By Sarah Clifton
The recent biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has catapulted Queen into the spotlight once more. The oscar-winning movie, about the band’s history, places a spotlight on frontman Freddie Mercury, who wrote the song that shares the namesake of the movie. Queen’s most famous song “Bohemian Rhapsody” has earned the title of timeless classic in the 44 years since its release. Originally almost rejected by Queen’s label, people today still blare the nearly six-minute long epic in cars and at parties. However, it’s not every day that a legendary piece of art is produced—the amount of work, talent and care put into the piece has cemented it as Queen’s magnum opus.
Experimentation was a big staple of Queen’s music—from the lyrical conceptualization to the sounds of the instruments and production methods, the band was no stranger to attempting to venture into uncharted waters. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a peak of experimentation for Queen. Certain elements of music production were new and budding when A Night at the Opera was recorded in 1975, such as reduction mixing, which condenses a plethora of audio layers into one track. The nature of the recording technique required a solid vision for the end product, because recording was a physical process, and it would be very hard, if not impossible, to just “edit” one layer. In addition, the audio is bounced around the listener. Some layers of sound are in the right speaker, some in the left, some in both, some in very nuanced positions. This was a tactic Queen often used, with examples in songs such as “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…),” “Keep Yourself Alive,” and “Killer Queen.” The experimentation gave the piece a unique sound, which continues to enrapture people to this day.
The complexity doesn’t end at the technical production level. “Bohemian Rhapsody” also shines in its ability to traverse multiple genres in one song. It begins with an overture, much like an opera does. The chords echo progressions that come in later parts of the song, and some lyrical, musical and thematic motifs are established. The intro ends, and progresses through ballad, operatic, and rock sections, with the motifs appearing throughout. It ends much like it began—a wistful outro that echoes the intro. There are few other songs that can attest to such varied structure and sound. Beyond that, Mercury wrote many strange, obscure chords into the piece that aren’t often used: diminished and augmented chords, six and seven chords, minor chords, and chords with a different bass note than the root for example. The piece is rather complicated to learn and master given that it is comprised of complex musical elements. In addition, Mercury wrote the piece’s lyrics and instrumental without collaborating with the rest of the band. The complexity and attention to detail show Mercury’s immense talent and creativity as a musician.
The lyrics add another layer of beauty and intricacy. Epic poetry is a form of literature that has effectively died out; the last true epic being Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, this piece exemplified and popularized a new breed of epic poem: a musical epic. Songs like Rush’s “2112” and Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” also utilize this style—using music to tell a long, poetic story. Upon inspecting the lyrics, one can see the story of “Bohemian Rhapsody” unfold. The beginning is a wistful, borderline existential reflection on life, death, and the meaning of it all. As the ballad section begins, a young man relays his tale: in a letter to his mother, he reveals he has killed someone and has been sentenced to death. Once executed, in the afterlife, he encounters characters from real life and fiction—Scaramouche, Galileo, and Beelzebub, and a chorus of voices (which are in reality just the members of Queen, but in terms of the story are a council of sorts in the after life, or potentially two sides of an internal conflict). After deliberating on what will become of his soul, he decides to transcend this fate he is condemned to, and comes full circle to once again contemplate the meaning—or lack thereof —of life. The piece attempts to come to a conclusion on the meaning of life, whilst relaying the whimsical story of the protagonist. Beyond what the piece explicitly does or doesn’t mention, the story is very human at its core—it traverses many emotions: fear, anxiety, excitement, desolate hopelessness, hope, and triumph, and sometimes a mix of many. The sound of the accompaniment and Mercury’s delivery of the lyrics creates a nuanced emotional experience.
In the creative world, finding something so masterful and unique is rare. This was Queen’s masterpiece: intricate production, lyrical excellence, and musical authenticity have made it shine above the rest. The song transcends most labels, because nothing like it existed in such an intense caliber before it. It resonates with me on a deep level, because it does what we all want to do in life—to break free from our constraints, to be outside of our respective boxes, to be a wild and beautiful human mess that makes no excuses or apologies for its existence. For that, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been, and will forever be, one of the best pieces of art to ever exist.