I was in high school when Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit America in 1976. It caught my ear because I’d never heard anything like it, and it caught my eye when I first got a look at the lyrics. I think it was the first time a song ever sent me running for the dictionary.
Now of course, you can find explanations and definitions for anything online, but in 1976 figuring out what a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” meant took real work. I had never heard of the medieval Italian characters of the commedia dell’arte, so I had no idea what the repeated “Scaramouche” meant until I looked up the word in a dictionary. (This would come in handy a few years later, when I’d meet another character, Pierrot, through the music of Arnold Schönberg.) And the repeated use of “Bismillah” was also a puzzle, and required an actual encyclopedia to explain. (Briefly, an Islamic blessing.)
The thing is, understanding the words didn’t tell you what the song was about. Clearly Freddie Mercury had some kind of narrative in mind, but the song remains elliptical and ambiguous. Lots of ink has been wasted in an attempt to explain what various folks think the song is about, but if you ask me, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is like a psychedelic extension of the old British murder ballad tradition, and it leaves each listener room to fill in the blanks.
Yes, it was and is over the top. But it was, and still is, a daring piece of pop music.
What do you think of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Leave a comment.