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Evaluation of Bohemian Rhapsody

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Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Music

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Of Singer’s and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsodies: A Bohemian Rhapsody to honour a Bohemian’s Rhapsody

On the 24th of October 2018, scores of Queen fans flocked to the cinemas to watch the latest box office release: Bohemian Rhapsody. While the movie trailer can suggest that it tells the origins and rise to fame of Queen, one of Britain’s greatest rock and roll bands, Brian Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody is a biographical movie – or biopic – of the legendary Freddie Mercury. Singer’s latest contribution follows the trail of the outrageous and flamboyant lead-singer of Queen (played by Rami Malek) in the transformation from his early days as a bag handler in Heathrow airport to the rocking icon he has become today, over two decades after his death. Bohemian Rhapsody is also the title of one of the band’s biggest songs that many know and love, and to title the film after one of their biggest songs – despite the film showcasing some other of the band’s greatest hits on screen like We are the Champions and We Will Rock You – suggests that the film title has more to do with Mercury’s personal life than just a simple chronicling of the hallmarks of his rise to fame. Under the veil of a rock and roll song, it can simply be fictitious and meaningless – just created for the glitz and flamboyance singular to the band’s style, but lyrically, I see Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody as a confessional; Mercury coming out of the closet, identifying himself as a homosexual, and finally freeing himself from the constraints imposed on him by circumstance. As such, Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody is a love letter, and an allegory of the great ‘Mr. Fahrenheit’ – another moniker for the late Mercury. The film mirrors the song in that it is a revelation of sorts about Mercury, one that reveals a free, unencumbered lifestyle that Mercury lavishly embraces. This lifestyle can be understood through the culture of Bohemianism, which, whether intentional or not in the original song title suggesting a rhapsody of a Bohemian nature, was the way of life for Mercury. Singer’s film depicts an enlightenment in the soul of Freddie Mercury, followed by a climactic closure with what many would call Queen’s greatest live concert in history – the Live Aid concert (NY Times). This essay will explore both Queen’s and Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody in tandem with the counter-culture of Bohemianism to understand Freddie Mercury’s singular life, and how Queen was the vehicle that catalysed this modern bohemian’s penultimate rhapsody in his coming-out and acceptance of who he is.

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This essay will begin by demonstrating how Freddie Mercury is a 20th century bohemian. However, it is quintessential to first give an account of Bohemianism and what it is. Historically, the Kingdom of Bohemia was a small country in central Europe clamped down on all sides by larger European powers. Over the years, its allegiance was shifted from the Holy Roman Empire to the Habsburg’s Austrian Empire, then forming part of Czechoslovakia before it now sits within the Czech Republic (Britannica). Snyderman and Josephs convey in their essay that Bohemia was “a Balkan state whose members were scattered about Europe following the Hussite Wars” from 1419 to 1431 (187). With the aboriginal bohemians strewn about in the different factions of Europe from the preceding war, they did not fit into the societies that they were thrown into, and the proceeding conquests of the two aforementioned empires suggest that these former countrymen were sent to fight against each other, only to lose their identity and home, the Kingdom of Bohemia, at the end of the wars. Now, Bohemia is, as Thackeray posits:

“a land over which hangs an endless fog, occasioned by much tobacco; a land of chambers, billiard-rooms, supper-rooms, oysters; a land of song…of delicious reading of novels, magazines, and saunterings in many studios a land…where most are poor, where almost all are young, and where, if a few oldsters do enter, it is because they have preserved…their youthful spirits, and the delightful capacity to be idle.” (qtd. in Mtholyoke.edu)

Bohemia is not specifically this land that Thackeray describes but the encompassing sensual state of mind that originates from the situating of oneself in a like position. It is no longer a physical location but a mood. An imaginary heaven devoid of restraint and rules.

Mercury embraces this idea of a lifestyle free from these limiters. A writer from The New York Times describes Mercury as a “doubly subversive star”: a “gay man stuck in a pop culture moment that continued to insist his identity remain shielded in code” and “a man of Parsi descent, who had grown up in Zanzibar and India before moving to Britain in his late teens” (NY Times). While homosexuality was progressively decriminalised in most of England, male homosexuality was still viewed with much disdain and it was a topic of much controversy even as Queen released Bohemian Rhapsody. In the early 1980s, the emergence of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and AIDS placed a latent social stigma on being a homosexual as “one gay man in nine had been diagnosed with AIDS, one in fifteen had died, and 10% of the 1,600,000 men aged 25-44 who identified as gay had died” (Rosenfeld); it was still not safe to be proclaiming to the world that you were gay. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, as will be discussed later in this essay, is a device that Mercury uses to subtly come out of the closet.

In Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury never hides his effeminacy despite never explicitly declaring that he is gay. He meets his to-be fiancé, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), at a gig and goes to her workplace to dress himself up in ladies’ clothes – she even does his make-up. Possibly unaware of his true sexual orientation then, Mercury freely gives love as the feeling falls upon him, drifting into a serious, loving relationship with Mary. Thakur’s article on The Wire succinctly summarises Mercury’s early life: “Farrokh [Mercury’s real name] was never good enough. Home … felt like a prison to him, a place where he ‘never belonged’”. He moved out and lived together with Mary, and adopts a new identity, rebirthing himself as Freddie Mercury. Even after they broke up, they remained so close that he willed half of his assets to her before he died (Daw). The image of Bohemianism is invoked in these actions. His refusal to stay bound by his heritage and the social image of his time makes him a modern bohemian, a 20th century vagabond.

Now this essay will posit that Queen was Mercury’s bohemia, one that afforded him the state of mind to pursue his passion in music as his art. When Mercury joins the band after two of their members left, shown after the gig where he met Mary in Singer’s film, he had his first performance with them soon after. In the film, he is in a place where he should not have fit in due to his look, and his odd style and mannerisms: he has an overbite, dresses effeminately in sequin and flared pants, and awkwardly handles his microphone stand. However, when he opens his mouth to sing, it is as if he loses all sense of worldly bearing and is transcended into a different place. One where he is accepted, loved and in control. Drawing on a quote from Maurice, to further establish the notion of bohemia as described by Thackeray above, “bohemia is less a region of definite situation and boundaries than a state of mind, a memory of youth and of the glamour of youth” (107). Queen quickly becomes a paradise for Mercury. A home that he creates with his love for his art. A place with no social bounds and puts no labels on him, one that “provides a tolerant social life for those whose personality defects have excluded them from the social groups” (Snyderman and Josephs 195).

However, what sets Mercury apart from the bohemians of old and some earlier modern bohemians is that he grows out of poverty into fame and fortune. This is problematic when reading about the early bohemians. The early bohemians appear to have romanticised youth and poverty, as Henry Murger describes in the preface to Scènes de la Vie de Bohème that “every man who enters on an artistic career, without any other means of livelihood than his art itself, … had no other fortune in the sunshine of their twenty years than courage, which is the virtue of the young, and hope, which is the wealth of the poor” (Gutenberg.org). The old bohemian “could live in squalor and maintain his self-respect” (Snyderman & Josephs 193); their “idealism shines through the poverty-stricken conditions of their unconventional lives” (Gagnier 344). These descriptions imply that bohemia is not ascended but descended to. Artists who take the bohemian path descend into lack and scarcity and dwell there in their pursuit of art. Not withal, Mercury differs from these early bohemians in that his unconventional life provides a sense of escalation for him into bohemia. He does not romanticise poverty or lack, and instead clings to his youth and art to both go beyond his boundaries, and welcome wealth when it comes to further lose himself in his bohemia. Singer’s film illustrates this growth through a sequence of fast cuts that show Queen on tour in America, not focusing on the performances but on the band adding to their list of states at which they scream “we love you!”.

Without a doubt, Singer’s film is a highly condensed version of Queen’s history. Nonetheless it very adequately portrays the shift from lack to abundance as Mercury rides on the band’s wagon out of the bondage of his past and into comfort and grandeur. In the early part of the movie, Mercury’s gutsy idea of selling the band’s only van to raise money for a studio recording paradoxically gave them a ticket out of their poor-rock-band life. This ironic depiction of the band moving to a better place without the means to physically move points towards an inward form of elevation that the bohemian is known to achieve. Spontaneity, nonconformity and a sort of reckless faith in the arts are what identify Mercury as a bohemian of his time. He is constantly seen challenging everything: the norms of what rock music is, the vocal and creative thresholds of the band, and his personal self-awareness. He challenges even the record company that is sceptical about the 6-minute-long Bohemian Rhapsody track that Queen produces. When EMI executive Ray Foster (played by Mike Myers) expresses his reservations, explaining that he does not understand the song and that the radio only airs songs around 3 minutes in duration, Mercury unrelentingly insists that his track will not be truncated, and that either Foster airs the entire track or Queen will walk out, and he will forever be remembered as the guy who lost Queen. Foster refused to air the song, and the band left to find another station to air Bohemian Rhapsody (Singer). Mercury’s stubborn pride in his art epitomises the bohemian ideal with “his antipathy for formulas … his inherent restlessness … [and] his originality” (Parsons 426).

After demonstrating how Mercury in the biopic to be a modern bohemian, this essay will now explore Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody as a confessional. The song is the first testament to Mercury’s originality; it successfully marries rock and opera – two genres that is not known to mix well. McLeod, who has done an extensive study on the song, explains that rock music has always rejected opera due to its high brow standards (189). For Queen to create such a time-worn masterpiece and Mercury to call it “mock opera” (Hodkinson 200), there needs to be a level of daring and poise, and Singer’s biopic captures the amount of experimentation and conviction to create in the scenes with Queen in the recording studio. Featuring “over 180 vocal overdubs” from just four people (McLeod 192), the song is created by swinging amplifiers past the microphones and singing through cylindrical cardboard tubes (Singer). Such a method of recording music is truly novel and even today, musicians still do not make a child’s playroom out of a recording studio for fear of damaging the costly equipment and breaking the rules. This lack of regard for property, rules and money portrayed in Singer’s re-enactment underscores the bohemian resistance to “private property”, “strict moral values” and “wealth” (Mtholyoke.edu) and exemplifies a bohemian song created in bohemia. The following case study of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody will further accentuate how the band has helped create a surreal landscape of feeling and emotion with their music which turns into Mercury’s much needed bohemian paradise.

Now that the ‘bohemian’ in Bohemian Rhapsody has been established, this essay will proceed to discuss the word ‘rhapsody’ with a case study on the song itself. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is, pertaining to music, “a free instrumental composition in one extended movement, typically one that is emotional in character”. However, I propose a duality in the symbolism of ‘rhapsody’ in the title; it is also “an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling” – the first definition of the word in the dictionary. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody opens with an a cappella verse and a piano accompaniment that joins midway. Swiftly, it progresses into a poignant piano ballad, transitions into heavy riffs typical of the rock style before building up an operatic section. It ends by returning to the ballad. McLeod breaks down the song’s structure in comparison to traditional operatic norms; he studies the creative choices of Queen’s musicians in their arrangement of the song and suggests that the song “depicts a suicidal young man, played by Mercury, confessing to a murder (or possibly describing his own suicide – the terms are unclear), bemoaning his short life and imploring his mother ‘to carry on as if nothing really matters’” (192). Building on that, the murder is metaphorical. It is an “enthusiastic … expression of [the] feeling” of loss for Mercury (Oxford Dictionary), thereby possessing both tendencies of the word.

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As Mercury laments: “Mama, just killed a man / Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he’s dead” in the first verse (Genius.com; Queen 0:54-1:08), he refers to the loss of his old self. His previously known identity he has acknowledged to be gone. He is no longer that one “Farrokh Bulsara” (Thakur), the Parsi boy who hails from India (NY Times). No longer is he that poor boy who works baggage at Heathrow airport; he is rich, famous. He is Freddie Mercury. He is gay. Amy Oliver’s article on the New Zealand Herald echoes this notion. According to the article, Lesley-Ann Jones, Mercury’s biographer, had disclosed the song’s “hidden message – a confession by Freddie that he was gay”. Oliver proceeds to explain that “Lyricist Sir Tim Rice knew Freddie well and he agrees with her explanation”. Sir Tim adds how the dead man Mercury sings of is “the straight person he was originally … the man he was trying to be, and now this is him, trying to live with the new Freddie” (Oliver). Considering the socio-political stance of England towards homosexuality in the 1970s and 80s, Mercury’s struggle with his sexual identity latently sits between the lines of his song, and this lamentation in Bohemian Rhapsody is, to him, a cathartic release.

The second verse reverberates this internal struggle by taking the perspective of the old Mercury taking his leave. The verse starts with: “Too late, my time has come” and “Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go / Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth”. This old, dying Freddie then cries out for his “Mama” again, exclaiming; “I don’t wanna die / I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” (Genius.com; Queen 1:54-2:36). Deeply laden with sorrow and a tinge of regret, the old Mercury reveals that there is no turning back for him now, that the time is here and it only moves forward. He understands his true self now and with this verse and song, in a self-reflexive manner, declares that he must face the music. But here, the struggle is evident in the sudden entrance of the amplified guitar sounds that build up to the song’s first climax and guitar solo as Mercury calls for his mother, helplessly admitting that he is sorry for disappointing her; nobody wants to die and leave their loved ones behind. The first and second verses foreground the meaning of the song: the inward conflict to find the appropriate outward performance, and the transition from Mercury living according to the terms of others to living life on his own terms, for himself.

With the third verse comes the operatic turn in the song, which illustrates a negotiation with the devil. Three personifications reside here in this verse: the first being Mercury himself – as the lone voice, second a chorus of vocals that pleads on his behalf and third a darker, mocking chorus. The conversation begins with Mercury noticing “a little silhouetto of a man” and a chorus teasing in response (Genius.com; Queen 3:06-3:12). Here, Mercury is facing the ‘truth’, as he proclaims in the second verse. The first two personifications (as listed above) then plead for the “poor boy” – the old Mercury – to be spared. The third vocal entity, presumably a powerful one, thunders its refusal and the plea turns into a hopeless exchange that builds up into the song’s second climax (Queen 3:22-4:07). Mercury adopts a “devilish persona” in this verse (McLeod 193), thus alluding this segment to a bargain with a demon, and the demon is no other than his homosexuality. The old Mercury is appealing to the demon for, quite literally, a change of heart. His strife is still palpable here as he struggles to regain agency over Mercury’s outward performance and sexuality. However, he is indisputably denied, harking back to the when he said: “Too late, my time has come”, that the only way for him to be happy and go on is to renounce his old self and embrace who he now is.

Yet another guitar solo takes the listeners into the fourth and final verse, a short but powerful monologue that encapsulates a highly convicted Mercury fighting back and declaring that he will find a way out (Queen 4:07-4:37). From the trajectory of the track as studied so far, this verse describes Mercury emerging out of the depths of his thoughts with renewed strength to face the world in his true skin. To better comprehend this sudden change of pace and emotion from the second to third verse, and the third to fourth verse, attention must be given to not just the lyrics and vocal choices but the musical arrangement as well.

The two guitar solos between these three verses propel listeners in and out of Mercury’s inner self, painting an image of a descent into darkness and subsequent ascent back onto the surface with renewed strength. Guitarist Brian May’s first solo is effected by means of “a chromatic bass line plunge from F to B flat, firmly depicting the descent into chaos” (McLeod 192; Queen 2:34-3:02). McLeod also observes that the third verse “shifts in both musical style and perspective as the tempo doubles (from roughly 72 beats per minute to 144 beats per minute) (qtd. on 192). This increase in tempo marks an anxiety in mood, and further supports the concept of Mercury diving in to face himself and his demons in this verse. In the same vein, May’s second solo between the third and fourth verses conducts listeners out of the darkness with the gradual aural ascension from the deeper to the brighter notes, opposite from his first solo where it goes down the musical scale (Queen 4:35-4:50). The sudden invasion of May’s distorted riff to end the operatic verse replenishes energy into the mood (Queen 4:07-4:14), restoring “the head-banging order and aggression” more fitting of the bohemian rocker (McLeod 194), carrying on through the short verse. As Mercury bellows out the words, May’s riff adopts a rise and fall pattern, audibly going up and down the scale, which serves to embody the final struggle between two factions. The lyrics characterise a rebellious Mercury clamouring out of despondency into a state of poise and self-stability, with Mercury roaring “Just gotta to get out, just gotta get right outta here!” (Genius.com), and he regains composure as the song draws to a close.

The gradual uplifting of mood through May’s second solo plateaus out into a calmer, flatter premise for the outro. Here, the song returns to where it started as a piano ballad, but no longer with the dirge-like connotations it carried at the start (Queen 4:43-5:33). Mercury’s serenade in the outro implies a resolution to his lifelong contention, and the accompanying guitar harmony by May fades out with the assurance that its job is over; that Mercury no longer needs the accompaniment, its company. An atmosphere of independence fills the air of this ending, completing the track with a denouement that reflects Mercury’s newfound, newly-acknowledged persona.

Imagine a spent Freddie Mercury, going on this journey into himself, fighting his battles and crawling out from the abyss, kneeling at the mouth of the cave, finally on level, stable ground, melodically repeating these words: “Nothing really matters” (Genius.com). As the dust sets after the storm, embracing the newer part of his conflicted self as who he really is, he recovers his identity and walks away into the proverbial sunset. It is not for nothing that Bohemian Rhapsody idled at the top of the British charts for over two months (McLeod 192) and remains, to this day, one of the most iconic rock songs ever written. As a mashup between rock and opera, and a rock song twice the duration of its ilk, it echoes what Stern asserts about bohemia refusing the mainstream; just like Mercury himself, the “bohemian [who] shrugs off his cultural origins” and upstages social norms with his image and music (549). It is exactly through Mercury’s bohemian inclinations, “one formed through tangled acts of remembering, appropriation, self-authentication, performance, titillation, and intense feelings of love, pleasure, and anguish” (Sell 50), that created such a masterpiece in the history of music. Queen is his instrument, his temporary home, his bohemia, and his means to attaining this rhapsody in all its definitions: an epic poem, an emotional musical movement, and a self-expression of truth and release.

Works Cited

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