Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Viva la Vida

Every so often, I become obsessed with a song.  Usually it's because it's something that sticks in my head and the lyrics start to permeate my consciousness to the point where I actually pay attention to them.  And if I pay attention to them, it doesn't take long before I figure out what the artist is trying to say.

The last time this happened, it was (don't laugh) "Dragostea Din Tei" by O-Zone.   Hey.  Don't judge me.

Anyway, the newest object of my obsession is "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay.

It all started when my friend Rich had an extra ticket to the Coldplay concert.  Now, I can't say that I especially love Coldplay, but I don't hate them either.  In fact, when their songs come on the radio, I'll sing along.  However, I don't know that I would ever have sought out tickets to their show on my own.  

But I went to the show anyway, because hey: concerts are fun, especially if you're with good friends.  The venue was too large, of course, but the concert?  I left knowing why Gwyneth Paltrow is such a happy woman these days.  If I were married to Chris Martin, I'd name my baby Apple, too.

So after the concert, I began to play closer attention whenever Coldplay came on the radio.  That's when I became attached to my song.  Here it is, for your viewing and listening enjoyment:

Yes, I know, some of the effects are a little wonky, but again.  Apple.  I understand.

You should see him perform this song in concert.  That man owns the stage.  I always like it when I go to see a show expecting nothing but finding something special.

You'd think this would be the end of the story, but it is not.  You see, one night I went out for tapas with my friend Debbie and the song came on the radio when I was driving her back home.  I was singing along when Debbie stopped me.  "It's not Roman Catholic choirs," she said.  "It's Roman Cavalry choirs.  I'm sure of it."

I couldn't believe it.  Roman Catholic made perfect sense in the context of the song, and Roman cavalry did not.  I mean, come on.  The cavalry is the men on horses swinging swords, chopping down the poor footsoldiers.  Why would they be singing?  It didn't make sense.  So I pulled out my cell phone and looked it up.  (Yes, I have the internet on my cell phone.  Again, no judging me.  I need my pillow.)

Here they are:

Viva la Vida

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

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
Once you know there was never, never an honest word
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 could not 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 are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
I know Saint Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world
(Ohhhhh Ohhh Ohhh)

Hear Jerusalem bells are ringings
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
I know Saint Peter will call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world
Oooooh Oooooh Oooooh


Debbie was right, and now I had to reevaluate.  Clearly, there was more to the song than I'd thought.  I mean, my original interpretation was that this was a lost love song, operating with an extended metaphor.  When he said "I used to rule the world," I assumed that meant that he'd once been so in love with someone that he felt like a king, an emperor, the kind of person that nobody could bring down, but then someone did bring him down, and all he can do is sweep the streets of his memory and mourn what he'd lost through his own stupidity.

And you know, there's evidence that he is getting at this in his song.  I think you can read it on several levels simultaneously.  However, it's the Roman cavalry choirs that threw this reading into chaos with me.  For me.

Because why would the Roman cavalry choirs be singing?  I looked at the lines around it:

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field

Debbie and I began discussing the ramifications of the Roman cavalry choirs, and talking about the spread of Christianity and the God of the people who used swords to spread their religion, and we thought we were getting somewhere when a cop pulled up.

You see, we were still in my car, parked in front of her building in Logan Square.  Logan Square is a gentrifying neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago, but it still has its sketchy elements, so on the one hand, it was good that the cop pulled up to check us out.  He made a signal for me to roll down my window.  "Ladies.  What are you doing here?"

Not too many hours before, Debbie had told me a story about being pulled over not too far from here because the cop didn't believe that a white person could be in this neighborhood for any reason other than the express purpose of buying drugs.  So, I was on my game.  Hello, sir, I said.  How are you this evening?

"You know this isn't the best neighborhood," he said.

It's okay, I replied.  We're teachers.  And besides, she lives right here.

Now, I hate to admit this to people, but I play the teacher card all the time.  I know that being a teacher has nothing to do with sitting in a car late at night in Logan Square, but it seemed like a good thing to mention.  People who are treating me with suspicion usually drop it immediately.  Especially cops.  Cops like teachers, because if we're doing our job, their job becomes a lot easier.  The first thing I say when someone pulls me over is, I'm sorry, officer.  I must have been spacing out.  I'm a teacher, you see, and I was thinking about ...

Now, I'm not saying that it'll get me out of every situation, but it doesn't hurt me, either.  Anyway, our friend in the unmarked car relaxed a little.  "What are you doing out here?"

Oh, I said.  We're talking about God.

He laughed.  "You know something?  I believe you.  You girls be careful now."

He drove away and Debbie turned to me.  "We're teachers," she mimicked.

I ignored her because I was sure she used it, too.  My only regret was not working it more.  That cop was pretty good-looking.

We worked up a new interpretation, somewhat flawed, but working more towards an understanding.  He used to rule the world because he in fact tried to.  It was sounding more and more like an indictment of Christianity.  Missionaries didn't always use the best methods, and it's called Roman Catholicism because the Romans made everyone in their empire convert.  And, looking back at the methods used and the harm caused, he was regretting it all, because the result was much worse than he could have imagined.  Okay.  We were getting somewhere.

But it was late, and Debbie needed to go inside before the cops questioned us again.

It was the Jerusalem bells that were bothering me.  It seemed like such a joyous image, but when I typed it into google, I got so many returns that it was impossible to find what he was referencing.  So I did what anyone else would do when stuck with an issue involving Jerusalem: I asked my nearest Jewish friend.

That just happens to be Matt, my trainer.  He'd never heard of Jerusalem bells.  "The only bells in Jerusalem are in Christian churches," he said.  "Jews don't use bells at all."

Never?  I was surprised by this.  It seemed to me that I'd heard of Jewish bells somewhere, but if I must be truthful, my Old Testament knowledge is a little sketchy compared to what I know about the New Testament.  What can I say?  I'm a good Catholic girl from way back.

What do Jews use? I asked.

"Horns," he said.  "You know, like a ram's horn?"

And I did know.  I'd heard of that before.  I just didn't make the connection.  

So the only bells in Jerusalem are Christian bells.  I went home and thought on this further.  Why are there Christian churches in Jerusalem at all?  Why, because of the Crusades, of course.  Jerusalem bells ring because Christian soldiers from Europe made them ring.  Again, it is the spread of religion with a sword.

So we have the Crusaders, the Roman cavalry, and the missionaries.  When I think of missionaries, I think of the Spanish priests who came to the New World with the conquistadors to convert the masses.  Again, conversion came with the help of the sword.

So back to the chorus:

For some reason I can not explain
I know Saint Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world

And here is the indictment of the verse: conversion through the sword, but not because they particularly wanted to change peoples' minds about god.  Rather, they wanted to rule the world.  Israel was attractive to Western Europeans for a lot of monetary reasons, and the Spanish walked away from Mexico with their coffers filled with gold.  I think he's pointing that out here by saying that no matter what he said, it wasn't true: "never an honest word," and that God knows this better than anybody: "I know Saint Peter won't call my name."

However, the point of the song is regret over what he's wrought.  He's speaking, I think, for the Christian consciousness, for it did indeed rule the world for a long time.  We didn't do such a good job, either, and lots of people want us out of the places we once controlled.

It's religious regret, coupled with political regret.  When I was growing up, in my history classes they taught me about the United States as a superpower balanced only by the USSR.  When the Soviet Union fell, the United States rose even higher and kept trying to spread its religion of democracy.  We talked about things like invading Iraq with the justification of "spreading democracy."

And we didn't do such a good job.  The United Kingdom was walking right along with us for most of this, holding our hand.  It's no secret that Chris Martin isn't a big fan of George Bush or Tony Blair.

So what's this song about?  We're sweeping the streets we used to own.  But look at the last verse.  There's a slight change: he's come to the place where he can sing this song, yes?  He's repenting, and understanding what he's done.  And now, "I know Saint Peter will call my name."  He's been redeemed.

Have we?  I wonder.


Anne said...

Very interesting. Thanks for writing this; I love that song, too.

Deb Acanfora said...

I love that song. I think Apple Martin is awfully close to apple martini. Is there a connection there? Maybe it's just all yellow. :P Deb

P.S. "We're teachers, and we're talking about God, officer" makes me laugh. I wonder if I will ever be able to use that line?

Anonymous said...

I completely agree that the song does fit Tony Blair too close to just be coincidence. The easiest way to raise the seas is to weigh down large ships with troops and equipment (sending them to Iraq).

I agree that while the song says “Roman Cavalry choir”, the writers perhaps would have liked to say “Roman Catholic Choir” but no one needs the head-ache of possibly offending a billion plus people.

Or change the spelling from the official song lyrics of Roman “Cavalry” choir to Roman “Calvary” choir (Mount Calvary of the crucifixion) and maybe the song is about Jesus (the Roman soldiers may have sung while waiting on Calvary), but if this was so, then I think the song would have Peter denying the narrator 3 times instead of just 2 times. Or perhaps the Catholic choirs that sing in the current mutli-use chapel currently on Mount Calvary).

I love how the song can have many different meanings.

Darrell St-Hubert, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

RobN said...

I think you were right first time with "Roman Catholic Choirs", I believe the lyric sites are incorrect, to the point that Taylor Swift sang "Cavalry" in her cover version.

There are some lyric sites which say "Catholic", so it's a matter of opinion until Chris Martin makes a public statement.

RobN said...

I think you were right first time with "Roman Catholic Choirs", some lyric sites have it wrong; t the extent that Taylor Swift sand "Cavalry" in her cover version.

There are lyric sites which show both versions, this is because Coldplay haven't pubished the official version.. so until they do it's a matter of opinion

Anonymous said...

Every time I listen to the song, I hear Roman Catholic choirs are singing. The word Calvary in the text is wrong. I wish all websites would change it back to Catholic.

Anonymous said...

Coldplay's official site list the lyrics as "cavalry."

Anonymous said...

Very fascinating old post, but you have a terribly deficient understanding of the Crusades, how Rome became Christian & what Catholic missionaries did in the New World. You might start by looking up why the Reconquista was called the REconquista, and a few folks like Fr. Bartolomeo Las Casas, Fr. Kino, and Fr. De Smet.

Anonymous said...

If you ever come back to this, allow me to throw some more fuel on the debate: I've always heard "Catholic/Cavalry" as "Cavalry/Calvary." Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

It is easy to hear him sing, clearly, Cavalry choirs. Does not sound like Catholic at all. Don't look at the lyrics, just listen to the song. Also, at the end he repeats himself by saying "I know Saint Peter won't call my name." Again, don't look at the lyrics, listen to the song. The speaker isn't saying he feels redeemed. However, a well said and interesting analysis of the song. Thank you!

Gregory Judas said...

I was with you on most of this, but there's one glaring inaccuracy that brings down much of your theory.

You questioned why there were churches in Jerusalem and then said, "because of the Crusades, of course." You went on to say that the faith was spread by the sword. But that's based on the false assumption that Christianity was a European religion that was spread to the Middle East. In fact Christianity began in Jerusalem as an off-shoot of Judaism. There were Churches there almost a thousand years before the first crusade. So I hardly think the Crusaders had anything to do with this song.

Chris Carnes said...

I always thought it was King Louie, but good modern comaprison. I also invite everyone to research the difference between CAVALRY and CALVARY

Custer and his CAVALRY were decimated by Indians
CALVARY was, according to the Gospels, a site immediately outside Jerusalem's walls where Jesus was crucified.

I still think he is saying CATHOLIC however this is a very smart writer of the song and may mean CALVARY. I have listed to it very loud and think he uses both CATHOLIC and CALVARY.

Anonymous said...

I think this song is about the rulers of different civilizations in history. It may be tying them together so on could rule the world. I think the verse about the revolutionaries may be a reference to Louis XVI and the French Revolution. Also, it may be about how these rulers did bad things, as it makes references to that throughout the song. Knowing that St. Peter isn't going to call his name enhances this because a lot of people believe that St. Peter waits at the gates of heaven to let people in. If this person knows St. Peter isn't going to call him, it's like saying he knows he's not going to make it into heaven.

WitnessMe! said...

You got the lyrics wrong. There's a part where he says "For some reason I can't explain
Once you'd gone there was never
Never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world"

And at the beginning he mentions sleeping alone. I think that this song is about a couple things. One, someone he loved has left him and he misses them. 2. He lost a lot of wealth and power that he thought was important and eventually found out was based on lies.

The King and empire metaphors are perfect because the narrator felt powerful like a King, and we all know how absolute power corrupts absolutely yada yada yada and the examples used were of civilizations that had massive problems with civil rights and inequality. So, basically, what I think happened here is that the narrator had a great love, and she/he left the narrator for whatever reason--but probably because the narrator was an ass--and as a result he made up for it by going on a power trip and getting involved with things that gave him short term pleasure but added nothing of real value to his life and once it was gone he had nothing.
I love the story because its saying Don't Get Too Big For Your Britches.

But, going universal a bit, it's about how pretty much anything that seems all powerful is really built on a crooked, corrupt foundation. The song says that the connections we make with real people are more important to happiness than even 'ruling the world.' I think the lyrics work well without the love story part, but if I'm right and that's the official lyrics, then it must be taken into account when interpreting the song