I feel like an asshole writing about Viva La Vida. Yesterday I wrote about A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum. A Whiter Shade of Pale deserves a couple of gigabytes of criticism, interpretation and commentary. With this in mind, I plan on writing about that song again some time in the future, because my commentary falls way short. In contrast, Viva La Vida has been written about by everyone on the internet. Coldplay has also weighed in on the subject in interviews, but in line with my idea that the lyrics are an unreliable way to interpret the narrative of a song, I also believe that the commentary of the poet, author, musician, composer or artist is an unreliable way of getting to the real meaning of a particular work.
In another fiction there is hubris. Prolonged criminal activity is obviously dangerous. But it’s the mental game that is mostly in play. Most people can walk into a convenience store and steal a candy bar as an experiment and get busted. The only thing you have to say most of the time is, “Man I don’t know why I did it. I just picked it up and put it in my pocket.” This will work the first time in an argument for leniency in almost all cases. It might even work the second time. But after that, no one is with you.
When you have a criminal operation running, the problem is knowing when to stop. Any organized attempt at black market economics has so many pitfalls that can’t be avoided. As you make more money, more people become involved. As this goes on longer, you have made possibly a lot of money, but there are entry level people who have not made very much money. They need the operation to keep going to make a living or to get the “big payoff”. So the pressure is on. Long after you know that you are attracting attention and it’s time to quit, new acquisitions are looking at longer scams. Any crime of genius is beautifully simple. A weakness in the system is exploited quickly and for maximum profit. Any organization around this event is quickly disbanded when the deed is done. This is rarely what happens.
There was this meth lab that was busted in Northwest Houston in 1983. It started simply enough. A man with a family who had extended family that were bikers. His body shop was not doing very well, and he had children. So he started making meth amphetamines which were very popular with oil field workers, bikers, weathermen and punk rockers. The market was ripe and he made a lot of cash very quickly. The problem was that once he provided enough of the right people with a good supply, then they all required more. Since he had made quick money and he didn’t have to put out any more money to continue, he made more when he really didn’t need the money. Suddenly a mostly abandoned body shop had 24/7 traffic. He had a giant trailer in the back lot with a door in the side of it. They dug a hole under it and put a trap door in the floor of the dumpster. Suddenly they had a manufacturing operation that many families depended on for income and many junkies depended on for a fix. When personnel was tight, the kids would be down in this underground lab stirring beakers of chemicals. The personnel was always tight.
The pressure was on to ignore the signs. It was easy to do so. After a year of operations and supplying Houston’s finest with private stash, who thought that anything would change. But of course the change did come, in the form of 50 cops descending on the body shop. I watched the footage on TV in between Saturday morning cartoons. Families were separated. Those that remained at liberty, pointed fingers at each other. Repercussions were felt everywhere. A lot of junkies had to sober up for a while. Someone else eventually filled the need.
A simpler example is a gang selling crack on a street corner. When an operation like this first begins, it usually begins in desperation on a street corner in a poor neighborhood. You need money somehow, so you will do anything to get it quickly. Kids have bad judgment and left to their own devices, they will just stand on the corner selling to friends and anyone who pulls up in a car. The very simple plan is to just run if the cops come. Also, the need is greater than the punishment for a minor. So just do it until it falls apart. Desperate friends join the operation and suddenly there is a gang of thugs on a street corner in a residential neighborhood.
There’s a guy on the corner with kids. He calls the police repeatedly. The police come and drive by. Of course, the kids take off when the cops are near and the cops aren’t really committed to doing anything because the people that pay their salaries are in other neighborhoods. They aren’t going to risk their necks for this guy. In their minds, if this guy was a decent man, he wouldn’t live in this neighborhood. One day the man gets sick of it and goes out and confronts the kids on the corner. Having been out there for years now they ask simply what the man is going to do about it. This is where they make a living. They think of this guy as threatening their livelihood, but they see it as an empty threat. The man sees their point and sort of gives up.
Months pass. The police put together a drug enforcement task force to produce some results and get some money from some federal grant program. They set up a complicated net to produce evidence and then one afternoon about 50 cops descend on the street corner and arrest everyone involved. They all go to prison. Those that remain at liberty point fingers. Junkies… Need…
On a slightly more macrocosmic scale, Blagojevich was recently busted for selling influence and specifically for selling Obama’s senate seat. Now it appears that he knew that they were tapping his phones. It sounds inexplicable that he was so explicit on the phone when he knew that federal agents were on the line. But hubris is the final sin of the criminal mind. “I’ve been doing this for years and the feds have threatened me. I waited for the other shoe to drop for a long time. It isn’t going to drop. I’m untouchable.” Even now, he thinks he has enough dirt on enough powerful people to remain untouchable. He may destroy some people’s reputations but he is on his way down.
All of these people, “I used to rule the world.”
The thing I hate about this song is that it really is a great song. I was impressed with it the first time I heard it. It’s like Coldplay was sitting in on a conversation I had with a friend. I said, “I’m not much into Coldplay.” Him, “Really. Tell me why.” Me, “That last popular album was just one song. They had a good idea and did it over and over again.” Then I heard this song and I was pretty impressed. They don’t sound completely different. They just developed and enhanced their sound and found a new direction for what they were doing right. I tend to start rebelling against the “in” thing and they are surely the poster boys for “in” right now. But this ends up begging the question, “Is a song necessarily bad because it is popular?”
I guess the idea is that if your average indie band had enough money in their personal bank accounts that they didn’t ever have to work again, a following that would like anything that they did and a large label funding a large project with as many people involved as necessary for any idea, then the indie band would be Coldplay. But maybe this hypothetical indie band would come up with something more profound and unique. Or maybe that indie band would take their capital and involve a lot more artists?
Or maybe they would have a large operation already developed that involved people that the members of the band worked with on a daily basis. Maybe those people would have names and faces and families that depended on this band to make a living. The success of the next project would determine whether these people could continue their relationships with each other. An entire community of people dependent on the success of a single project. Much like any small to medium size company. To accomplish this under pressure with the amount of style that Coldplay did it with Viva La Vida is very impressive. They got the pop world discussing metaphor. Even if they don’t get it right most of the time, it is quite an accomplishment. It isn’t Dylan Thomas, but it’s a start. And that arrangement is kick ass. They used an orchestra and didn’t sound like assholes.
But the fact is the size and scope of any project they do is determined by the number of people that depend on them. Metallica seems like a good example of a band that has to keep doing huge projects to keep the Metallica Corporation solvent. They don’t pull it off nearly as well. But it’s an impressive organization.
“Oh who would ever want to be king?”
In the end, I think Coldplay is talking about themselves in a hypothetical future. It doesn’t matter which crime you are committing, eventually hubris catches up with you. It’s sort of a cry from the top. And oh right!!! Are we supposed to feel sorry for them? Knowing that we wouldn’t feel anything for this narrative, they metaphorically ask us to feel sorry for a fictional narrator. I think it’s an interesting device. And certainly there isn’t anything this thought provoking happening anywhere else in the pop world.