“Bohemian Rhapsody” is enjoying one of its periodic resurgences. Boosted by the success of the movie of the same name, which was just nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, Queen’s masterpiece once again worked its way into the pop charts, just at it did at the start of the 90’s thanks to Wayne’s World.
You can obviously point to the films as the factors that have driven the song back into the forefront of the public consciousness on these occasions. Or you might look at it as new generations discovering this unique composition and recording and being bowled over like all their predecessors. Their first reaction is usually, “Wow, this doesn’t sound like anything else.” Their second reaction is usually, “Wow, this was released back in 1975. How come this doesn’t sound like anything else still?”
With each of these returns to popularity, the depths of “Bohemian Rhapsody” are examined anew. Amazingly, it was composed entirely by Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, although it’s safe to say that the talents of his bandmates Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor were integral to bringing the song to fruition. Queen fought for it to be released as a single, and it became a worldwide #1 (although, ironically, never in the US, where the highest it reached was #2 in 1992 thanks to Wayne and Garth.)
Queen themselves have alternated between coyness and ignorance when it comes to the song’s meaning. Mercury never quite came clean, suggesting that everybody who listens should hang their own meaning on it. In an interview on the DVD release of the band’s greatest hits, May makes some good points.
“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,” he said. “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 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.”
Funny to talk about question marks with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though, because it is such an exclamatory musical statement, from the opening alien harmonies to the gong finish. In between, you get a tortured ballad, a demented riff on Gilbert and Sullivan, a fierce rocker, and a swooping finish that ties it all together.
The key to such a ubiquitous song not wearing out its welcome is that it has to hold something new in it every time that you listen. A tall order that, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” certainly has those fascinating individual elements, like Mercury’s passionate performance, like May’s skyscraping solo, like Deacon and Taylor bravely following the song down every rhythmic path, like the modulations that keep it all coherent and unified. And the song also holds a mood for just about every occasion, whether you’re up for something maudlin, fierce, cheeky, defiant, or all of the above.
In the end, maybe the greatest trick that “Bohemian Rhapsody” manages is that it demonstrates most of Queen’s versatility and brilliance in one six-minute swoop. Who knows what will spur the next resurgence of “Bohemian Rhapsody” twenty to thirty years from now? Regardless, it’s always a welcome comeback.