcendent. It draws from the inkwell of a personal struggle and writes a declaration of the rights of men and women.

It is at once an expression of personal vulnerability and a dirge for the collective insecurities of ambitious people. There aren’t many songs that do that, and even fewer that do it over a tune ready-made for Top-40 radio.

I haven’t heard “Viva la Vida” in a long time – not in a TV show, a montage, or a public space, which isn’t necessarily surprising, but it makes it tough to know how people might react to rediscovering it now ten years later. Browsing the nominees and winners of “Song of the Year” for the last twenty years, I feel like I have a sense of the reaction most would elicit, but with “Viva la Vida” I think the results would be polarized. It’s a too-serious pop song making many pop song mistakes, but it’s also sincere, complex showcase of talented artists. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s very good, and also very bad, and maybe it’s allowed to exist like that.

And, you know what? That’s kind of a nice conclusion to come to. It’s fun to think, talk, and write about such things, and even if we don’t come to the answer, we can’t say we didn’t learn anything. “Live life” indeed.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 I guess I better explain this because I know I have enough readers with limited conceptions of gender and sexuality. I’m heterosexual, but that doesn’t mean I’m not ever sexually attracted to men, but that doesn’t mean that I want to have sex with them. Everyone is a little gay, and tbh I don’t trust people who aren’t in touch with that part of themselves.
2 It was tough for a good boy to get music back then! I didn’t download things illegally, and not everything was available on YouTube, so I would have to buy an entire album or selected songs on iTunes. Well, actually, at that time I was buying MP3’s on Amazon because I had an MP3 player and not an iPod. Lol.
3 Maybe especially with the Oscars…the Grammys are just so dumb and obviously wrong to begin with that whatever clarity can be gained later on mostly just reinforces how dumb they are.
4 I have to be honest and make the disclaimer that I listen to very little popular music, and so I will be making some uninformed generalizations.