Viva la vida (Coldplay)

This is a song about crises. When you fall, you may think it's the end of the world, but crises are also a chance to start a new life. Read the meaning of the song to understand the lyrics.

You can sing to a karaoke version of this song here:

VIVA LA VIDA -karaoke

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 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 bells a-ringing

Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
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 the 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?

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
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

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
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

SEAS WOULD RISE= We can use WOULD to talk about events that were habitual in the past, but not anymore. It’s the same as USED TO. You’ll find this use of WOULD more times in this song.

Talking about a situation or habit that was true in the past but not now anymore

Both USED TO and WOULD can be used to talk about repeated actions in the past.
- She used to visit me every Sunday
- She would visit me every Sunday
But if we talk about a situation, we can only use USED TO:
- He used to be rich, but now he's poor.
- I used to have a dog when I was a child.

TO OWN= To possess.

TO ROLL THE DICE = Take my chances = Risk doing something. A DICE is cube with numbers (dots) on every side. You throw/roll/cast the dice to get a random number. It is used for games or gambling. See picture here. Originally, the singular was DIE and the irregular plural was DICE, but today you can also say DICE for the singular and DICES for the plural. So the word DICE may be singular or plural. You can ROLL or CAST a die; that means that you throw it to see what number you get.

CROWD= A big group of people, a multitude. Pronounced /kraʊd/

LONG LIVE THE KING!= In Europe, in old times, when a king died people would shout: "the king is dead, long live the king!". The first part of the sentence (the king is dead) refers to the old king, and the second part (long live the king) refers to the new king, because the moment a king dies, a new king (usually his son) takes his place.

ONE MINUTE... NEXT= This construction is used to express that a situation changes suddenly and unexpectedly:
- I can't understand you, one minute you love me and next you don't want to be near me.

I HELD THE KEY= To hold a key is to have it in your hand. Here, it is used metaphorically. In English, If you "hold the key", you have the power, you are in control.

CLOSED ON ME= If they close the door ON you, they close the door so that you can’t enter, usually just as you are going to enter.

UPON= On (Old fashioned or literary).

PILLAR= Column.

A-RINGING= Ringing (Old fashioned or literary). In modern English, the gerund or present participle is formed by adding a suffix (-ing) to the verb (ring - ringing). But in old English it had a prefix (a-) and a suffix (-ing), e.g. "thou art awalking" = "you are walking". The prefix is still used sometimes in poetry and some traditional songs, like this Christmas carol:
"here we come a-caroling among the leaves so green
here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen
".

I HEAR JERUSALEM BELLS A-RINGING= In medieval Europe, when the enemy attacked a city unexpectedly, all the church bells would ring to alarm people. The metaphor he's using here is when the Roman cavalry got to the walls of Jerusalem ready to completely destroy the city. At that time (73 a.d.) there were no churches or bells in Jerusalem, but he's not trying to be historical here, he's trying to bring up a powerful metaphor of defeat, and the fall of Jerusalem, in Christian culture, is a strong metaphor for that.

CAVALRY= An army made up of soldiers riding a horse.

CHOIR= Pronounced /kwaɪə*/. A group of people singing the same thing at the same time. Of course, the Roman army didn't sing in choir before attacking a city, but he's comparing the cries of war of the soldiers to a choir.

SWORD= Pronounced /sɔ:*d/, without /w/. See picture.

SHIELD= A protection you use to stop the enemy’s sword in a fight. See picture.

HONEST= The H is not pronounced here. Respectable; sincere.

WHEN I RULED THE WORLD= When I had all the power. "To rule" is to govern.

WICKED= Pronounced /wɪkɪd/. Evil by nature and in practice.

SHATTER= Destroy into pieces, especially something fragile, such as glass or porcelain.

REVOLUTIONARIES WAIT FOR MY HEAD ON A SILVER PLATE= This is a biblical reference. Herod’s wife wanted to kill St John the Baptist and commissioned her daughter to do so. She finally got him beheaded (they cut his head), and brought his head on a silver plate as a present for her mother.

PUPPET= A marionette. See picture here.

LONELY= Solitary; sole; only one.

WHO WOULD EVER WANT TO BE KING!= "I don’t want to be king" or "nobody would like to be king".

SAINT PETER WON’T CALL MY NAME= In Christian imaginary, St Peter is (metaphorically) the one who keeps the gates to heaven, so if he doesn’t call your name, you are not among the people who can enter heaven. That means that you will go to hell. The verb WON’T here may be a negative prediction or it may mean REFUSE. This is very common in English:
- I invited him to come to my party, but he won’t come = he doesn’t want to come.
- Please, help me if you will = if you want to.

"Viva la Vida" in Spanish means "Long live life" or "hooray for life!". Chris Martin said he named this song like that, inspired by the Mexican painter Frida. She went through a very hard life, but then she made a big painting called "Viva la vida" to celebrate the beauty of life. The song, according to Chris, is about a deposed dictator. He used to be "the king of the world" but now he’s nothing and is suffering the consequences. But he wanted the song to be positive, it’s not just about a defeat, but rather like turning over a new leaf, a new chance to start a new life. This punishment is, at the same time, a chance for redemption; that explains the title (a title that, oddly enough, is not in the lyrics, but explains them).

The album cover represents a picture of the French Revolution by Delacroix (see here), that’s why some people think this song is about King Louis XVI or even Napoleon (the same picture can be seen, though hardly, on the background of this video). Others think it’s about Jesus (maybe because of the reference to Jerusalem and the Romans), or about getting old, or about America, etc. But no, this song is talking about something general, the process of falling, whatever the circumstances, and how that’s not the end of the world. In fact, if getting power spoils you, losing power may be purifying.

This song uses a lot of different powerful images to express deposition. If you focus on one image you may think he’s talking about one person, but if you consider them all, you’ll see that they are just metaphors of something more abstract than one particular situation:

- I sweep the streets I used to own
- The old king is dead, long live the king
- I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing, Roman cavalry choirs are singing (this is a reference to the fall of Jerusalem; after 1000 years being the jewel of the Jews, it was completely destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 73). By the way, there were no bells in Jerusalem in Jesus' times, but the metaphor is just as good.
- Revolutionaries wait for my head on a silver plate.

And apart from the title, there’s one line in this song that gives all this disaster a positive meaning, redemption, and that sentence is: "Never an honest word, but that was when I ruled the world" (so now, for the first time, I’m kind and honest). The second part of this sentence, "but that was when I ruled the world", clearly talks about a new face, a new life, a better life.

 
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