“Bohemian Rhapsody,” from Queen’s album A Night at the Opera (1975), is considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Despite its tremendous commercial success and influence, it remains one of the most enigmatic, inscrutable songs in the history of rock. It is like the Finnegan’s Wake of rock music. “Bohemian Rhapsody” joins the ranks of other famous chart-topping hits that are sung but never fully understood like Don Mclean’s “American Pie” (1971), Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971), and just about any song by Yes. So what exactly is the meaning of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody?
The short answer is — we will never know for sure. Freddie Mercury began developing the music and the lyrics in the late 1960s and finished writing it in his home in London in 1975. Although he was very deliberate in its writing, he took all of his secrets to the grave. In an interview, Mercury explains that the song, although very methodically composed, was a bit of a Rorschach test: “Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research, although it was tongue-in-cheek and it was a mock opera. Why not?… It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them.”
In an interview promoting Queen Videos Greatest Hits DVD, guitarist Brian May stated: “What is Bohemian Rhapsody about? Well, I don’t think we’ll ever know. And if I knew I probably wouldn’t want to tell you anyway, because I certainly don’t tell people what my songs are about. I find that it destroys them in a way, because the great thing about a great song is that you relate it to your own personal experiences in your own life. I think that Freddie was certainly battling with problems in his personal life, which he might have decided to put [a lot of himself] into the song himself. He was certainly looking at re-creating himself. But I don’t think at that point in time it was the best thing to do so he actually decided to do it later. I think it’s best to leave it with a question mark in the air.”
To that we say: poppycock! A song, like a poem or a novel, should be carefully analyzed to find its true meaning. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined song is not worth listening to. Invariably, critical textual analysis always reveals important clues — whether left consciously or subconsciously — that lead to meaningful interpretations, revealing aspects of the writer’s character, beliefs, and/or life. To find our first clue, let us first turn to Lesley-Ann Jones, the author of Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography (1997). She interviewed him extensively for her authorized biography and got to peer behind the curtain — to fully comprehend the enigmatic musician and his life. She firmly believes that the song represents Mercury’s personal struggle with his sexuality and eventual decision to come out. In 1986, she asked him specifically about this, but he refused to give her a straight answer. However — and one cannot overemphasize the significance of this — Mercury did provide the key to unlock this decades-old musical mystery: he admitted to her that the song was “about relationships.” Bingo! Furthermore, Jones’ belief was also confirmed by Jim Hutton, Mercury’s lover. Soon after Mercury passed away, Hutton told Jones that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about Mercury’s public admission that he was gay.
A close examination of the lyrics will reveal that the song is indeed about relationships — specifically the relationship of Mercury to himself, his spouse, family, and God providing the context for the struggles he faced in deciding to face the music, as it were, to come out. The second clue is that Mercury “did a bit of research.” The song, like an T. S. Eliot poem, is filled with literary and musical allusions that support the intended meaning of the song.
Let’s begin with the title: Bohemian Rhapsody is a play on composer Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.” A bohemian is a person who has unconventional social habits. A rhapsody is a free instrumental composition played in one extended movement, typically one that is exuberant or full of pathos. So from the very start we have some understanding of both the song and the narrator.
The first stanza introduces us to the narrator, who seems to be living a life that is surreal: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality.” He is not sure if it is real or a dream and it’s all happening so fast. With Queen’s meteoric success, Mercury was catapulted from a rather traditional, quiet life to a flamboyant rockstar’s life (filled with the obligatory sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll). Mercury is living in two worlds simultaneously: living as a straight man while concealing to his family that he is gay. Mercury felt he had to conceal his homosexuality since his parents practiced Zoroastrianism that specifically condemned it. The next lyric employs antithesis: “I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,” reflecting his ambivalence. Here poor is being used in the metaphorical (deserving of pity), not literal sense (not having money); in other words, he is saying “although I am deserving of pity, I really don’t need your sympathy.” He has accepted his truth, his fate, and does not need anyone’s sympathy. Expressed another way, he seems to mean “This is my life, this is who I am — don’t feel sorry for me.” The stanza ends with the line “Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me,” revealing that the narrator embraces nihilism, the belief that the world is meaningless, and he doesn’t care where destiny takes him. C’est la vie.
In the second stanza the narrator is telling his wife (here “Mama,” as in Mother Mary, represents Mercury’s romantic partner and long-term friend, Mary Austin) that he has killed a man: “Mama, just killed a man / Put a gun against his head / Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” But here, the killing is metaphorical, not literal. Mercury is saying that he killed his old self: Farrokh Bulsara (the straight, faithful husband) has been replaced by Freddie Mercury (the flamboyant, gay rockstar). The narrator regrets the pain that he has caused his partner so soon after their relationship had begun (Mercury and Mary had just been together seven years before his first homosexual encounter), fearing that he his thrown all of that part of his life away: “Mama, life had just begun / But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away / Mama, oh oh / Didn’t mean to make you cry.” At the end of the stanza the narrator says “If I’m not back again this time tomorrow / Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters.” The narrator is encouraging his mother (or partner) to embrace his nihilism in order to carry on without him if he continues his life as a gay man.
This is an ideal time to introduce the fascinating parallels between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Albert Camus’s seminal novel, The Stranger, published in 1942. The novel’s protagonist, Meurseult, is a man (like Mercury) who feels like he doesn’t fit in; he is an outcast. Early in the novel, during an argument he kills an Arab man, is convicted and sentenced to death because he feels no remorse for his crime (the prosecutor accuses Meurseult of being a soulless monster). While awaiting execution, a chaplain meets with Meurseult to guide him to repentance and accepting God’s love and forgiveness. However, Meurseult disavows his crime, rejects God, and accepts the absurdity of the human condition. Ultimately, he finds comfort in his indifference toward the world and the meaninglessness of life. The novel ends with Meurseult happily awaiting to meet his inescapable fate at the guillotine: “And I too felt ready to live my life again. As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.” It is very possible that Mercury read this book as a young lad or while he was developing the song.
Let’s return back to the lyrics. The third stanza reflects the narrator’s ambivalence: saying goodbye to his old self (heterosexual), his wife, his family and friends, and his fellow band members, in order to accept the inescapable truth: that he is a gay man: “Goodbye everybody I’ve got to go / Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.” The ambivalence he feels tortures him to the point that he regrets being born at all, invoking pathos and using the antithetical construction we say in the first stanza: “I don’t want to die / Sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” This is a very powerful sentiment that echoes one of William Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet questions whether he should exist or not: “To be or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?”
We now reach the operetta in the fourth and fifth stanzas that function as a sort of Greek chorus, shedding light on the narrator’s psychic and emotional turmoil. Mercury once described this part of the song as “random rhyming nonsense” to his friend, Kenny Everett, a DJ who worked in London. At first glance, just like many nursery rhymes, the jabberwocky of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or any of James Joyce’s inscrutable stream-of-consciousness ramblings, the text may seem like nonsense, but there is definitely meaning behind the madness. Mercury, who mentioned he “did a bit of research,” on this song, clearly chose his words carefully. Let’s break down this section, focusing on key words and lyrics.
The operetta begins with the narrator seeing the shadow of his former self: “I see a little silhouetto of a man.” The next lines, “Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the Fandango / Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me / Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, figaro, magnifico” suggest that the chorus is challenging the man (calling him “scaramouch,” translated from Italian, means a “boastful and cowardly buffoon;” often featured in Italian comedies, known as commedia dell’arte that flourished from 16th to 18th century) to do something outrageous, thereby shocking the sensibility of his former self, his family and friends, and society at large. The chorus of “Galileo’s” are simply expressions of shock and outrage by others in his circle, as if saying “Oh my God!” Because, the narrator, like Camus’s Meurseult, is a nihilist and absurdist, he doesn’t believe in God. So naturally, he appeals to a man of science, Galileo, a revolutionary (pun intended) who was convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church in 1633 for teaching that the Earth is not the center of the universe but actually revolved around the sun. Figaro, of course, is the famous scheming Spanish barber who appears as in two eighteenth-century French plays (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro as well as two operas (The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini and The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). In popular culture, Figaro represents an individual that is irrepressible, clever, and defiant of authority. Magnifico is another character from the aforementioned commedia dell’arte. The name is based on the Latin, magnificus, which means “doing great things.”Not surprisingly, these characters — Galileo, Figaro, Magnifico — that are outcasts on some level, resonate with Mercury — not to mention that they rhyme magnificently.
The next stanza takes us into the struggle inside the narrator’s mind. Here we see the dynamic interplay, a passionate debate, between the narrator and the Greek chorus, as it were, building to a crescendo. What is interesting here, is how the narrator progresses from soliciting pity (stanza five) to expressing outrage and defiance (stanza six). The initial line is the narrator trying to elicit sympathy: “I’m just a poor boy and nobody loves me.” And the chorus (representing God) jumps in and validates this and wants to spare him from he difficult life he will face once he kills his former self: “He’s just a poor boy from a poor family / Spare him his life from this monstrosity.” The narrator appeals to an indifferent God: “Easy come easy go will you let me go.” But God, will have none of that (Bismillah is the Arabic word for god; literally translated it means “in the name of Allah”); the chorus (God) demands the narrator’s soul: “Bismillah [In the name of Allah], no we will not let you go.” This is quickly countered by an opposing chorus: “Let him go.” This goes back and forth several times. Finally, after a final passionate, and very Italian-sounding appeal, “Mama mia, mama mia let me go” the devil makes an appearance in this escalating confrontation: “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.” There are two points to make here. First, is that the narrator uses the word “Beelzebub,” the name that appears in the Old Testament (specifically, 2 Kings 1:2-3), for the devil, alluding to the age-old conflict of good (represented by God) and evil (represented by the devil) found in the Bible. Second, the reference to the devil is a very clever allusion to the legend of Faust, that inspired many operas, plays, films, and novels (the most famous is the play Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). In the classic German legend, Faust, despite his success and wealth, makes a pact with the devil (Mephistopheles) to exchange his soul for unlimited worldly pleasures and infinite knowledge. (This is where we get the phrase Faustian bargain or Mephistophelian bargain.) Obviously, if he is making a pact with the devil, Faust must abandon God. In popular culture, Faust (or Faustian, the adjectival form) refers to an ambitious person who surrenders moral integrity to achieve tremendous wealth, power, or success. But even more relevant to the song is the concept of a Faustian bargain in the context of psychotherapy. Here, a Faustian bargain is a defense mechanism (or several of them) that sacrifice elements of the self in favor of some form of psychical survival. So in this context, we can interpret this last line as the narrator saying: “I must face my demon and strike my Faustian bargain with him: I must sacrifice my old self in exchange for the survival of my new self (my real self as a gay man) who will be rich, famous, and revel in worldly pleasures.”
The sixth stanza presents the narrator’s shift from pity to outrage. The stanza functions as a diatribe or rant, marked by an angry defiance to those who judge him harshly. Having struck his Faustian (or Mephistophelian) bargain, he seems to be saying: “I had to do this — don’t hate me for it!” It is ironic that this narrator, who has rejected God, speaks of his punishment in almost biblical terms: “So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye / So you think you can love me and leave me to die.” Another way to state this is: “How dare you judge me and punish me for who I am and how I must live my life. You can’t just love me and then abandon me.” He makes a final appeal to compassion (and one can assume he is referring to his wife): “Oh baby can’t do this to me baby.” In other words, he asks: How can you do this to me, Mary?” But the narrator knows this is a bad place; he needs to get the hell out of there — to escape a place of harsh judgment and condemnation: “Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.”
The seventh and final stanza (the “outro” in music jargon) begins with the chorus expressing their sympathy for the narrator’s plight: “Oh oh oh yeah, oh oh yeah” as if saying: “yes, of course — you are right, you don’t deserve this, you have no other option to run, to move forward with your life, given who you truly are.” The deliberation — the debate over how to be, how to live — has finally come to its natural conclusion, which the narrator believes should be obvious to everyone. The song comes full circle by returning to the themes introduced in the first stanza: “Nothing really matters / Anyone can see / Nothing really matters / Nothing really matters to me.” The narrator, like Camus’ Meurseult, ultimately finds comfort in the meaninglessness and “the benign indifference of the world” (to borrow Meurseult’s phrase). The stanza ends with quiet resignation: “Anyway the wind blows.” The narrator is resigned to go wherever destiny takes him.
In short, “Bohemian Rhapsody” reflects Mercury’s personal journey — it is about the personal turmoil he experienced prior to finally coming out. Clearly, he wrote it for himself, as an artistic cathartic exercise. But it was also his gift to the world because the song speaks to so many — and this is why the song endures, resonating so profoundly with succeeding generation. In a larger sense, Bohemian Rhapsody is an inspiring nihilistic anthem about an individual who must accept his truth — to embrace who he is, and live according to who he truly is — regardless of what his family, loved ones, or society want him to be. Indeed, this is not an easy path and, inevitably, it comes at a cost — to the individual (the internal struggles, second-guessing, feelings of isolation, etc.) and to his many relationships (their feelings of pain, betrayal, disappointment, disapproval, etc.). But in an indifferent, meaningless world, Mercury believed, we need to simply discover who we are, accept who we are, and be who we are. So if we had to reduce Bohemian Rhapsody down to its simplest terms, it would be this: live and let live.
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For further reading: Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe