“Bohemian Rhapsody”: A Rhapsody

The year is 1977–maybe late October or November. I’m eight years old, having dinner in a pizzeria with my immigrant family in Blairstown, New Jersey–Dominick’s, I think it was. Suddenly, the stereo system at Dominick’s pipes out the unforgettable bass-snare drum beat of the latest hit on the radio:

BOOM BOOM Clap

BOOM BOOM Clap

BOOM BOOM Clap

BOOM BOOM Clap

Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise
Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day
You got
Mud on yo’ face
Big disgrace
Kickin’ your can all over the place

Everyone in Dominick’s but us–maybe two dozen Warren County rednecks–starts stomping their feet and clapping their hands in time to the music. Somebody yells out, “Fuckin Yankees!” (The Yankees had won the World Series that year.) And then, two dozen voices in unison, between bites of Jersey Neapolitan pizza, sing in commemoration of the Yankees’ victory over the Dodgers, and anything else that comes to mind:

We will

We will

ROCK YOU

Clap

BOOM BOOM

Clap

Singin’

We will

We will

ROCK YOU 

Clap

BOOM BOOM

Clap

Eventually, the song morphs into “We Are the Champions,” sung in unison by the same Warren County crowd, the last refrain ending in a crescendo of profanity-laced sloganeering for the victorious Yankees. My parents look on in consternation and alarm. But my eight-year-old psyche is in awe, gripped by a strange emotion an eight-year-old mind can neither describe nor explain. What just happened?

A year or two later, a friend with adventurous musical tastes breathlessly introduces me to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  “You gotta hear this,” he says, putting an LP on the turntable improbably called “A Night at the Opera.

Bismillah, no!

We will not let you go

(Let him go!)

Bismillah!

We will not let you go

(Let him go!)

We will not let you go….

NO NO NO NO NO NO

Oh Mama Mia, Mama Mia, let him go…

Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me

For me

For me

I’m as bewildered as I am mesmerized. To pious Muslim ears like mine, the song unfolds–to quote Madonna before her time–like a prayer. But it also kind of doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t really sound or unfold like anything I’ve ever heard before. I’m reminded now of Goethe’s response to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: “very great but very mad.” But I remember at the time just wondering what the hell I was listening to. There didn’t seem any clear answer back then. And I’m not entirely sure there is now, unless the word “genius” qualifies.

Fast forward a year or so. It’s 1980. I’m ten going on eleven. It’s the age of hit singles and the Billboard Chart, the dawn of the Top Ten and MTV. Turn on FM radio any time of the day or night, and you’re likely to hear a certain addictive disco-esque bass line:

DOOT DOOT DOOT

[rest]

Ba dum bum bum ba-ba BUM

[crack]

Do-do

DOOT DOOT DOOT

[rest]

Ba dum bum bum ba-ba BUM

Tell me that it’s not going through your head already, even after my impoverished nonsense-syllable rendition of it. You’d have to have been living under a rock in 1980 or 1981 to have missed Queen’s domination of the airwaves through “Another One Bites the Dust.” And you might well have heard it under the average rock. Like AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” released a year later, “Another One Bites the Dust” was a violent, cartoonishly nasty little ditty impossible to get out of your head once lodged there. Wikipedia says that it was the longest running Top Ten song of 1980, but I don’t really have to consult Wikipedia to know that. I was there.

I was too much of a metalhead, and probably too much of an unconscious homophobe, to fully appreciate Queen in my youth. Don’t get me wrong: I liked them, and loved some of their songs. And who could forget their performance at Live Aid? But given how good they were, it sort of puzzles me in retrospect that I was never the camp follower of Queen that I was of a lot of other near-contemporary bands, like AC/DC, Rush, or Metallica.

But it’s probably not that puzzling. It was probably some combination of Queen’s musical subtlety and Mercury’s flamboyant–but also alien and threatening–gayness that must have put me off. I was, at 14, more comfortable with the musical unsubtlety and closeted homosexuality of Judas Priest than I was with Queen–more “You Got Another Thing Coming” than “Who Wants to Live Forever.” Queen was cool, but also weird enough to be a little scary.

The “problem” with Queen was that the emotional subtlety and power of their music were inextricably bound up in Freddie Mercury’s sexuality. It’s hard now to listen to (or better yet, to watch the videos for) “We Are the Champions,” “Killer Queen,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “You’re My Best Friend,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” or “Another One Bites the Dust,” and miss the gay subtext. But it was easier then, at least if you were 14, sexually dumb, and unconsciously homophobic. I suspect that in listening to Queen as a person of that description, I heard the sheer genius of the music without quite knowing how to process the gay subtext; that produced a cognitive dissonance–maybe the desired cognitive dissonance–that pulled me toward but also pushed me away from Queen, in the direction of unambiguously straight music that was  emotionally easier to handle (“Girls Got Rhythm“). Call it a case of following the aesthetic line of least resistance.

It wasn’t until well after Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991, during my first few years of graduate school, that Queen really began to grow on me, or to put it another way, that I really started to “get” what they’d been doing. It helped to have grown out of my juvenile homophobia. Maybe it helped to have lost my virginity. Maybe homesickness made me nostalgic for the cosmopolitan environs of New York City that Queen evoked better than, say, the Seattle-influenced grunge that was the thing at the time.

But I think what helped the most was the fact that I was, at the time of his death, getting my degree at Notre Dame, the most homophobic milieu I’d ever encountered, exceeding by a long shot the homophobia-lite of the Jersey suburbs in which I’d grown up. The sheer hypocrisy and venomous intensity of the specifically theocratic homophobia I encountered there made the nature of homophobia easier to grasp than it previously had been, and highlighted the moral heroism of people like Freddie Mercury (along with Rob Halford, Chuck Panozzo, Melissa Etheridge, Ann and Nancy Wilson, and so many others) who’d had to confront it and face it down.

Alison and I saw the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” last night at a local theater–a full house for a matinee performance on the day before Thanksgiving. It’s a triumph. I had to hold back tears while watching it.

I went home after the movie and watched the whole Live Aid show, probably for the first time since 1985, woke up with Queen in my head, and have had nothing but Queen echoing through my head since then.

I know “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been criticized as homophobic or inaccurate or incomplete, and I’m sure the critics at some level have a point, but they’re wrong to fail to see the tribute in this film to Mercury and to Queen. The movie captures the music, the moment, and Freddie Mercury, the man. Whatever the band’s flaws or his, what shines through is the distinctive passion and bizarre genius of this inimitable band, and of the man universally regarded as its frontman. I feel an unapologetic and unembarrassed adoration for Queen, and a profound gratitude to them for a gift that can never be repaid. As fans, we gave them fame, and fortune, and everything that goes with it. But it doesn’t seem like enough. After seeing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I’m not sure what is.

27 thoughts on ““Bohemian Rhapsody”: A Rhapsody

  1. I don’t remember when I first heard Queen, but my most memorable Queen experience was sitting in the Camera Cafe in Krakow, right off the main square, eating crepes and drinking either coffee or hot chocolate, while watching a really excellent Queen concert being projected onto the wall. I hated to leave before it was over, but was on a schedule ….

    (On their website — http://cameracafe.com.pl/ — they say they’ve been around for ten years. But I was there almost twelve years ago. Unless they’re going to update their website regularly, they should probably say “since such-and-such a year” rather than “X many years ago.”)

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  2. I don’t have near as much to say as you about Queen and the movie Bohemian Rhapsody. But I saw the movie last weekend with my wife, and we both enjoyed it very much. Freddie Mercury was very talented and an alluring performer. I liked Queen’s music when the band was active, but wasn’t a huge fan.

    I believe the gay subtext you portray is too strong. Freddie was bisexual and had a long-term romantic relationship with a woman. Anyway, thanks for your viewpoint. To other readers I encourage them to experience the movie in their own shoes. Sit in the theater and just enjoy it, especially the Live Aid performance near the end. Enjoy it as much as the huge audience shown in the movie did.

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    • I may well have overplayed the gay subtext of the songs and Freddie Mercury’s story, so it’s good to have some input from a different point of view. My impression was that Freddie Mercury was gay rather than bisexual, but still in love with Mary Austin. What that implied for the details of their relationship, I don’t know. I don’t know how accurate this is, but it’s consistent with the portrayal in the film:

      https://www.biography.com/news/freddie-mercury-mary-austin

      I certainly know gay (rather than bisexual) men who at some point in their lives dated and became very attached to women. The film somewhat confusingly gives the impression that he was sexually attracted to Austin; a little while later, there’s that scene which gives the impression that he’s gay rather than bisexual, but I guess the film’s confusions could very well mirror Freddie Mercury’s own.

      I actually think it’s a plus of the movie that it leaves confusing things in a certain state of confusion rather than pretending to wrap them up. One critic has called the film “a superficial montage of snapshots,” but I don’t think the quoted phrase really amounts to a criticism. The film was intended as a dramatic presentation of aspects of Freddie Mercury’s life with Queen. It’s unfair to expect it to offer a comprehensive biographical documentation of his life. The mistake would be to take the film too literally. For the same reason, I think it’s a mistake to scrutinize it too sharply–which is why I agree with your advice on how to watch it.

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      • Well, the line between “bisexual” and “homosexual,” like the line between “bisexual” and “heterosexual,” is not always sharp. Suppose a man is predominantly sexually attracted to other men, but occasionally sexually attracted to women. Should we prefer the label “bisexual” or “homosexual”? I’d say it’s up to the person to decide for himself which label he feels comfortable with; but when we’re talking about historical figures from a time when public self-definition was less of an option, we don’t always have the person’s own expressed preferences to go on. That’s an advantage of terms like “LGBT” and “queer”; you can place someone in a neighbourhood without tying them down to a particular street.

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        • Yeah, I agree. I probably should have referred to “ambiguities” rather than “confusions.”

          That said, I do know men who are almost exclusively attracted to other men who have, say, briefly dated or briefly or fleetingly been attracted to women (or a woman), but who regard themselves as gay rather than bisexual. In other words, they regard their brief attractions to women as cases of sexual confusion rather than mere ambiguity, and would regard their attraction to men as more than their predominant orientation. But that’s entirely consistent with what you’re saying.

          I do remember a time maybe a decade ago when it became fashionable in certain scientific or quasi-scientific circles to regard bisexuality as a fake orientation.

          I was skeptical of the whole thing, and didn’t follow the literature or trend, so I’m not sure where matters stand. A little web searching yields this:

          https://www.thedailybeast.com/kinsey-was-wrong-sexuality-isnt-fluid

          And then an ambiguous abstract that’s not nearly as sexy as the press reporting:

          https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797615598617

          I think they take these findings to imply that there are people such that they clearly belong in a near-exclusive way to some one taxon, rather than as implying that there are no people who fail to belong exclusively to some one taxon. Not sure whether to regard that as arousing or not.

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        • Maybe I’m naive about how people more familiar with the common usage of “bisexual” use the term. Regardless, “bisexual” seems to me ambiguous with respect to time. A typical dictionary definition is: of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to members of both sexes; also, engaging in sexual activity with partners of more than one gender. The definition suggests it applies only currently. But suppose that over a span of many years, a person is firstly exclusively heterosexual, then both heterosexual & homosexual, and finally exclusively homosexual. Is that person now “bisexual” or was only “bisexual” during the middle period.

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          • I don’t think the question can be answered in that form. A person’s orientation is not simply a function of who they are having sex with, but how they understand their own orientation. Take two people, both of whom start out having sex with members of the opposite sex, move to having sex with members of both, and end having sex with the same. But introduce contrasting motivations, and you get totally different answers to the question, “What is the person’s orientation?”

            John, a man, sleeps exclusively with women primarily to convince himself and others of his heterosexual normality; eventually, he gets married to a woman and has sex with her to keep up appearances, but has affairs with men during his marriage; he finally breaks down, gets divorced from his wife, and from that point on, only has sex with men.

            Sarah, a woman, sleeps with men because in her 20s, she’s attracted to them; in her 30s, she develops an attraction to women as well and sleeps with both women and men; in her 40s, she decides that women are better lovers and sticks with them.

            John and Sarah enact the “same” pattern of behavior. But if asked, John might well say, “I am gay, not bisexual.” Whereas Sarah could say, “I am bisexual, not gay.” If you pressed John and asked him if he was ever “attracted” to women, he might say, “Yes. If you try hard enough, you can make anyone attractive. But the fact remains that I’m gay, not bisexual.”

            Those are two variations; I don’t know how to count how many more there might be. A dictionary definition is unlikely to be helpful here, and the issue isn’t so much a matter of common usage. The facts regarding sexual orientation are made complex not so much because behavior is complex but because motivation is. Which is why I agree with Roderick’s comment that orientation is mostly a matter of self-description.

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    • P.S. The following is part of the lyrics of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. Note “She”.

      There goes my baby
      She knows how to rock ‘n’ roll
      She drives me crazy
      She gives me hot and cold fever
      Then she leaves me in a cool cool sweat

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      • Right, but consider the lyrics to Judas Priest’s “Victim of Changes,” about a “whisky woman” who “drives” the singer “insane.” It was written and sung by Rob Halford, who’s gay:

        Once she was beautiful
        Once she was mine
        Once she was wonderful
        Once she was mine
        A change has come over her body
        She doesn’t see me any more
        A change has come over her body
        She doesn’t see me any more
        Victim of changes….

        It was close to impossible to have written rock songs that were overtly or candidly about gay sexuality in the 1970s, when both songs came out. Gay songwriters were forced to write in code. The thing to focus on is not the pronoun “she” in either song, but the adjectives “insane,” and “crazy” common to both. Love is crazy enough as it is, but shoved into the closet, it becomes even crazier. Both songs are about the crazy-making difficulty of dealing with a love made crazier in both singers’ cases by being closeted (“This thing called love/I just can’t handle it”). The gay subtext explains the emotion that lies behind the face-value lyrics.

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        • I should add that gay songwriters had and have been writing in code for eons. You can open the Great American Songbook and just take a look at any song written by Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Billy Strayhorn, and the list goes on and on … and read between some of those lines and see very clearly what was being said, sometimes with joy, sometimes with heartbreak. As for Mercury, he could have probably retired on the royalties just from “BOOM BOOM Clap”… used in every sports stadium across the world. Personally, I was never a huge Queen fan, but I certainly recognize that, well, there’s a little Queen in all of us. 😉

          I have to say, Irfan, that was a really beautiful post—amazing how vivid such memories can be. I lived that time in NYC, and will never forget it. I look forward to seeing the film at some point.

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          • Okay, it seems I took “she” in “”Crazy Little Thing Called Love” too literally. Per Wikipedia, Freddie Mercury wrote the song in 1979. “By the mid-1970s, he had begun an affair with a male American record executive at Elektra Records, and in December 1976, Mercury told Austin of his sexuality, which ended their romantic relationship.” (Wikipedia – Freddie Mercury).

            Thanks for the info about writing in code. I wasn’t aware of that.

            Hey, Chris. Wishing you well.

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          • (Responding to Chris): It somehow hadn’t occurred to me that the American Songbook was written in code, but in retrospect (after reading your comment!), it seems obvious. Kind of a variation on a Straussian theme: call it “Persecution and the Art of Songwriting.” Unsurprisingly, Strauss was gay, too.

            As for the Queen in each of us, who could decline “a built-in remedy for Khrushchev and Kennedy”? Surely we’re all inclined that way…

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      • They make a good case. I particularly like what Fisch says toward the end about Freddie Mercury’s unashamed or unapologetic self-consciousness. I find it interesting that the two most popular candidates for “best rock song of all time”–“Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stairway to Heaven”–are intense, genre-bending musical poems that are lyrically elusive. You know in a general sense what they’re about, but you couldn’t account for every line in them. At least I can’t. I’m inclined to think that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the better of the two, however.

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  3. I don’t usually make substantive revisions after I post something, but on second (and third and fourth) thought, I started to think that the long “analysis” of “Another One Bites the Dust” that I’d put in the original post was sort of awkward and ungainly. So I’ve cut it from the original post and put it here, not because I particularly like it, but because I didn’t want to “cheat” by pretending that it’d never been there:

    Nasty or not, “Another One Bites the Dust” utterly captured the feel of a certain place and time–the New York disco scene that (via the New York-based disco band Chic) in some sense supplied its beat and aesthetic. It’s easy to forget that 1980 was once called “the worst crime year in New York history,” but it was, and “Another One Bites the Dust” was, in its cartoonish way, a paean to that time. It also captured a different set of boundary-crossings: the seamless interface in the song between disco and rock as genres of music underscored the uneasy interface in real life between black and white people, as well as straights and gays.

    What I mean is that disco and rock crossed boundaries in the song–the disco bass line morphs into a hard rock riff by way of a funk lick–in a way that subliminally drew attention to the fact that such boundary-crossings took place in music rather than in reality. Disco might have run seamlessly into rock in the song, but black and white people didn’t so easily cross boundaries, at least in the segregrated neighborhoods of the New York Metro Area where I grew up.

    The seamless integration of disco danceability and hard rock riffing drew a similar sort of subliminal attention to the stigmatizing boundaries that put gay sexuality in the closet. Disco, in the masculine ethos of the day, was for prancing faggots and fairies; rock was for masculine headbangers. A song that made you bang your head and want to dance was, to a person steeped in this ethos, irresistible in an oddly dangerous way–practically an invitation to bisexuality, but also, for that very reason, an invitation to a muted sort of internal paranoia.

    You hear this, I think, in the lyrics of the song rather than its cheerfully dancy music. “Steve walks warily down the street with the brim pulled way down low.” At one level, Steve could have been a black man in a white neighborhood, an ordinary person in a crime-ridden neighborhood, or a gay man negotiating his way through a straight world (maybe all three at once). And whoever he was, it made intuitive sense at the time that he had to “walk warily down the street”–just about any street–because in some sense, machine guns really were ready to go.

    But–call me a Freudian–it seems to me that something else is going on in this song. “Out of the doorway the bullets rip/To the sound of the beat.” Maybe this is absurd and over-the-top, but it seems to me that “the bullets rip to the sound of the beat” because “doorway,” “bullets,” and “beat” are contained or internalized somewhere within the psyche, even the heartbeat, of a certain kind of listener. “Another One Bites the Dust” is as much a song about external dangers as about internal ones–about internal demons that need to be confronted and brought down. It somehow can’t be an accident that the song was used in a study to train medical professionals to provide the correct number of chest compressions during CPR. The bassline has 110 beats per minute, which mimics the number of chest compressions required for CPR. The beat it plays is almost literally inside us, as I think are the objects that the lyrics symbolize.

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    • Irfan, your gay subtext argument seems stronger if the focus is limited to songs with the lyrics written by Freddie Mercury. I found that some of the songs you listed in your first post were written by other band members. The following is what I found:

      “We Are the Champions” – Freddie Mercury
      “Killer Queen” – Freddie Mercury
      “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” – Freddie Mercury

      “Fat Bottomed Girls” – Brian May
      “Keep Yourself Alive” – Brian May

      “You’re My Best Friend” – John Deacon
      “Another One Bites the Dust” – John Deacon

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      • You’re probably right. I guess “Fat Bottomed Girls” turns out to be more about girls than about bottoms per se. I do think that with some of these, Freddie Mercury’s singing involves a distinctive kind of authorship or ownership over the song that infuses the song with his personality. Our authority Wikipedia says:

        In a radio special about their 1977 album News of the World, May said he had penned the lyrics [to “Keep Yourself Alive”] thinking of them as ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but their sense was completely changed when Mercury sang them.

        Mercury’s singing is anything but ironic or tongue-in-cheek. It has a real urgency or intensity to it, something I would expect of someone fighting an internal battle between two parts of his own identity.

        John Deacon wrote “Best Friend,” but I think it’s impossible not to think of Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin when he sings it.

        Deacon wrote “Another One Bites the Dust,” but I think the film nicely conveys the gay subtext of the song: it evokes the New York disco club scene, which was sexually open and adventurous, i.e., open to gay sexuality, and a place where gay sexuality was expressed. The disco scene contrasted sharply with the heavy metal scene of the same time and place, centered around L’Amour’s in Brooklyn, which was as crudely straight and homophobic a music scene as you could find (i.e., my music scene):

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Amour_(music_venue)

        That said, all these judgments about gay subtext are subtle and arguable. It’s almost cheating to say (as I did) that the gay subtext comes out more obviously in the videos than in the songs, because the videos put Freddie front and center, and Freddie Mercury is about as obvious a “gay subtext” as you can get. When Freddie sings about “fat bottomed girls,” you can’t help but think of…never mind. As I was saying, these things are subtle.

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  4. I’m glad I read this. When I saw the trailer for “Bohemian Rhapsody” some months ago at the movies, Jess and I were both really excited to see it. When it came up again this month, we were turned off by the lukewarm reviews it got. While I was too young to remember the exact incident in the pizzeria in Warren County, I do remember that “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” was so completely integrated in my consciousness with the NY Yankees teams of the late 1970s that it was only much later in my life that I came to learn that it wasn’t actually written for and about them, as ludicrous as that now sounds. (I wonder how many kids in their 20’s today have grown up thinking that “Enter Sandman” is a song written for and about Mariano Rivera.)

    My own feelings about Queen musically are a little more ambivalent – I think their catalog (or at least the more prominent parts of it that I’ve heard) is a bimodal distribution of songs that are absolutely unique and brilliant (“B.R.,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” as you’ve mentioned) and songs that are mildly irritating patchworks of less interesting musical ideas (“Bicycle Race,” “Fat-Bottomed Girls”). Nonetheless, I think their body of work stands up equally or favorably to a lot of the artists in the “rock pantheon.” Certainly there are a lot of equally or more revered bands in the “canon” whose creative output is just laughable put next to Queen (at risk of offending others: The Eagles, Jethro Tull, Clapton as a solo artist). There is no doubt that homophobia played a large role in Queen’s relegation to being a “niche” band throughout the 1980s, and homophobia is part of the subtext behind people regarding the “operatic” aspect of its music as worthy of being “taken seriously.”

    To your points (in the comment threads) about gay songwriters having to “obey the code,” I think it’s a testament to how rapidly the cultural sands have shifted in the past 20 years that we don’t fully remember how taboo open homosexuality in actual content was, even in the entertainment industry, even as recently as the 1990s. That code persists, where songwriters change gender, make it ambiguous, or avoid it altogether in lyrics, even in the “alternative” music of the late 80s and early 90’s (REM, Depeche Mode). A lot of the artists are openly gay or bisexual, but there’s this unwritten rule that it can’t be admitted explicitly in the songs. It’s hard to fathom today that in the mid-90s artists like Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge stoked deep animosity or were dismissed artistically for “gratuitously calling attention to” their sexuality (which I don’t even think they actually did) in places like Northwest Indiana and Northeast New Jersey alike.

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    • Ironically, I was just teaching a class on the ethics of voting, in the course of which I started talking about large-scale shifts in public attitude. The example I used was exactly the one you’ve used above–the change in attitudes toward homophobia that (as I remember it) began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and had essentially solidified by the end of the 1980s.

      I was argued out of my own gotten-by-osmosis homophobia in second grade by my friend Chal down the street, who insisted that some day, prejudice against gay people would be regarded as the moral equivalent of racism. We had a long argument about it, which he won. That was 1977 or 1978. Obviously, a second grader was bound to be getting his arguments from enlightened parents. In 1978, Chal’s family may have been the only one on our street with attitudes like that, but within a decade, the normalization of gay sexuality had become commonplace. This study dates things slightly differently, but shows the same basic trend:

      https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1536504216648147

      I hadn’t thought about the fact that being gay or bi can’t be admitted in a song. In any case, Melissa Etheridge went out of her way not to draw attention to her sexuality, whether in her lyrics or on stage. I remember reading an interview in which she explicitly said that she wrote her song lyrics to be sexually ambiguous, so that both straight and gay listeners could enjoy them.

      Having seen Melissa Etheridge live, what I recall was not that she drew attention to her sexuality, but that she had a loud and vocal group of lesbian fans who idolized her (the Indigo Girls scene was probably similar). The whole “gratuitously drawing attention to their sexuality” thing was really a resentful straight reaction to those not-in-the-closet fans. Of course, the hypocrisy of straight rock fans is kind of mind-blowing on this: if you want a case of gratuitously drawing attention to sexuality, look no further than the average Metallica show, where 15,000 guys would, in unison, demand that this or that attractive woman bare her breasts for the enjoyment of the crowd.

      Incidentally, the first two Queen stories in my post are both associated with the same milieu. The first one happened after or around a visit to the Ali farm in Blairstown; the second one also happened at their place in Blairstown. The friend with “adventurous musical tastes” was Abe.

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  5. So, now that I’ve actually seen “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I find the film’s lukewarm reviews to be frankly a somewhat depressing sign of the times. Critics have heaped high praise on a lot of relatively pedestrian films, and much of this love seems to be visited on films that share in common a certain anti-heroic plotlessness and a cast consisting entirely of unlikeable characters. It’s a weird sort of reverse-psychology phenomenon, in which the rejection of artlessly plot-driven films, cardboard-cutout characters, and Hollywood endings somehow necessarily supports the precept that for a movie to be good, its plot should be impenetrable, its characters irredeemable, and its upshot obliquely hopeless.

    In any case, I found myself unexpectedly emotional through the last half-hour or so of the film, and I was initially unsure of why (I like Queen, but can’t say their music got me through the rough spots in my life as I can say is true of several other bands, including a few of its contemporaries). I think that the theme of the film that’s most personally meaningful to me is the notion of rock music – and of the act of musical experimentation within that context – as a medium for the self-expression of misfits and the marginalized. It’s not a new theme at all, but I’ve rarely seen it handled as powerfully as it was in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Popular music has, over the past 50 or so years, had a lot of tension and pendulum-shifting between phases of experimentation, nonconformity, and originality, and phases where that originality is bastardized, repackaged, and mass-marketed to make the world safe for conformists again. Queen represents one of the more interesting and dramatic examples of the mid-70s wave of artistic originality and nonconformity, but looking at popular music today, I wouldn’t be surprised if young people raised on the pop of the past 10 years have no frame of reference for the notion of “my” music representing a deep emotional investment. As someone surrounded by people of that generation, I wonder what your thoughts are about this. My sense is that today people consume pop and rock music the way they consume pieces of chewing gum, and that the product has evolved to be emotionally disengaged and disposable, commensurate with that.

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    • I had essentially the same reaction to the film. I haven’t read the reviews, but I think your verdict is too pessimistic. Whatever the critics may be saying, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is doing well at the box office: I heard today on Q104.3 that it’s #5 at the box office, and the #1 musical biopic of all time, surpassing “Straight Outta Compton.” Not bad.

      I have a less negative view than you do of contemporary pop music. I actually like a lot of it, and find myself impressed by some of it.

      If you want depressing, consider the fact that Kiss still exists, and is going on tour. I’d take Taylor Swift over Kiss any day.

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      • I think my verdict was poorly communicated. I’m depressed with the current state of film criticism, and with what usually attracts critical acclaim these days. My verdict on “Bohemian Rhapsody” is definitely positive. My perception of its reception by critics and the public is admittedly a few weeks old and may be out of date.

        I also think we’re talking about different things when we talk of “pop” music. I would also take Taylor Swift over KISS in spite of the fact that I was raised on bands more like KISS and raised to dislike artists more like Taylor Swift in their day. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Beyonce – they’re all wildly talented, but the appeal of their music is a very different thing to me than the emotional chords struck when I listen to Queen, or RUSH, or for that matter Soundgarden or Bjork or Neutral Milk Hotel. What I’m talking about when I say “chewing gum” is what passes for “rock” these days, particularly what has replaced the so-called “alternative rock” of the 1990s. (I have a hard time calling it “rock,” because musically, it isn’t.) A detailed exposition of my views on this subject would take up a lot of time and space, so what I’ll say in a nutshell is that the 90’s, in spite of their irrepressible goofy 90’s-ness, were a time of incredible range, genre-mixing, and musical experimentation on the rock scene. Admittedly a lot of failed experiments, but the sheer volume of bands that were out there doing interesting things with music meant that if you walked into a record store and bought 3 CD’s, you’d likely end up with at least one enduring musical experience. Since about 1997, due to a combination of factors that include fundamental changes in the music business and the act of recording, rock music has been on a steady decline, to the point where it barely exists in a form you could call “rock” today. I think one of the points of departure here is that as a music fan for me “rock” is a musical genre that is defined in the playing of the thing, and that’s really becoming a bygone craft. (As a thought experiment, try to name as many active, popular, relevant recording artists in rock about whom you could say “wow, those guys/gals can really play…” – and reunion albums/tours don’t count. My list is: Queens of the Stone Age, Jack White…and…that’s it.) What’s replaced “rock” as I know it in large part is a sort of insipid, bloodless new genre of popular music that’s less accessible and fun than, say Taylor Swift/Lady Gaga/Bruno Mars, but also pretty creatively bereft and almost expressly disposable (e.g., Tame Impala, Fleet Foxes, to name a few).

        I think the logical question to ask is: who cares about these artists? Why be so bent out of shape? It’s a fair question.

        I think a lot of us who were very devoted in the 80s, 90s, and slightly beyond to seeking out new and different music and investing emotionally bands in we found and liked have spent the last 10-20 years stuck in our old habits only to find that the object of our quest no longer exists, in spite of the fact that there is still music out there that is ostensibly packaged and marketed to appear like it fills that void. For most of us, it represents a certain realization of generational incompatibility with any contemporary music – meaning, the only music we’ll listen to going forward is “old” music. It’s a realization that comes with a certain measure of angst. Maybe it’s a function of aging and my perception that rock music has turned to toothless crap is the same thing I heard from people older than me about the bands I loved in the 90s. I don’t know.

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