Coldplay’s first and so far only #1 hit is one of those songs that caused quite the stir upon release. On the positive side, it became a sport celebration anthem in the vein of We Are the Champions or Seven Nation Army, with consecrated football teams such as FC Barcelona and Hamburger SV, as well as hockey team New York Rangers adopting it. But, at the same time, Coldplay were faced with many plagiarism allegations coming from other artists. Singer-songwriter Cat Stevens felt Viva la Vida borrows the melody from his own Foreigner Suite. Alternative band Creaky Boards felt it resembles their The Songs I Didn’t Write. Virtuoso guitarist Joe Satriani even went to court over it when he noticed the similarity with his Grammy-winning composition If I Could Fly, with a settlement eventually being reached off-court.
The lyrics and themes of Viva la Vida draw inspiration from various places. The name of the song itself is in Spanish and translates as “live the life” or “long live life”. Lead singer Chris Martin saw this phrase on a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo of which he stated: “She [Frida] went through a lot of shit, of course, and then she started a big painting in her house that said Viva la Vida. I just loved the boldness of it.” With lyrics such as “I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing / Roman Cavalry choirs are singing” we get direct Biblical references.
But it’s not just this song that saw Coldplay expanding their horizons. The whole album (named Viva la Vida and All His Friends) deals with themes such as death, war, life or love. It also marked the first time the band collaborated with ambient music pioneer Brian Eno, credited with co-producing the album. The cover art is a painting called Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, and the band continued to carry this theme through live shows where they wore French revolutionary costumes.