I hereby nominate the song “Viva La Vida” for song of the year. Now, I know if I’m one of the cognoscenti, I’m not even supposed to like Coldplay, let alone this most popular of popular songs, but I love it. I suspect Coldplay-haters love it too, but just tell people otherwise to look good. Take Sasha Frere-Jones, a reviewer for The New Yorker, who rehearses every famous insult that’s been thrown at the popular band. He mentions that Jon Pareles of The New York Times once called them “the most insufferable band of the decade” and referred to Chris Martin as a “passive aggressive blowhard”. He suggests the band is somewhere between “warm milk” and “dependable” and says something nasty about “cloying, synthetic gas”. He admits he’s always wanted to like Coldplay, because they’re such nice boys, but don’t worry, he doesn’t. Except that it keeps slipping out that he does. “Clocks” is lovely, he admits, and yes indeed, he enjoys the melody of “Viva La Vida”. Well of course he does, because it’s great.
I heard the song about a hundred times when it first came out; then another hundred times while driving around the UK last summer; then another couple of hundred times as my household got ready to attend a Coldplay concert on a night when I had to teach (a tragedy I’m still complaining about, two months later). In the last month, I’ve heard the song another thousand times, karaoke style, as my daughter is singing it for the upcoming elementary school talent show. Unbelievably, it still hasn’t lost its magic.
Sasha Frere-Jones complains that it’s “entirely obscure why a jaunty, upbeat song would be referencing ‘Roman cavalry choirs’ or revolutionaries or St. Peter.” He goes on to grumble, “Martin is the king? Was the king? Whatevs.” But that’s just proof he doesn’t get it. No, the thrill and the timeliness of the song has to do with the synergy between the words and the music. The words are about loss and former glories: “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.” How the mighty have fallen. “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.” Yet the mood is utter joy.
Exuberance when you’re winning is to be expected, but exuberance in the middle of loss? That’s grade A, industrial strength, top of the line exuberance. It reminds me of the stotting of a gazelle – the special leap just as it’s about to flee a predator. This seems to help the gazelle, not invite immediate destruction, because it’s essentially a boast. “I’m so strong I can afford to show off a bit before I get out of your way.” Lions are apparently impressed.
Some of us may have a chance for a bit of stotting soon as we make our way out of a business that’s being downsized, or out of a profession that’s being decimated because of the economic slowdown. The song says “the meek shall inherit the earth,” and that’s been the right message lately. MSNBC used “Viva La Vida” to accompany a montage of inaugural day scenes on January 20, 2009. 150 years after the end of slavery, 45 years after Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial, there was Barack Obama taking the oath of office in front of the Capitol and striding down Pennsylvania Avenue, with his wife Michelle looking confident in gold. There were their two adorable little girls, about to enter the White House as the nation’s first family. There were the exultant crowds, celebrating a moment in history that says “yes we can”.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, if you’re as familiar with “Viva La Vida” as I am. The song makes the perfect soundtrack for overcoming of every kind, but it’s literally about the exuberance of a deposed ruler. It was really George Bush’s song on January 20. He should have been singing it on his ride out of Washington in a deluxe military helicopter, and if it was a happy, defiant ride, then maybe he was: “Just a puppet on a lonely string / Oh, who would ever want to be king?”
In this year of overcoming, I’m not surprised the Oscar frontrunner is Slumdog Millionaire, a movie about how the merest of Indian boys stays true to himself, and serendipitously picks up the keys to fame and fortune in the unlikeliest places. As he’s demeaned and nearly destroyed by a string of contemptible exploiters, he’s ever the stotting gazelle, leaping into the air as he flees. And finally … well, I’m not going to ruin the movie for you. But in a nutshell: yes we can.
Jean Kazez is the author of The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life (Blackwell). She teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.