It’s the quintessential karaoke song. You’ve sung it a million times, and you know all the words – but do you know what the lyrics of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ actually mean?
Queen’s ballad-cum-opera-cum-hard rock classic celebrated its’ 40th birthday last week, having earnt the title of most expensive song ever recorded at the time of its release in 1975. Yet despite its’ renown reputation, the meaning of the elaborate lyrical narrative is a mystery that has endured four decades.
For the purpose of this article, I did attempt to join the bandwagon and don my investigative journalism fedora, however I must tell you now that, like those before me, I have come to no satisfactory conclusion. I can however offer you some insightful tidbits that, at the very least, are interesting.
Unlike most Queen songs, which were formed in studio, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was largely written in Freddie Mercury’s London home. Guitarist Brian May stated that it was already “all in Freddie’s mind” before they started working on it together. May says of the song:
“Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.”
In its most blatant form, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ depicts the account of a man feeling apologetic and repenting for committing murder, subsequently being put on trial for the crime. It has been widely speculated that this story represents Mercury’s own experiences of guilt and internal torment at the time of writing.
Music scholar Sheila Whitely suggests that the ‘Mamma’ from which the protagonist must break free is Mary Austin, a woman that Mercury had been in a seven-year relationship with (and about whom ‘Love of My Life’ was written). In the early 1970s, while in this relationship with Austin, Mercury experienced his first love affair with a man who was rumored to be an employee of a record company. It is believed that the guilt depicted in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was symbolic of the shame and turmoil that Mercury was enduring regarding his sexuality, religion and cheating on Austin.
The repeated utilization of the term ‘Bismillah’ somewhat supports this notion. The phrase literally means ‘In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful’, and is recited before each sura (chapter) of the Qoran. Similarly, the term ‘Beezlebub’ is a contemporary name for the devil in Christian and Biblical sources. Mercury’s family background was Zoroastrian, one of the world’s oldest religions with deep ties to both Islam and Christianity, suggest there is an argument to be made that the song was about very personal inner turmoil and the struggle of coming to terms with guilt.
Interestingly, a leaflet in Persian included in a ‘Greatest Hits’ cassette released in Iran contains an explanation in which Queen states that the song is about a young man who accidentally killed someone. The protagonist sold his soul to the devil, but summons for God (‘Bismillah’) on the night before his execution and redeems his soul with the help of angels.
Alternatively, it is also widely considered that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is simply a mirror of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, which chronicles a young man’s confession to a murder and the resultant epiphany he experiences.
Others, such as entertainer and close friend of Mercury’s Kenny Everett believe the song is “random rhyming nonsense.” Commentators from this school of thought observe that the song lacks any hidden meaning (least of which one related to Mercury’s bisexuality), but that is purely an expression of his exuberance and passion for theatrics through operatic parody.
Mercury himself has remained adamantly tight-lipped about the meaning of the song, other than giving away that it is about relationships. He says:
“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… “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?”
And thus I am left wondering – why not indeed? Who cares? It is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’s complete dismissal of traditional conventions in contemporary pop and rock music through its’ amalgamation of genres that made it momentous in the development of progressive rock. Regardless of Freddie’s inspiration for the lyrics, or the song’s “real” meaning, it is indeed the songs’ nonsensicality which is its’ most endearing quality.
BONUS: For a bit of trivia, a scaramouche (literally “little skirmisher) is a “roguish clown character from the Italian commedia dell’arte who wears a black mask and black trousers, shirt, and hat…usually portrayed as a buffoon or boastful clown.” Meanwhile, a fandango is a lively Spanish dance originating in the 18th century, but is also synonymous with any “elaborate or complicated process or activity”.