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Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” – A Rebuke of Edmund Burke?

November 9, 2010


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.

I used to roll the dice,

Feel the fear in my enemies’ 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.

Chorus 1:

I hear Jerusalem bells a’ringin’.

Roman cavalry choirs are singin’,

“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,

And 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 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?

Chorus 2: (x2)

Hear Jerusalem bells a’ringin’,

Roman Cavalry choirs are singin’,

“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.

The other day as I was reading Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” my iTunes selected Coldplay’s hit song “Viva la Vida” as that which it would randomly play next.  Naturally, by the time the first chorus had come around around, I had all but abandoned my attempt to decipher the meaning behind one thirteen-line sentence in favor of humming along, likely to the chagrin of my roommate.

After a few more listens, Burke began to creep into the song.  At the time I’d thought it was just because I’d been reading him for the past half hour, but upon further review it seems that this was not, in fact, the case.

In lecture we discussed the influence of the French Revolution on subsequent politics, culture, and thought.  I’m thinking “Vida la Vida” is a prime example.  It is almost as if the song addresses the Revolution itself, and from the position of that “sir” to which Burke repeatedly addresses his essay.

In the song’s second verse, Chris Martin alludes to both risky behavior and public veneration.  In the good ol’ days of French King Louis XV, “[rollings of] the dice” might have referred to his massive spending during both the Seven Year’s War (in America, the war revealed itself in the colonial “French and Indian” War) and the American War of Independence (France helped finance the colonists’ efforts).  Both Louis XV and his successor, Louis XVI, were also known for their splurging on luxuries.

Louis XVI and his family

The extravagant lifestyle led by Louis and his family would be violently abbreviated.

When Louis XVI finally realized that his and his father’s expenditures had saddled his country with massive debt, he was forced to tax his people.  The disproportional nature of those taxes is what ultimately led to the “[crowds’ singing]” “liberté, egalité, and fraternité” rather than Coldplay’s “long live the king!”

Burke’s emphasis on the problem with seeing queens as simply women reveals itself in Martin’s “pillars of salt and pillars of sand.”  The French populace, once it began to believe that its government no longer worked for its benefit, abandoned all previous notions of “love, veneration, admiration, [and] attachment” in favor of the “[tasteless]” desire to see laws reflecting its own “private interests” (Burke, 516).  Louis XVI (the speaker in “Viva la Vida?”) ultimately finds that his base of support is fickle and weak – made of “pillars of salt… and sand.”  Burke would quite agree.

Coldplay’s lyrics enunciate revolutionaries’ desires to see their government be a “mirror, …sword, and shield” – a body to reflect their interests, pursue those interests, and protect them. Burke’s general, conservative argument that governmental bodies gain strength and wisdom through years of continuous experience is here rebuked; that monarchy which had governed for years had failed at fulfilling these basic requirements.

The song’s speaker later notes that his experience as king was that of “a puppet on a lonely string.”  Does Coldplay mean to imply that leaders whose actions are not determined by the general will fall subject to the will of few?  In other words, do those leaders merely serve as “puppets” of aristocratic interests, no matter how long their associated regimes have been in power?

As suggested by the song’s heavy emphasis on minor chords and its tendency to evoke sympathy for its speaker (listeners relate to the speaker’s sad acceptance of eternal damnation: “I know Saint Peter won’t call my name”), Chris Martin feels for poor, guillotine-destined Louis.  However, this is perhaps the only common ground between the popular British singer/lyricist and stuffy Edmund Burke.

Coldplay recognizes that, despite its sympathy for its fallen speaker, that speaker did indeed fail to reflect, pursue, and protect his (/her?) subjects’ interests.  However, he/she did so due to a failure on the system’s part.  Burke, on the other hand, blames the French underclass’s lack of due reverence and abundance of selfish ambition.  He denies any fault on the part of the system of monarchy and the tenets of conservatism.

Why did the French Revolution occur, then?  Did it occur due to monarchy’s inherent flaws, like Chris Martin, Locke, and Rousseau would likely argue?  Or is the barbarism of the French underclass to blame?  Was a combination of these factors to blame?

  1. arichnerjr permalink
    November 9, 2010 12:39 AM

    If there is one class to blame for the French Revolution, it would be the nobility. Leading aristocrats actually formed a sort of coalition with the upper-middle class in order to regain lost political power and avoid taxation by weakening the monarchy (reminiscent of the 17th century Fronde). Without the support of the Second Estate and leading members of the nobility, it’s incredibly unlikely the French Revolution would have taken place. But as we know, their plan backfired, and they were overtaken themselves politically by businessmen and lawyers, the upper-middle class leaders and shakers of the Revolution who had the support of the Parisian masses. Things fell apart from there– factions are formed within the National Convention which turn on each other, resulting in the Reign of Terror, Robespierre, and later, Napoleon.

    Apparently, Burke’s “Reflections on the French Revolution” was addressed to a noble in Paris. In this context, it makes sense that he’s directing much criticism towards the nobility who failed to adhere to tradition and allowed for the middle-class takeover (men naturally assumed to be self-motivated and with little significant experience of governance, something hard to deny). So, Burke believed that the many members of the nobility were to blame for the bloody Revolution, and I agree with him.

    Nice post though. It’s good to analyze the historical events which form the basis of these philosophies.

  2. ssitarek permalink
    November 9, 2010 2:35 AM

    Wow this was a great post! I think you have made some great points and connections between the song Viva la Vida and Burke in the “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. I am curious as to whether or not you think that Cold Play intentionally or unintentionally drew parallels with Burke? Or maybe the “Reflection on the Revolution in France” was their inspiration? I personally think it fits too closely with Burke’s views to be a happy coincidence.

  3. erikamir permalink
    November 9, 2010 5:30 PM

    I also agree that this was a great blog post even though Viva la Vida is the only song that I know by Cold Play! I loved your analogy of ‘rolling the dice” the different wars that had occurred. Just as we learned in lecture, Burke saw that revolution would be a bad situation between the Americas and England. Rolling the dice is all about chance and looking at past historical events revolution has always had its repercussions.

  4. Cesar II Ruiz permalink
    November 9, 2010 9:57 PM

    It was very ingenius to combine a contemporary popular song (“Viva La Vida”) by Coldplay and the “stuffy” Edmund Burke. It was interesting to see your interpretation of the pop song with the occurings of the French Revolution, Louis XVI, and Edmund Burke. One of the highlights was the way you tied Louis XVI with the speaker of the song Chris Martin. I think that there is some validity to the aristocratic monarchs being a chief source to the Revolution. The “rolling of the dice” was very intricately tied with Louis’ expenditures and the unfair taxation of the future revolutionists.
    Another thing that I wanted to add to this commentary on Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” is that the entire album seems to have various links to occurances related to the Revolution. On the song “Yes!” (6th song on the album, which comes right before Viva La Vida), the opening lyrics portray this:

    “When it started we had high hopes,
    Now my back’s on the line,
    My back’s on the ropes”

    and later in the song:

    “So up they picked me by the big toe;
    I was held from the rooftop, then they let it go.
    If there’s any screaming let the windows down,
    As I crawl to the ground”

    When the revolution started it seemed like a good idea to revolt and later heads where flying everywhere. In the second set of lyrics, the windows coming down might imply the quillotines being released. There are more examples that can also be found throughout the songs included in their album, but this was one of them.

  5. thacarter4 permalink
    November 10, 2010 1:32 AM

    I want to start by saying that I really liked this post and it was pretty refreshing to see someone explain historical events through a coldplay song, even if I’m not 100% sure that’s what coldplay was actually referring to. One part of the song in particular that I interpreted differently than you was the part about a puppet on a lonely string. I interpret that part as more being about the isolation one feels in a position of power and at the same time being limited in that power than about aristocracy but the second interpretation is also interesting and equally valid. Other than that I completely agree with you and this was a really good post.

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