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.
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, 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. 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.
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
~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.