Saturday, November 1, 2008

Viva La Vida - What Does the Song Really Say?

Viva La Vida, by “alternative rock” band Coldplay, is gaining loads of attention these days. One has to admit the musical score is ethereal and surreal, but the haunting lyrics are somewhat of a mystery. Some call Viva la Vida (and other songs on the album, entitled Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends) contradictory. If I may, I would suggest that ambiguous is a more accurate description. Lead singer Chris Martin was quoted as saying just this past spring of 2008, “We're slightly terrified about this record, because we've thrown away all our tricks. The truth is, we tried to find new ones.” Viva la Vida’s theme, however, is clear: Revolution.

The Sum is the Whole of Its Parts
Viva La Vida’s album title, its front cover, the baffling lyrics, and the imagery in the band’s two music videos specifically point to the French Revolution of 1789 and its 'second rising' in 1830. But consider: Why a Spanish title for a song sung in English about the French Revolution - or to clarify, a song about the philosophies that brought the woefully and deceptively misnamed "Enlightenment"? In the end, we have another part as we work together the sum, but it is ambiguous, too.

What is the meaning of Viva La Vida? In Spanish, the word viva means life. The word vida has a few more definitions: life, a lifetime or a life span, a biography of a life, or a livelihood (the way one makes a living). Thus the title Viva La Vida possesses various meanings: “Live the Life,” “Live the Lifetime,” “Live the Way of Life” or “Live the Lifestyle.” It could also suggest the biography of an unnamed individual’s life or the history of a ‘way of life.” Of course, the album’s unusual title about life and death is yet another hint that this song (and others on the album) is definitely about Revolution, which certainly brings “Death and All His Friends.”

The Title.- Viva la Vida takes its name from a painting by Frida Kahlo, the acclaimed 20th century Mexican artist.” (See Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends ) Objectively speaking, the reference to the female painter Frida Kahlo, while an illuminating clue, is not an inspiring one. Kahlo’s life began three years after the "birth" of the Mexican Revolution - another revolution in which faithful Catholics, priests and laity alike, were pitilessly martyred. However, she publicly stated that she was born in the very year the Revolution began – thus purposely identifying herself with the ideology of Revolution. Due to a congenital birth defect and the life-long effects of a terrible auto accident, her life was full of deep pain, misery and stress. None of these things should be airily dismissed, for they were tragic and deserving of compassion. What is even more tragic is the evidence that Kahlo’s great sufferings did not sanctify her. Instead, she chose to “Live a Way of Life” (and perhaps found a way to end it), which in many points reflected the spiritual and temporal disorder of the ongoing “Revolution.”

The Album’s Front Cover. - While Viva la Vida may take its name from one of Kahlo’s paintings, the album’s front cover is a reproduction of pro-Revolutionary Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting, Liberty Leading the People. [For a brief history of the painting and its meaning, please see this entry.] The woman in the painting is the allegorical Marianne, a female personification and a sensible (meaning “understood by one of the five senses”) symbol of the French Revolution. She carries the bright tricolor (red, white and blue) flag of Revolution as she mercilessly steps upon the bodies of the dead. Consider, then, the mammoth hint made by Coldplay in choosing Liberty as Viva La Vida’s album cover, splashing the words across Marianne, and adding small white flecks (rose petals?) that float on the wind. (We'll return to the rose theme later.)

The Videos and the Lyrics:
“Now the Old King is Dead; Long Live the King!” (Viva la Roix!)

Too, Viva La Vida’s first official music video features 'smudged' sections of the Liberty painting, which serves as the band’s predominantly black and red background (although there are splashes of gold or white). At times, the painting moves behind the band like a passing landscape. (If one watches closely, a few figures within it are digitally transformed just before they are gone from sight.) Incidentally, Liberty plays a much more obvious role in the Viva La Vida’s alternative video, in which Chris Martin (the lead singer) carries around a framed copy of this same painting.

Again, the lyrics and the two videos’ mysterious traces are obviously intended to hold a dual-interpretation (in other words, the song is purposefully ambiguous and left up to the individual’s interpretation). The first video has lead singer Martin dressed in a way open to interpretation (the white shirt with the red "V," covered by a jacket, and the thin ropes around his wrists). On the other hand, Viva La Vida’s alternative video leaves little doubt as to who or what the lead singer intends to portray, because Martin is clad as a king.

The Who and the What. - In an exclusive sense, Viva La Vida strongly indicates it is a "collage" of two monarchs: the Catholic, French King Louis XVI (portrait to the left), who in 1793 was martyred at the guillotine, and his much later successor, the “Citizen-King” Louis Philippe (who reigned as “king of the French” from 1830-1848). Louis Philippe was the eldest son of the murdered King Louis XV’s traitorous cousin, the Duke of Orleans (who, after contributing to his cousin's fate by beheading, would later suffer the same fate). Spanning the years 1793-1830, France saw a series of rulers, including two of Louis XVI's relatives (an uncle and a brother), and Napoleon I, self-crowned Emperor. In 1830 (the same year of the Liberty painting), France endured an insurrection, Charles X (brother to the deceased Louis XVI) abdicated the throne and his nephew Louis Philippe took it. (It was also the year in which the Virgin Mary appeared in Paris to St. Catherine Laboure.) During the European Revolts of 1848, France (and many other countries, most of them Catholic) again underwent yet another Revolution. This time, it was Louis Philippe who abdicated (in favor of his grandson). Louise Phillippe then fled to England, where he died two years later, in 1850.

That the “Citizen King” of France died in England may also explain why Coldplay - a British brand – selected him, if not his predecessor, for their Death and All His Friends theme, and that is only if such was their intent. That Louis Philippe died in their home country suggests, however, that it is not necessarily he who is personified in the lyrics, "I sweep the streets alone/Sweep the streets I used to own." (Is it some spirit, either of a person or an idea, that sweeps the streets?)

As for Louis Philippe's predecessor, I do not refer to Charles X, brother of King Louis XVI, for he was not dead when Louis Philippe took the throne. Much less do I mean Louis XVIII (another brother of the deceased king) or Napoleon I, who was an outright usurper of the throne who, in any case, doesn't fit most of the song lyrics. However, those particular lyrics could be personifications of all those rulers - most of them legitimate heirs to the throne, with the exclusion of Napoleon - but to whom do they best apply?

If one is familiar with history, the answer is King Louis XVI, who was in robust health during most of his life. If he and his little son (not to mention Queen Marie Antoinette, who was the youngest daughter of the Emperor and a Hapsburg!) had not been murdered by the Revolutionaries, there is good reason to believe Louis' normal life span would have allowed him the time to right many wrongs, as he was already trying to do. Had he died a natural death, his son the Dauphin (Louis XVII) would have ascended the throne; it would never have passed to the one who was called the “Citizen King.” Thus the line "The Old King is dead; Long live the King!" may be referring to King Louis XVI and his legitimate successors by right of birth, down to Louis Philippe, in contrast to the "new king of the world," which is the spirit behind all Revolution.

Extending this theme to its reasonable conclusion, the song might also be a political vagary about monarchy itself, if not monarchy versus a republic. (After all, a monarchical or a 'republican' government means “Living a Way of Life” – Viva La Vida! - for both the monarchs and the people or the leaders and the people). This possibility only brings forth yet more questions: Is Viva La Vida’s duality an expression of sympathy – an “Ode to the Most Christian Monarch Louis XVI,” as it were - as well as a rather obscure bit of revolutionist poetry in the form of a song, a sentimental “Prose to Louis Philippe”? Is it a protest about the successive tragedies due to the French Revolution - or is it a rallying cry for the continuing Revolt? Or is Coldplay sympathetic to the Revolution’s victims but thinks such deaths are a terrible necessary? Or again, is it some vague sentiment expressing their own confusion about one form of order vs. chaos?

In a broader sense, the first "official" music video Viva La Vida momentarily hints at other manifestations of Revolution. Throughout the initial video, and again at its end, all of the band members are seen in costume. The dress of the first two musicians are cast in deep shadow and therefore difficult to ascertain with certainty, but the third band member is attired in the Union uniform of the Civil War (The War Between the States). That Coldplay chose to symbolize the United States' Civil War as another symbol of Revolution is startling in itself, but it is appropriate if they are implying a statement about republics. In Violet Hill, another song on the same album, the band members dress in the same outfits. Another ambiguous Coldplay song, Violet Hill comes from the soldier’s viewpoint, but what he is really saying is again left to the listener’s point of view.)

Catching Coldplay’s New “Tricks.” - To those who choose to watch both videos, may I first call your attention to the artistic symbolism and themes found within the first one? (I trust the second “alternative” video is a bit clearer in meaning. That is why I will not comment on it for now except to ask – is Martin, as ‘king,’ supposed to be standing at the gates of Petit Trianon?). Also, before sharing both videos with you (links provided within this post, since Youtube has removed the embedding option of the first "official" video), please allow me to identify all the individuals: They are Chris Martin (lead singer) and his band mates Jonny Buckland (guitarist), Guy Berryman (bassist) and Will Champion (drummer). Finally, before viewing either or both of the videos, please be aware that there is a conclusion to this article – found (obviously) at the very end. ;)

In the first video, available at Youtube, please watch for the following:

- The main background colors which come from the Liberty painting – predominantly black and red – are of war, revolt and bloodshed. One will notice that in almost all scenes with Martin, there is a large area of red behind him. The overload of red comes from the tri-color flag seen in the Liberty painting.

- A red V on the side of Martin’s white shirt which seems to be "painted" (it is my understanding that Martin began displaying this red “V” during Coldplay’s live shows on the Viva la Vida tour). Does it symbolize V as in Victory (and whose victory?) or V as in the Vendee, the western region of France peopled mostly by the every-day working-class, all Catholics faithful to ‘altar and throne.’ Almost all of them were brutally murdered - including babies and children - by the “Blues” of the French Revolution.)

- The outline of a bayonet in the background (this comes from the painting Liberty)

- A small white cross in a white cloud (behind and to the right of guitarist Buckland). One does not see a cross in Liberty.

- An arch with a bell, and a close up of a bell being struck. The bell is likely the symbol for both the French Revolution’s and the American Revolution’s cry of “Liberty,” which was redefined in practice to mean “license.” (Yes, there is a difference between liberty and license!) Neither is a bell nor an arch found in Liberty.

- The Revolution’s tri-color emblem on the right arm of lead singer Chris Martin's jacket. It can also be barely seen on the right arm of another band member. The tri-color flag is carried by "Marianne" in the Liberty painting.

- What appear to be thin ropes of leather tied around the lead singer’s wrists. If (and only if) Martin intended to portray the martyred monarch, the thin ropes might represent King Louis XVI’s imprisonment before he was ruthlessly murdered by the Revolutionaries’ ever-thirsty Madame Guillotine. (Moments before he was beheaded, King Louis XVI's hands were bound - after he had already ascended the scaffold. The king at first resisted, for an honorable knight would never "run in terror from the face of death," as Elena Marie Vidal describes the scene in her book, Trianon. But the good and faithful priest accompanying the king urged him to consider it his last humiliation, suffered in union with the Passion of Christ, Who was bound to a pillar before the Scourging. At this holy remembrance, the martyr submitted, saying, "You are right. Nothing less than His example should make me submit to such a degradation.")

- How lead singer Martin somehow seems to be singing toward the heavens, and other times bows his head. In one brief segment, he seems to be stumbling, as though he is standing on uneven ground – or being toppled. In another quick scene, his head hangs and his arms are out, bent down at the elbow - like a limp puppet on a string. Immediately following, his hands are up as if in supplication during the line, “Oh, who would ever want to be king?” At another time, when he is facing to the right, he crosses his hands across his chest - a traditional posture often seen in paintings of saints in communion with God. Near the end of the video, his hands are momentarily placed together as if in prayer. These brief scenes can only bring the pious King Louis XVI to mind; most certainly, they cannot refer to Napoleon or the Citizen King Louis Philippe.

- Other images that look like hearts, scrolls, tubing, and somewhat hazy figures. If the viewer carefully pays attention to the right side of the video, one will eventually see repeated and “muted” images of a red heart. There is even a heart with flames coming from its top (this heart is seen in the close-up of the singer’s palm facing the screen). In Catholic symbolism, this flaming heart represents the Sacred Heart of Jesus, burning with love.

- The cloud interludes. In the 2nd cloud shot, there appears to be a figure standing within it but it is hazy and very muted. In another sequence, this figure (not the cloud) appears in the upper right hand corner, with white rays falling downward.

- A red cross on a white background (in the upper left corner). A red cross on white was undoubtedly a part of the Sacred Heart of Jesus “badge” – to even wear it in the years of the French Revolution meant condemnation by “Death and All His Friends.” The actual badge was a red heart symbol (with a cross on top of it). Unfortunately, the Revolutionaries would eventually employ the image of a heart (without the cross) in their personification of the “new” (anti-Christian) republic of France.

- The video’s very end, in which each of the band members are briefly viewed, representing some aspect of Revolution; the first (the drummer) is all in black, his collar turned up. His right arm also bears a badge, but only bits of red and white can be seen. His arms are down and his hands are crossed over each other. His outfit can barely be seen, but his face turns to the viewer’s left, attracting the viewer’s eye to floating objects drifting by. The second member (the bass player) is seen in a flash but it seems to be the Confederate uniform (U.S. Civil War). The third one (guitarist) is wearing the Union uniform and cap. Last seen is Martin, who reaches out, as if trying not to be pulled away (perhaps by the “wicked and wild wind”) as the small red flecks float adrift.

- The floating red flecks, which seem to be very tiny rose petals. (Consider the opening segment in which a larger rose slowly comes into view). The symbol of a rose is supposed to be a tribute from Coldplay to another British band, Depeche Mode and their song “Enjoy the Silence.” The cover for Depeche Mode's single release (as well as the album Violator in which it was featured) bears a single rose. The rose, in Depeche Mode’s view, is an allusion to the controversial (and rightly so) historical romance, “The Rose of Versailles,” set during the French Revolution. Above and beyond all that, however, the red rose is universally known as the symbol of triumphant love. That the petals of triumphant love (of which the highest form is love of God) are blowing in the wind is a message in itself.

- The rose, as it was symbolically used by these two bands, is purposely intended to direct attention to the history of the French Revolution. [See Enjoy the Silence ] The problem is - do either the songwriters or the listeners know the whole truth of that tragic history, much less the insubordinate philosophies against God that led to it?

Now for the Viva La Vida lyrics:

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 salt and pillars of sand

I hear Jerusalem’s bells a’ringing/Roman Calvary choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword, my shield/My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain/I know St. Peter will call my name
Never an honor word/But that was when I ruled the world

It was a wicked and wild wind/Blew down the doors to let me in
Shattered windows and the sounds of drums/People couldn’t believe what I had 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?

[REFRAIN repeats]

A CLOSER LOOK at the Lyrics: Certainly some (but not all) of the lines suggest King Louis XVI, the Catholic king of France. For example:

In the refrain, "Jerusalem's bells a'ringing" could mean the king - thinking of Our Lord, who died on Golgotha (the place of the skull) in Jerusalem - could foresee his own approaching death by unjust political manuevering.

"Roman Calvary choirs a'singing" might imply soldiers of Christ (the Church Militant) who were praying with and for him, but - even more fittingly - they may suggest angels (St. Michael is often depicted in artwork as a Roman soldier; he is prince of the heavenly host - the 'choirs' of heaven who sing before the throne of God.)

---In the first verse, "Missionaries in a foreign field" bring to mind the many Catholic religious orders of France, which brought the Gospel and the sacraments to other countries.

"For some reason I can't explain/I know St. Peter will call my name" expresses the virtue of the true Christian's hope - and King Louis XVI was a Catholic above all else.

"Never an honest word" is another great mystery, for the words don't make clear who never gave an honest word. The words cannot apply to the martyred King Louis XVI, but they would fit the lies of the Revolutionaries who brought about the death of the king and thousands of others.

---The lines of the next stanza, however, could be personifications of both the good king and his legitimate successors (from the family line). Revolution is indeed a wicked and wild wind; it eventually "let in" the tyrant Napoleon, as well as a descendant of the traitorous ancestor, Citizen King Louis Philippe.

Shattered windows and the sounds of drums denote the crowds who besieged King Louis' palace, attempting to kill him and the Royal Family - but they also apply to Louis Philippe, for there had been many attempts on his life.

Revolutionaries wait/for my head on a silver plate clearly point to Louis XVI, beheaded for anti-religious and political reasons (like St. John the Baptist). King Louis XVI was a scapegoat, a figure-head for all that the Revolutionaries hated, treated with the same contempt and brutality as Christ the King: People couldn't believe what I had become. And so it goes..

Still, the question remains: What does the song Viva La Vida really say? Only Coldplay knows for sure - or do they? Perhaps some Muse inspired Martin (the songwriter, as well as lead singer) with a message he himself cannot fully understand. Otherwise, why the refusal to to outrightly declare the intent? Is the band trying to tell youth that the continuing Revolution is the cause of their plight - or egging them to carry its bloody red banner? Is their seeming sympathy for some former way of life a ruse or the real deal? Or is the song Viva La Vida about Martin's own searching for God in all the wrong places? He has, after all, made confusing remarks about religion, all which indicate the real reason for his lyrical laments.

In the meantime, as we consider the Revolutionaries' cries of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity and what those terms really meant, might we also consider the observations of Yves Dupont, who studied prophesy for at least 30 years, and authored many works, including Catholic Prophecy?

“The Reformation in the 16th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment in the 18th, and the rise of democracy in the 20th were all predicted and called ‘deadly errors.’ The Enlightenment, as a matter of fact, was described as the beginning of an age of spiritual darkness; this is self-evident today. The rise of popular power [sometimes call 'the Fourth Estate' in the prophecies] was defined as being against the natural order willed by God, and it was said that it would end in chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed. We are fast approaching that stage; there is now throughout the world a general revolt against authority that leaves little doubt to the outcome."

"Thus," he continued, "what the vast majority of people today regard as their most cherished values [were] denounced as errors. It is quite possible that many of us have been so influenced by modern ideas that we may find it difficult to accept what these prophecies say. But this is another question, for the prophecies do not ask for our assent; they simply warn us and describe events which, once they have come to pass, will force our assent. Yes, we are free to reject the prophecies, but we do not possess the right to do so. Freedom is not a right; it is a duty or, more accurately, it is a faculty of our make-up which implies a duty. We possess the faculty to choose between good and evil, between truth and error, between God and Satan...our duty is to choose God, truth and goodness. The modern conception of freedom-is-a-right is a distortion of Catholic truth."

[With special thanks to our son, Stephan, who helped with research for this article. Due to previous formatting problems, this article was updated and revised on November 3, 2008. It was again updated July 31, 2009 to provide the Youtube link to the official video, since the embedding option was removed from Youtube and is no longer available.]

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