Coldplay — “Viva La Vida”

Released: 5.25.08

Peak: # 1

As pop formulae go, domesticating Radiohead’s intricate abrasions to suit soft rock sensibilities was no less honorable than Radiohead’s parallel project of tricking out electronic and neo-classical motifs for a middlebrow palate. Still, you can only get so excited about a Kraftwerk sample in the 21st century, and after the minor triumph of A Rush of Blood to the Head, X&Y was the blankest of emotional slates. I started to get why the British despised Chris Martin so.

Driven by martial strings, church bells, and timpani rolls (mustered by Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs) and draped in garish French Revolutionary visuals, “Viva La Vida” wasn’t bland. As a midcareer sidestep of expectations, it was less “daring” than merely idiosyncratic; as a smash hit, it was the sort of muzzy pop fantasy that demands interpretation. I find Anthony Miccio’s reading of its toppled despot as George W. Bush, like Dave Marsh’s take on “Every Breath You Take” as a coldblooded threat to tyrants everywhere, intellectually appealing but emotionally unsatisfying, if only because I begrudge Bush and Sting alike any more credit or empathy than absolutely necessary. If I had to search out geopolitical roots for the song’s popularity, I’d call “Viva La Vida” a self-hating nightmare of Third World mob rebellion overwhelming the repressive psychological defenses of comfortable, sentimental Westerners.

Probably. But I don’t. And it’s not. Probably. I hear instead a twist on rock star paranoia from a Gen-Xer (’77 is cusp, right?) whose slight yet constitutional unease with fame makes him ashamed of his insatiable drive to be Bono, but who was born too late (and too sane) to counteract his ambition with grunge self-laceration. In an age of narcissistic pop elephantiasis, it’s a tonic to hear our latent misgivings about pumping up romantic aspirations to arena size reflected back at us. For all its flourishes, the appeal of “Viva La Vida” lay in its sullen understatement, the resignation with which it seems to ask: Ah, who would ever want to be Kings of Leon?

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