Much like the entirety of Coldplay’s fourth album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, released in 2008, “Viva La Vida” was a retelling of the French Revolution and the death of King Louis XVI right from the album cover—a portion of the 1830 painting “Liberty Leading the People” by French artist Eugène Delacroix, depicting French revolutionaries marching and waving the French flag with the words VIVA LA VIDA splashed over.
Let’s take a look at the meaning behind the song.
Long Live Life
In Spanish, “Viva La Vida” means “Long Live Life” and is tied to the Delacroix-like painting portraying the revolutionaries as heroes there are underlying themes of life and death, regrets, and transformation on the album.
King Louis XVI’s Death and Final Speech
“Viva La Vida” tells the story from the perspective of King Louis XVI and is linked to his last speech, after his monarch was overthrown and he was about to meet his death by guillotine. As he was strapped down on a guillotine bench (bascule) and his neck set in place, the former ruler gave one final speech before he was executed in which he proclaimed his innocence and concern for his former kingdom.
“My people, I die innocent. Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused,” said Louis XVI. “I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French.” The former king died at 10:22 a.m. on the Place de la Concorde on Jan. 21, 1793.
Lyrically, the song’s meaning circles around a more repentant Louis XVI, telling the story of how he once ruled the nation of France, which seemed like the world, commanded ships at sea, and was now alone and imprisoned.
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
The Rise and Down Fall
The next verse spans the start of his rule and his ultimate downfall. After the death of his grandfather, who left France in a fiscally disastrous state, Louis XVI succeeded the throne and was already celebrated as the new king who would bring change—Now the old king is dead, long live the king—and one minute he held the key (to his kingdom) and then the walls began closing in on him.
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
Prior to the Revolution, France was plagued by drought, cattle disease, and poor grain harvests leading to rising bread prices, leaving the poor even more destitute and ready to uprise. Retreating to the comforts of his wealth and power, Louis XVI was incapable of pulling France out of an economic crisis, and the people wanted a new order.
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
And revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string (Mmm, mmm)
Aw, who would ever wanna be king?
In the chorus, King Louis XVI knows the people are rejoicing at his demise and looking forward to a new day. There’s even a religious slant towards Catholicism, and Saint Peter, who held the “keys to heaven” refused to call on him when he met his death.
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
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world
Vive Les “Charts”
Released on June 3, 2008, as the second single off Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, “Viva La Vida” was Coldplay’s highest charting single hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 2009.
Photo: James Marcus Haney / Atlantic Records