By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Here are a couple of pop trivia questions for you. What connects Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’? And what, for that matter, connects ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with Abba’s ‘Mamma Mia’?
Before we return to these questions, a more insistent question demands our attention, namely: what on earth is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ about? Freddie Mercury wrote the lyrics, but, as bandmate Roger Taylor acknowledged, the song ‘doesn’t make much sense’ even in the full, uncut version.
The meaning of Queen’s six-minute operatic extravaganza has been a topic of furious debate ever since the song topped the UK charts in late November 1975. Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics to this mid-1970s masterpiece in order to discover the elusive meaning of the song which bandmate Brian May described as Freddie’s ‘baby’.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: meaning
To determine what a song means, it’s often not a bad idea to turn to the person who wrote it. But Freddie Mercury, who was asked a fair number of times to explain what the meaning of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was, ended up simply replying, ‘It means whatever you want it to mean.’
As such, he was being true to one of the core tenets of these song interpretations we’ve offered on this blog: namely, that Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ is as true of music as it is of literature. In other words, the meaning of a song lies not in its origin but in its destination. All bets are off.
But in saying that the song means whatever the listener wants it to mean, Mercury was merely being true, we might say, to the meaning of the song’s title. ‘Bohemian’ means, ‘socially unconventional in an artistic way’; fittingly, given the operatic scope and nature of Queen’s song, there is a famous Puccini opera, La bohème, which focuses on the bohemian lives of people living in nineteenth-century Paris.
Bohemia, a historic region of what is now Czechia (formerly the Czech Republic), gives us the word; it came to be applied to Parisian artists in the nineteenth century because of supposed similarities between Romani or Bohemian people and French artistic types.
As for ‘Rhapsody’, that’s either a piece of music written without a formal structure, expressing powerful feelings and emotional excitement (to be ‘rhapsodic’ is to be intensely excited); or an epic poem containing such powerful feelings. George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is a well-known example of the former.
But what about the lyrics to Queen’s epic piece of music? Is the title a hint to us that we should treat them as glorious nonsense, as a loose, formless meditation on life and death and other big, difficult to define, themes?
Well, not quite. For there are several recurring ideas and tropes which run throughout the song, bringing its disparate subjects together somewhat. Although they aren’t enough to pin down the meaning of the song to a single ‘message’ or theme, they do help us to determine some of the various things which the song appears to incorporate.
In other words, rather than treating the meaning of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as a single thing which we can neatly isolate and extract from the lyrics, we should perhaps talk of meanings plural, which are suffused throughout the rich texture and fabric of the song.
So, what are some of those meanings? The song begins, famously, with the singer questioning whether he is living a ‘real’ life or a mere fantasy. However, immediately he decides there is ‘no escape’ from the reality around him, before adopting a nonchalant attitude towards the question (it doesn’t really matter to him, one way or the other). Indeed, the idea that ‘nothing really matters’ recurs throughout the song.
‘Life’ is another recurrent theme in the lyrics, as is the one who gave the singer life: ‘Mama’, mother, mamma mia or ‘my mother’. He wants to be let go (to cut the apron strings?) and strike out on his own. He needs to leave everyone behind and confront the truth, or reality (about who he is? One wonders if Mercury was channelling his inner confusion over his sexuality at this time).
And the singer is confused about his life, certainly: although he doesn’t want to die, he sometimes wishes he’d never been born in the first place. Was Mercury here recalling the German poet Heinrich Heine, who famously stated ‘Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all’? Perhaps, but it’s worth noting that the singer doesn’t quite view death (now he’s here) as ‘better’.
Perhaps the various Italian references – taking in the astronomer Galileo and Scaramouche from commedia dell’arte – are pure nonsense, there to improve the ‘operatic’ sound of the song. The song becomes darker with the revelation that Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies himself, has ‘put aside’ a special devil for the singer. Is he already doomed?
The Arabic ‘Bismillah’ (‘in the name of God’) summons religious authority, suggesting that the singer’s desire to be ‘let go’ so he is free to live his own life is somehow being hindered by religious strictures. (Once again, the temptation is to read this as on some level reflecting Mercury coming to terms with his sexuality. Organised religion has tended not to be overly supportive of homosexuality, to say the least.)
The religious theme is continued with the singer’s defiant words to those who would restrict him: do they think they can ‘stone’ him (a common punishment for homosexuality according to the Old Testament, for instance). The song ends with the singer returning to the theme of escape – or a longing, at least, for escape – and a rather carefree assertion that ‘nothing really matters’.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: analysis
Queen’s epic song is often credited with giving birth to the phenomenon of the music video: owing to the song’s complex structure and operatic sections, the band recorded a £5,000 promotional clip to be shown on Top of the Pops while they were on tour and unable to perform on the show.
The song is certainly ‘big’ in every sense, and decidedly operatic: the album on which it appeared, was even titled – in a knowing nod to Marx Brothers fans – A Night at the Opera (famously the most expensive album ever recorded up until that point).
In Behind the Song, Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh reveal that it took the band three whole weeks to record this six-minute slice of rock-opera, with the ‘Galileo’ section involving a whopping 180 vocal overdubs. Beginning simply with vocals and a piano, the song moves from ballad to operatics and into heavy rock, recalling the hard sound of the band’s first two albums.
Owing to its inordinate length, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was very nearly never released as a single. EMI, Queen’s record company, were reluctant to put it out, so Freddie Mercury took the song to his friend, the maverick DJ Kenny Everett, who was working at Capital FM.
As Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh note in their informative 1000 UK Number One Hits, Everett loved it so much that he played it on his show; when the switchboard at the radio station jammed after the song had finished, EMI were convinced that releasing the song was, after all, a good idea. What’s more, they agreed to release the full six-minute version.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ topped the UK charts in late November 1975 and remained there for a whopping nine weeks, until Abba knocked it off the top position with ‘Mamma Mia’ – fittingly, since the phrase ‘mamma mia’ features in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Queen’s epic song would top the charts again, sixteen years later, shortly after lead singer Freddie Mercury’s death at the age of just 45, becoming one of only three songs to become Christmas number one on more than one occasion.
The other two are ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ (Harry Belafonte in 1957; Boney M in 1978) and, of course, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ by the various incarnations of Band Aid (1984, 1989, 2004). But Queen are the only artist or band to hit the number one spot with the same version of a song.
And to return to the trivia question we started with: the piano Freddie Mercury used for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was the same one Paul McCartney had used for ‘Hey Jude’, seven years earlier in 1968. Fittingly, as Heatley and Leigh recall in Behind the Song, ‘Hey Jude also gives the lie to record company’s claim that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was too long for any radio DJ to play.
That Beatles song is over a minute longer than Queen’s track, yet received plenty of airtime. And ‘Macarthur Park’, also released in 1968 and often played on radio stations, is even longer than ‘Hey Jude’.