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Music video by Coldplay performing Viva La Vida. (C) 2008 EMI Records Ltd
The lyrics to "Viva la Vida" contain many Biblical references. For example, "pillars of sand" is a reference to the biblical parable given by Jesus about the fool who built his house on sand, and the wise man who built it on solid rock, while "pillars of salt" is a reference to Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt. "I know Saint Peter won't call my name" refers to the popular tradition of St. Peter guarding the gates of Heaven. He is often depicted in art as holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven per the Petrine doctrine and the Biblical reference in Matthew 16:19. He is also commonly depicted with the book of life reading off the names of those individuals who had believed in Jesus Christ as per Revelation 20. The term "... my head upon a silver plate" refers to the beheading of St. John the Baptist when Salome demanded his head delivered to her upon a platter. The church bells and background vocals are given away in the chorus' first two lines "I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing" and "Roman Cavalry choirs are singing", respectively. The protagonist's lament of St. Peter not calling his name because "there never was an honest word" when he "ruled the world" is suggestive of the popular belief that all wrongdoers will be condemned to eternity in Hell.
The song has inspired a great deal of debate about its meaning. People have claimed that the song may be about various subjects, such as the French Revolution. The band members themselves do not appear to have corroborated any of these claims, and have referred only to kings and revolutionaries in general, rather than any particular king.
Martin has explained the song lyric "I know Saint Peter won't call my name" in an interview with Q magazine: "It's about ... You're not on the list. I was a naughty boy. It's always fascinated me that idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it. And this idea runs throughout most religions. That's why people blow up buildings. Because they think they're going to get lots of virgins to fuck up in heaven. I always feel like saying, just join a band ... That is the most frightening thing you could possibly say to somebody. Eternal damnation. I know about this stuff because I studied it. I was into it all. I know it. It's still mildly terrifying to me. And this is serious." When asked about the song, bass guitarist Guy Berryman said: "It's a story about a king who's lost his kingdom, and all the album's artwork is based on the idea of revolutionaries and guerrillas. There's this slightly anti-authoritarian viewpoint that's crept into some of the lyrics and it's some of the pay-off between being surrounded by governments on one side, but also we're human beings with emotions and we're all going to die and the stupidity of what we have to put up with every day. Hence the album title."
Unlike the typical arrangement of Coldplay songs, in which either the piano or guitar is the prominent instrument, the track mostly consists of a string section playing the song's upbeat riff, along with a steady bass drum beat, percussion (including a timpani and a church bell), bass guitar, and Martin's vocals; there is limited use of electric guitar in the song. All the strings are arranged and performed by violinist Davide Rossi, who is also one of the main collaborators of the album. Rossi's strings comprise the main driving force throughout the song, with a strong beginning loop that supports Martin's voice, until the choruses where the symphonic power of the orchestra takes its fullest shape. The song is played in the key of A♭ major at a tempo of 138 beats per minute, while the vocal range spans
The song's Spanish title, "Viva la Vida", is taken from a painting by 20th century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which translates into English as "Live The Life." In Spanish "viva" is an expression used to acclaim someone or something so "Long Live Life" is an accurate translation and the painting reflects the artist irony of acclaiming life while suffering physically. When asked about the album's title, referring to Frida Kahlo's strength, enduring polio, a broken spine, and a decade of chronic pain, Chris Martin said: "She went through a lot of pain, of course, and then she started a big painting in her house that said 'Viva la Vida', I just loved the boldness of it."
During the album's production, "Viva la Vida" was one of the songs that had polarized each member's opinion over which version they should choose. In an interview, vocalist Chris Martin recalled: "We did quite a few different versions and went round the houses a bit and eventually settled on those treatments for it."
Because of the similarities in titles, the song is often confused with "Livin' La Vida Loca" (or "Livin' the Crazy Life"), a different-sounding, more uptempo 1999 hit by the Puerto Rican pop singer Ricky Martin, who is not related to Chris Martin