Tim Byron’s Pick: Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
Bohemian Rhapsody positively reeks of Shakespearean tragedy. There’s echoes of Lady MacBeth in the lines about “mama just killed a man”. You can imagine Shakespeare’s hunchbacked Richard III cackling out lines like “so you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?” Shakespeare’s character Shylock is almost certainly based on Pantalone, the Venetian merchant that was a recurring character of the contemporaneous-to-Shakespeare Italian plays the Commedia dell’arte, and plenty of plays with Pantalone in them would have also featured Scaramuccia, who may well have done the fandango in a play or two.
And, of course, the song, as a whole, is essentially Shakespeare’s famous “To Be Or Not To Be” speech in song form. Hamlet, with that speech, is contemplating the point of life; maybe the world would be better off without him, maybe his life isn’t worth living. He’s contemplating suicide, in other words. And Freddie Mercury - whatever in his life ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was actually about - is doing the same in his lyrics here. It’s not quite a suicide note, I think, but it’s a song about contemplating the idea. He sometimes wishes he’d never been born at all, sure, but he’s trying to figure out what to do seeing as he definitely appears to have been born.
One way or another, the different sections of the song represent different moods, different ways of responding to the “to be or not to be”: whether ‘tis better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or whether ‘tis better to shuffle off this mortal coil. While he sounds broken, a shuffler, in some parts of the song - “nothing really matters, anyone can see” - other parts of the song show him railing against the slings and arrows - “so you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?”.
The famous operatic bit in the middle, with all the different voices, with the tug of war between the lead and the choir, represents the debate in his head, represents the doubt and confusion in his head. That section has a distinct air of schizophrenia; maybe the only way to deal with a horrific world with no good options is madness (and Mercury, living in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was likely aware of the psychiatrist RD Laing - a schizophrenic himself - who argued exactly that).
In the end, the line about “any way the wind blows”, almost whispered at the end, sounds like a resolution, but it’s not a resolution that we, the listener are privy to; it lets us interpret his final decision however we want.
As to why ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is so well-loved, as to why it got to #5 in 1992, 17 years after it originally appeared to the world, well…it’s probably not that the public can see the parallels to Shakespearean tragedy. But I think that Queen had a phenomenal ability to translate emotional feelings in music; each of the sections so nails the emotional feelings it’s trying to represent. The intro sounds spooky, otherworldly, and it gently alludes to other parts of the song, from the operatic bit, to the outro to the main couple of verses. The way the verses build up to a crescendo. The way that, instead of getting the burst of rock that you expect after that crescendo, you get…opera? The way that the headbanging rock and roll sounds spiteful, vengeful. The way that every single bit of the song is catchy in its way, with just enough repetition to make the melodies seem fully formed, but never enough to even remotely come close to boring you.
In other words, Queen are so good at music that they never need to beat you over the head with the Shakespearean stuff. Even if the average person can’t articulate what the song is about, they don’t need to. It’s a song that you feel on the emotional level. You listen to the song and you feel the struggle. You feel the building despair, you feel the way the indecision leads to madness, you feel the vengefulness, and you feel the final resolution.
As an 11 year old, in 1992, I certainly felt all that, anyway, even if I didn’t know what a scaramouche was.
Another thing what I wrote for the tumblr for the podcast I talk on, 90 Percent Hits, where we discuss the #1 singles of the 1990s. Which I think we’ve definitely hit our stride on - people do tell me that they look weird laughing on public transport because of the podcast?