Forty-Five Years Later: A Look Into Why “Bohemian Rhapsody” Has Stood the Test of Time
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“Bohemian Rhapsody.” Widely considered to be one of the greatest songs in music history, it has been loved by generations since its release. In fact, it's one of just a few songs that has managed to re-enter the Billboard charts multiple times, decades after its original release. Since this year marks its 45th anniversary, it's important for us to remember why this song is so powerful and why people keep coming back to it.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” has received the most love, and much hate, for its incredibly unique and somewhat experimental song structure. Though Queen is known for producing music in out-of-the-box ways, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is certainly the crown jewel of their discography. The song combines the emotion of a ballad, the vocals of an opera, and the head-banging rhythm of classic rock together to create a spectacular piece of music you can’t help but dramatically lip-sync to on long car rides.
As many songwriters are well aware, blending genres is no easy task, but Queen manages to pull it off spectacularly. Each section brings something new to the table to create a cohesive piece. One might think that playing an angry, almost punk-like hard rock section just after performing a verse that could be straight out of “The Merry Widow” wouldn’t work, yet it does. The whole song is tied together seemingly effortlessly with the help of the intro and outro, which are the same in feeling and instrumentation, taking the listener on a spectacular journey but still returning to the same place where the song began.
One of my personal favorite musical attributes of the song is the use of panning, which one can most heavily pick up on when listening through headphones. This is a recording technique where certain tracks, mainly the harmonies, are played in solely the right or left speaker. This gives us the feeling of being in the studio with the band, making you just as much a part of the song as the music surrounds you.
But a great melody is nothing without lyrics, and personally, I think “Bohemian Rhapsody” features some of the greatest lyrical storytelling of any song.
At first glance, the song is the story of a man who has committed murder and now must face the consequences of his crimes. He laments to his mother that he doesn’t want to cause her pain, but what’s done is done, and he can’t lie to himself. In the operatic section, he is facing trial, with the members of court begging to spare him from being sentenced. The man pleads for the court to let him free, but they refuse, even though the man claims he is already damned. And in a turn of fate, the man breaks free and declares that the people have no right to cast him aside for any crimes he may have committed, because if they had loved him before, they should still love him now. The song ends on the same nihilistic note it begins, but this time, the man is at peace. Nothing really matters, after all.
This is already an incredible story, one of heartbreak and love, loss and resilience. The story, however, goes so much deeper than a mere murder trial. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is actually a powerful and beautiful metaphor for singer-songwriter, Freddie Mercury, and his personal experiences and struggles of coming to terms with being LGBTQ+ in 1970s Britain. It’s said that it took Mercury seven years to write the song, during which being gay was legalized in England (homosexuality was legalized in 1967; “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released in 1975). While this has never been fully confirmed, it has been widely speculated and accepted by many people, including Queen’s guitarist, Brian May.
The metaphor is so powerful and so deeply rooted in the song that I’m discovering new nuances to this day, despite first listening to it five years ago. The “murder” in question is meant to be the murder of Mercury himself, killing the person he used to be and coming out as someone new. Being a part of the LGBTQ+ community was very stigmatized and still is today in many parts of the world, which is why Mercury apologizes to his mother, knowing he can’t live a lie even if it hurts the people he cares about. He knows he’ll face backlash from the media and that society doesn’t want to “lose” him to homosexuality. There is also a reference to Galileo, who was condemned for speaking the truth of heliocentrism by the Catholic church in 1633. This is a metaphor for homosexuality, as many people condemn it on the grounds of going against Christian beliefs, and though Mercury was not Christian himself, he and others like him were still quite literally persecuted by the Church. He even cedes to the Christian conservatives, claiming the Christian demon Beelzebub will meet him in Hell.
But then the attitude of the song changes. It is no longer Mercury being tormented and accused by the public for who he is: he stands up, challenging them. He won’t be cast aside for who he is, not after they’ve been praising him for years. It's a moment filled with raw emotion: anger toward a system that refuses to let him live his truth, at people so full of their own ignorance they can’t even see the world around them for what it is. It’s a moment that anyone who has ever faced any kind of discrimination or failure will recognize.
That’s why this song has become a power ballad for generations. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is packed with passion and meaning. It's truly special when you, as a listener, can really resonate with the message the artist is trying to convey and hear just how much it means to him or her in the craft itself.
This song reaches a special anniversary at a time when the rights of the LGBTQ+ community are coming into question, with two Supreme court judges earlier this month stating their plans to renege on the 2015 decision that allowed same-sex marriage in the United States. The LGBTQ+ community has faced and still continues to face many hardships, and for many, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a testament to those struggles and a message of overcoming them. It's a song that makes people feel heard and loved.
Forty-five years later, “Bohemian Rhapsody” still stands out as arguably one of the greatest songs ever written. And while it's been many years since Freddie Mercury died, his legacy lives on through “Bohemian Rhapsody,” still giving courage, voice, and hope to thousands of people all over the world.