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French Revolution? Meaning Of “Viva La Vida” By Coldplay

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Coldplay’s Viva La Vida is their highest-charting song and a modern classic, but it’s the defining song of the album it released on. The album delves into the concepts of love, life, death, and war and pushes the band beyond their comfort zone into something that sounds different. In this article, we’ll discuss the meaning of Viva La Vida and explain how it retells the French Revolution from a different perspective than you might expect. 

Background For “Viva La Vida”

Viva La Vida became Coldplay’s first single to reach number one in both the US and the UK, becoming the best-selling album of 2008 and ending up surpassing 10 million worldwide record sales. The album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends won Best Rock Album at the 2009 Grammy Awards, and the single, Viva La Vida won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. 

This was Coldplay’s fourth album, and the band wanted to explore new styles in their music. Each song had to sound different than the others on the record. Viva La Vida is built around a looping string section and gradually builds as the song continues, adding additional instrumental layers until the finale. 

Meaning Behind The Lyrics And Album Cover

Viva La Vida is a Spanish phrase that roughly translates to “long live life” or just “live life.”  It was a common phrase used to salute royalty and can also loosely be translated to “long live the king/queen/monarch.”

Unlike the title, the song lyrics are all in English and are meant to mirror the final speech and thoughts of King Louis XVI on the date of his execution in the final moments of the French Revolution. The speech is lost to history, as most of it was drowned out by the booing crowd and the executioner’s drum beats. He was also beheaded before finishing it, so we don’t know the true contents of the speech. 

The artwork is a rendition of the 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People, a work by Eugéne Delacroix. It shows French revolutionaries waving the French flag and being led by a human incarnation of Lady Liberty, the same ideological presence that is depicted in the Statue of Liberty. It does not represent the French Revolution, but rather the July Revolution that toppled King Charles X in 1830. 

While the album cover isn’t about the first French Revolution, Viva La Vida certainly is.

Ties To The French Revolution

Coldplay - Viva La Vida (Official Video)

Viva La Vida is meant to be an interpretation of Louis XVI’s final speech on his execution day and a retelling of the French Revolution that ended his reign from his perspective. In the song, Louis reflects on his time as a ruler and accepts his fate, hoping to apologize for his wrongdoings and wish the best for his country going forward. 

The beginning of the song describes the immense power he wielded and the sharp contrast between that and his current situation.

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

Louis was on top of the world and felt like he had ultimate power (which he kind of did) but now he’s reduced to sleeping alone in a jail cell and awaiting his sentence.

Different lines in the song are purposefully meant to contrast each other, despite being in different verses. For instance:

Listened as the crowd would sing
Now the old king is dead long live the king

Is in perfect opposition to:

Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn’t believe what I’d become

Louis XVI was welcomed by the people when the throne was passed to him by his grandfather, but they ended up disappointed in what he would become as he grew into the role. It also describes his early reign’s success, full of reforms and promises of a better future. As time passed, he was unable or unwilling to fulfill those promises, and people turned against him.

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Aw, who would ever want to be king?

It’s at this point in the song, at the end of the second and final verse (before the chorus is repeated twice), that Louis XVI realizes there is nothing left he can do. The revolution is complete save for his death and he is now completely powerless to change any of his past decisions. 

In the end, the song paints Louis XVI, not as a spiteful monarch but humanizes him instead. It’s a reflection by the king on his lost kingdom and his regret because he was not up to the task of ruling. Instead of pleading for his life and asking for mercy, he understands that he failed his people and accepts his fate,

This portrayal turns Louis XVI into a figure worthy of sympathy and one who realized far too late that he lost sight of the values he held at the beginning of his kingship and that power is a burden. He promised his people the world but faced none of the problems of his reign, instead cowering in his castles that once looked so strong but ultimately were of no protection. 

In historical reenactments, Louis XVI is generally portrayed as a one-dimensional, unrepentant tyrant and oppressor of his people. Coldplay took a different approach in Viva La Vida, and it’s an incredibly interesting alternative look at history. Instead of the revolutionaries being the heroes, they become the antagonists despite being right in their actions. The song puts the listener in between the two sides, with neither being the clear-cut good guys, even though the king ultimately knows he is at fault.

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