Interpreting “Bohemian Rhapsody”:
Discovering Freddie Mercury’s Meanings in Queen’s Hit Song
Generations have pondered the ambiguous lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Little explanation has ever been given by the band or its composer, Freddie Mercury. This essay examines Mercury’s private life and the time period in which the song was composed to provide an explanation of its possible personal meanings to Mercury. Commentary from Mercury’s closest friends, the timeline of his bisexual experimentation and the historical and social context of the LGBT liberation all play a role in revealing the song’s strategic lyrics and musical qualities. Findings suggest that “Bohemian Rhapsody” tells the story of Mercury’s psychological warfare in coming to terms with his bisexuality in a sexually repressive culture. Furthermore, the essay presents some of the many different interpretations that have been made through the years. Considering the five verses of “Bohemian Rhapsody” as the five stages of grief reveals much about the song and might indicate Mercury’s conscious intentions for composing it as well.
How is it that one piece of work can spark such a multitude of interpretations? The meaning of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by the band Queen, has always been disputed. The song has attracted some of the most unlikely followers, including many who are not typically interested in the classic rock genre. Its lyrics and melody seem to work together to tell a story many can relate to despite their differences. Between the ubiquitous attention this song has attracted and the wide range of interpretations it has ignited, I was determined to synthesize a more concrete and supported theory on the song’s initial inspiration and meanings to Mercury.
Although the meaning of the song was never confirmed by the band nor songwriter, Freddie Mercury, this essay seeks to offer an educated supposition. I theorize that the song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” was written by Mercury to express his psychological warfare with his bisexuality. Additionally, Mercury creates an emotional connection with his listeners by structuring the lyrics and rhythm of the song to emulate the grieving process.
This essay seeks to identify a possible meaning of the song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by analyzing Mercury’s past and influences. Additionally, it attempts to answer the question of why the song is polysemic and how it appeals to such diverse groups. The research will explore biographies on Mercury centering on his past and upbringing; it will provide insight on his religious beliefs as well as commentary from those who were close to him. Further study will center on the social and historical context of the 1970s, the time period in which the song was written and released. It will draw on major events such as Stonewall and how it impacted gay rights and the LGBT community. Likewise, it will feature the perceptions of: those who were uninvolved, the media surrounding it, and the social obligations of those who were a part of it.
Finally, an argument will be given to justify the lyrical and musical synthesis of the song. The argument will explain how it relates to Mercury’s bisexuality as well as how the verses are structured to perpetuate the five stages of grief. In the conclusion, a summary of the findings will be stated along with conjectured answers to the questions of research.
Biographical Overview of Freddie Mercury
Understanding the author behind the song is essential to interpreting its lyrics. The band members of Queen collectively refer to “Bohemian Rhapsody” as, “Freddie’s baby” (Queen Official, 2002). They claim that Mercury presented its first workings scribbled on the back of a telephone directory. Mercury was responsible for a great deal of Queen’s attention from the public. He was most commonly known for his innovative theatrical displays, insightful lyrics and overall talent as the lead singer. Mercury, originally named Farrokh Bulsara, was born on September 5, 1946, in Zanzibar, Tanzania. In boarding school, Mercury studied piano and later moved to London with his family in the 1960s. While attending the Ealing College of Art, Mercury befriended several musicians and went on to form Queen in 1971 (“Mercury Biography,” 2018).
Aside from Mercury as the lead vocalist, Brian May was the guitarist, Roger Taylor played drums, and John Deacon performed bass. Their first UK hit, “Seven Seas of Rye,” was featured on their second album. Their third album, Sheer Heart Attack, was more commercially successful than any of their past work. At that point in time, the band was straying away from their previous style and adapting to what is known today as the classic Queen sound; the infusion of rock with various music genres. Their fourth album, A Night at the Opera, brought recognition to the band and became one of their most successful works with the help of their hit song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” From that point on, Queen’s popularity grew rapidly with their next few albums. (Gunn & Jenkins, 1993).
“Bohemian Rhapsody” gained an immense amount of publicity over the years. According to Debjit Banerjee, writer for DYNT, the song topped the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks straight and sold more than a million copies by January 1976. The song went on to become number one again in 1991 for five weeks, eventually placing as the third-best-selling single of all time in the UK (Banerjee, 2016).
In 2002, Queen released a special treat for their fans for their 40th anniversary. Their official YouTube channel featured a three-part series explaining the making of the song. The video began by disclosing how unusually timed the song was. During that period, singles were no longer than three minutes, yet “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released at an astonishing five minutes and fifty-five seconds. Joe Smith, Chairman of Elektra Records, claimed that the album was one of the most expensive records ever made and that it took over three weeks just to cut the one single. The company insisted that the song be curtailed, but Queen refused and asserted that it would play as is or not at all.
By their last album, Innuendo (1991), there was rumor about Mercury undergoing health problems. Later that year, Mercury came out himself and confirmed the beliefs. He made a public statement regarding his condition claiming that he had been “tested as HIV-positive” and “diagnosed with AIDS.” Mercury wished to fight against it, but passed away the following day after his announcement (“Mercury Biography,” 2018).
There are two key personal accounts from Mercury’s social life that play a large role in supporting my thesis that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was written about Mercury’s struggle with bisexuality. The first lies within the comments made by his close friend, Brian May. In an interview, May notes that there are several theories about the song and that it is likely about one of the many things that went on in Mercury’s personal life. May adds that at that time Mercury was still “rediscovering himself” and that it was a “scary thing for him to do” (Queen Official, 2002). Based on May’s personal relationship with Mercury, as his close friend and bandmate, his more intimate insight on Mercury led him to conclude that the song was in fact about Mercury and the fear of “rediscovering himself.”
The second piece of evidence can be found within the timeline and ending of Mercury’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend, Mary Austin. The two dated for almost six years. Mercury eventually explained to Austin that he was beginning to think that he might be bisexual. Shortly after, in 1976, just one year after the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Mercury began having an affair with a male employee of Elektra Records, which ended his relationship with Austin (“Mercury Biography,” 2018). This timing falls right along the LGBT liberation of the’70s. It is likely that the “rediscovering” May spoke of was correlated with the rediscovering of his sexuality through the ending of his relationship with Austin.
The Historical & Social Context of LGBT Rights in the Late ’60s & Early ‘70s
Beyond drawing connections from Mercury’s social experiences, it is important that the historical and social context in which the song was produced is understood. This section will seek to compare how the historical LGBT movements in the ’70s and society’s perceptions of them may have influenced the release of Queen’s song, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975). Exploring the historical repression of sexuality as it relates to Mercury is particularly challenging because both the culture of England and America must be considered. Queen was a British rock band that gained popularity in America. Both America and England’s history of sexual culture impacted Mercury’s life and music.
The 1970s were a disorderly time for progression. Women, African Americans and Native Americans, among many other diverse groups, were all fighting for their rights for equality. The LGBT community was one minority group in particular that was making breakthroughs in dominant culture. Around the same time as these LGBT developments, the rock band, Queen, began releasing music. One of the most notable moments in LGBT history happened six years before the release of the song. In the ’60s, the government refused to license any disorderly bar. It can be noted how badly the LGBT community was looked upon at that time because being gay was viewed as disorderly. Due to this classification, bar tenders would refuse to serve anyone belonging to the LGBT community. The Stonewall Inn was unofficially known for their gay bar in Greenwich Village. The bar was not licensed and poorly kept, but they served people of the LGBT community. In 1969, police came in with force to shut down the bar and arrest as many people as possible within it. While they were arresting people, the crowd started to resist, fight back and riot against the police (Sibilla, 2015). This became the start of a series referred to as the Stonewall riots.
Although this event took place in America, it greatly impacted the world around it. Stonewall was said to have launched gay liberation and influenced the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) at the London School of Economics (Donnelly, 2017). Shortly after, in 1972, the first British gay pride rally was held and the first gay newspaper was produced (Vernon, 2017). All of these events serve as individual examples of how Stonewall led to worldwide breakthroughs for the group.
Despite the developments being made, identifying with the LGBT community was still extensively controversial. In 1973, TheAmerican Psychiatric Association (APA) took a vote amongst phycologists and agreed to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Although this was a step in the right direction, Mercury considered himself to be bisexual. “Sexual orientation disturbance” (individuals conflicted with identifying their sexual orientation) remained listed until 1987 (Burton, 2015). In other words, Mercury’s bisexual orientation (identifying as both heterosexual and homosexual) was still considered to be a mental illness. Society was beginning to view homosexuality more optimistically but only in the instance that the individual identified as one or the other.
Another aspect that may have influenced Mercury’s writing would be the social context of his Zoroastrian religion. Historically, the religion has strongly been opposed to the concept of homosexuality. The Zoroastrian law book, The Vendidad, features a passage entitled “laws against demons,” which touches on the subject. The Vendidad reads, “The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daeva [demon]; this one is the man that is a worshipper of the Daevas, that is a male paramour of the Daevas.” (Horne, 2010). This quote essentially refers to homosexuality as a type of devil worship and implies it to be sinful.
Upon examination, it is evident to see how large of a role the historical and societal context might have contributed in the composition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It is possible that these monumental periods in time influenced Mercury to write music in response to bisexual repression. The song was released in 1975 and at that point the LGBT community was anything but silent. From the Stonewall riots to the gay pride parades, the LGBT community was going through a time of liberation. They were dissatisfied with repression and ready for their voices to be heard. Stonewall and its inspiration on gay liberation was a calling to all members of the LGBT community, including Mercury. It was a period where associates were encouraged to stop being silent for the sake of their counterparts. Additionally, Mercury could have been becoming frustrated with how his orientation was regarded. Between the APA’s decision to remove homosexuality but not bisexuality from the DSM and his obligation to the monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism, there is no doubt Mercury’s anxiety was likely building from circumstances beyond his control. It is highly plausible that each of these findings played a role in what inspired Mercury to become more open, experimental and vocal about his personal struggles within his song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Lyrical & Musical Analysis
Over and above the plausible explanations of biographical testimonies and the historical and social context, there is further evidence that can be found within the song’s lyrics and music to support my claim. The song can be broken down into five distinct groupings: denial, depression, bargaining, anger and acceptance. Each part is distinguishable through its lyrical content and use of tempo. I hypothesize that Mercury not only uses his song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” to express his psychological warfare with his bisexuality, but that he also uses his grieving process to relate to his listeners.
The first verse begins with denial and features a series of questions, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” (Queen, 1975). These questions set the mood for the uncertainty and general opposition in the song. Mercury then exclaims that he is, “Caught in a landslide” with “No escape from reality” (Queen, 1975). These lines in turn capture the very essence of denial: rejection of reality. Likewise, the tempo is slow in pace. According to the findings of the journal article, The Affective Value of Pitch and Tempo in Music, it was found that most people identify slow pitches with dignity, calmness, or sadness (Hevner, 1937). This finding further reiterates the concept that Mercury’s choice of lyrics and slow tempo were used deliberately to express his feelings of denial. The second section focuses on depression, it is longer and a little more complex than the first. Here it is made distinguishable what Mercury’s feelings are about. He begins the verse with his famous lyrics:
Just killed a man,
Put a gun against his head,
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead (Queen, 1975).
I theorize that this line refers to Mercury killing his old heterosexual perception of himself. This theory extends farther along in the verse when Mercury claims that he does not want to die (Queen, 1975). This line clarifies that the murder is the death of Mercury himself. Additionally, the lines, “Mama, Life had just begun, But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away” (Queen, 1975), could be referring to the fact that Queen was just beginning to gain popularity around that time and Mercury was fearful that the cultural view of his sexuality would stand in the way. Many other lines from this verse reference Mercury’s general discontent and apathy. He goes on to express his guilt of making his mother cry and mentions physical pain (Queen, 1975), which is often associated as a symptom of depression. He asserts everybody should go on “As if nothing really matters” (Queen, 1975), referencing his loss of interest in reality and concludes with having to go on and “face the truth” (Queen, 1975). The music in this verse is slow in tempo and was most likely also selected for its emotional connection to sadness. Through his references to killing his old self, emphasis on attributes of depression and his use of slow tempo; it is evident that this verse expresses Mercury’s depression with bisexuality.
The third verse deals with Mercury’s psychological bargaining and is quite distinct from its counterparts. There are two evident themes at play: religion and class distinction, both of which work to reiterate the main theme of power opposition. A large part of what makes this verse stand out amongst the rest is its use of low and high pitch. Bargaining is essentially negotiation involving two distinct sides. Mercury speeds up the tempo in this verse and uses contrasting pitches to sing different lines. It is possible that the tempo is increased intentionally to express a higher level of anxiety and the contrasting pitches represent the opposing people and views.
Mercury begins the verse with, “I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?” (Queen, 1975). According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the term Scaramouch, interchangeable with Scaramouche, originates from the sixteenth century and translates to “clown” (Merriam-Webster, 2018). Additionally, theFandango is a famous Spanish dance. It is likely these lines are referring to a battle between social classes. It is plausible that Mercury is imagining the public’s response to his sexuality. He postulates that society will look down on him as a foolish joke of some sort and that his position will not be taken seriously.
The verse goes back and forth in constant battle, it seems to be disputed amongst three sets of voices: Mercury, the jury and his opposition. Mercury speaks individually looking for mercy, “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me” (Queen, 1975). The jury comes to his defense with a multitude of voices and echoes his response. The third set of voices seem to be in opposition with Mercury and express a higher form of social power: religion. The opposition exclaims, “Bismillah, no! We will not let you go” (Queen, 1975). Upon examination, the term “Bismillah,” can be translated from Arabic to mean, “in the name of God.” Shortly after, Mercury claims that, “Beelzebub, has a devil put aside” for him (Queen, 1975). According to Abrahamic religion, Beelzebub is commonly known as the prince of demons. Translated from Hebrew, this devil like symbol is often depicted flying, thus his name can be translated to “Lordof the Flies” (Freze, 2016). What is particularly interesting about this reference is that Beelzebub is a belief of the Zoroastrian religion, which also happens to be the religion in which Mercury was raised with. It is possible that the purpose of this spiritual inclusion was to show Mercury’s underlying qualms about what repercussions might be involved with being bisexual. It is evident that Mercury fears social isolation and the consequences of disabusing the ideologies of his religion.
A noteworthy aspect about this verse is that there is no consistency between the use of first and third person. I believe this is done intentionally to show that this battle is happening entirely within Mercury’s psyche. Mercury’s change of pitch as contrasting sides, fast tempo, reference of class, religion and changing of points of view, all work together to express Mercury’s psychological bargaining with is sexual orientation.
The fourth verse goes on to express Mercury’s resulting anger with the issue. The tempo quickly speeds up and becomes a monologue once again. The tone in Mercury’s voice also becomes much more hostile. The lyrics seem to center around the opinions of others and Mercury’s loss of control over what they are doing:
So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye? So, you think you can love me and leave me to die? Oh, baby,
Can’t do this to me baby (Queen, 1975).
He concludes the verse with the lines, “Just gotta get out, Just gotta get right out of here”(Queen, 1975). These lines could further work to perpetuate the idea that Mercury is fed up with his state of repression and wants to be free of his struggle once and for all.
The fifth and most important verse works on the final stage of the grieving process: acceptance. In this verse, the tempo slows down to a more calming tone and Mercury’s voice becomes uplifting and confident. One of the final lines in the song is particularly important to my thesis, “Nothing really matters, to me” (Queen, 1975). What Mercury says lacks closure, yet his tone and music signify finality. When researched, the term bohemian can be substituted with “unconventional” and rhapsody with “bliss” (Merriam-Webster, 2018), which translates the title to unconventional bliss. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean resolution, it is more comparable to becoming comfortable in a certain situation. These lines work together along with the rest of my subsections to conclude that Mercury has found bohemian rhapsody in his bisexuality and how society perceives it.
This five stage model does not explain the effect the song has on its diverse listeners, but rather provides further indication that it follows the psychological and narrative archetype of someone who has experienced trauma and transformation. Perhaps that is what gives it such a broad appeal. Each section presents a distinct set of sounds and lyrics that describe characteristics associated, in turn, with the emotions of denial, depression, bargaining, anger and acceptance.
Conclusions and Future Study
Returning to the original question, how can such an immense amount of people all find a common connection to a song while interpreting it in different ways? Perhaps the answer lies within the song’s expression of emotional content. Mercury presumably wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody” about his psychological warfare with accepting his bisexuality, but chose not to express it overtly. Whether this was done in fear that not many people would be accepting of his sexuality, or out of concern that people would not be able to relate to his struggle, is still unknown. What is evident is that instead of focusing on the cause, Mercury uses tempo and pitch to emulate the grief of sexual repression. Although not all listeners could understand the struggle of sexual repression, most could relate to the emotions of grief at some point in their lives. American lyricist, Yib Harburg once said, “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought” (Price, 2005). Despite its diverse lyrical interpretations, I hypothesize that many people connect with songs such as, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” through their use of emotional expression.
In closing, it is important to note the limitations of my research. As stated numerous times throughout my essay, the only way to officially prove my thesis would be by the confirmation of Mercury, whom of which passed without disclosing his inspiration for the song. Surely as an artist Mercury had his personal reasons for writing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but music itself will always be polysemic. There are no clear-cut answers or absolute meanings within a song, no matter how determined one is to find them. There are countless ways to interpret Mercury’s past and art. One of the most appealing aspects about music is that listeners can take away what they want from it. There is no justification that my interpretation is any more correct than another. The goal of my paper was to simply present and interpret the facts of Mercury’s timeline in a way in which I believe to be true and let the reader decide to what extent they agree or disagree.
Future research could center on expanding my evidence on how the verses emulate the grieving process. Each of the paragraphs could have easily been twice their length but were condensed in the interest of time. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is almost six minutes long, which means there is far more content to be disclosed than just a few pages can cover. An expansion on Mercury’s historical references to figures such as “Galileo” (Queen, 1975) as well as the larger role religion might have played in the general theme, are just some of the many questions left to ponder.
Additionally, it is possible that society’s fascination with this song is also connected to its changing tempos, melodies, harmonies and timbres. Perhaps the song is therapeutic, even providing a form of catharsis like that which Mercury embedded into the sound and narrative. Musical therapy was created with the belief that most people are drawn and responsive to sound and music. It is often used with a wide range of patients to support and improve their psychological, social and emotional health (Stegemöller, 2017). Catharsis is the idea that strong emotional experiences often result in a sense of purification (Literary Devices and Terms, 2018). Much like the desire to watch sad movies and experience “a good cry,” catharsis can work through music as well. “Bohemian Rhapsody” follows the psyche of an individual who has gone through grief and came to acceptance. It is plausible that the song’s therapeutic qualities play a role in its vast popularity. Further research in regard to why people enjoy listening to the song and how they feel upon hearing it would need to be conducted for stronger evidence. If evident levels of catharsis are reported within its listeners, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the elements involved in its composition might particularly be useful to musical therapists working with clients facing any sort of distress or repression, especially those who are struggling with sexual identity and acceptance.
In conclusion, although it can never be entirely confirmed, there is evidence that can be found within Mercury’s timeline that the song, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” was written about his psychological warfare in coming to terms with his bisexuality. Guitarist, May, assumes the song was in fact written about Mercury and the fear of “rediscovering himself” (Queen Official, 2002). Further evidence can be found in the time correlations of the release of the song (1975) and Mercury’s homosexual affair which ended his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Austin (1976) (“Mercury Biography,” 2018). Around the same time, the LGBT community was enduring a time of liberation, from the outbreak at Stonewall to the continuing riots. The APA continued classification of bisexuality in the DSM (Burton, 2015) and Mercury remained conflicted with his involvement in Zoroastrian religion and their disregard for homosexuality (Horne, 2010). These occurrences could have been what inspired Mercury to take part and voice his frustration. Lastly, the lyrics and rhythm of the song can be decoded to describe the grieving process and Mercury’s killing of his former heterosexual self.
According to the findings of the journal article, The Affective Value of Pitch and Tempo in Music, different levels of pitch and tempo are often associated with certain emotions. The findings of this journal support my thesis on the musical representation of grieving used throughout Mercury’s song. The first verse uses slow tempo, a series of questions and lyrics that reject reality to represent denial. Additionally, verse two also uses slow tempo but incorporates lyrical references of pain, guilt and loss of interest to imitate feelings of depression. The third verse breaks out of the previously monologist tone of the song and features contrasting pitches and fast tempo. Lyrically, this verse references themes of social class, argumentation and religion, which work together with the music to express anxiety and bargaining. The fourth verse’s tempo speeds up even faster and works to present hostility. The lyrics present in this verse focus on Mercury’s frustration and loss of control in how others are perceiving him. Together these elements work to exemplify anger. The fifth and final verse slows down once more and is accompanied by a confident tone. This final display works to represent the calming side of slow tempo with acceptance.
Through the insight of Mercury’s close friends, the timeline of his bisexual experimentation, the historical and social context of the LGBT liberation and the overall lyrical and musical analysis, it is evident that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was most likely written about Mercury’s struggle for acceptance as a bisexual male in a sexually repressive culture.
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