Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Bohemian Rhapsody Interpretation

Bohemian Rhapsody is perhaps the greatest song ever written. It is not my favorite song. That's either Randy Newman's God's Song or Barnes & Barnes' Fish Heads. But there's something so admirable about Bo Rap that I just have to see it as the greatest song that's ever written. I've seen a few interpretations of it on the internet, but I feel they try to hard to do the impossible (arguing it is about AIDS years before AIDS existed) or to treat Freddie Mercury as if he is not to be treated as a literary genius. Here's my humble attempt to treat him more like that:

Here's the beginning of the song:

Is this the real life-
Is this just fantasy-
Caught in a landslide-
No escape from reality-
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see-

My interpretation of the song as a whole is simple: Freddy feels that if he becomes gay, he will die in the eyes of his mother, but he realizes a part of him is already gay, so there's a part of him that is already dead: whether the gay side or the side that loves his mother, a part of him is dead already, and it is at most his choice which side dies, but he can never be a whole person: both gay and the son of his mother. The song is his cry for help about being forced to choose who he is when he cannot simply remain himself.

In the opening, we see the setup for the horrible tragedy of the choice throughout: If only this were simply a fantasy, but it is not, it is reality, and it is down a landslide he is escape from reality, as much as he would like to close his eyes and pretend it is a fantasy, he must open them and see...Look up to the sky is not a positive claim here, but instead connects to the line three above: he is the one falling down the landslide...

I'm just a poor boy,i need no sympathy-
Because I'm easy come,easy go,
A little high,little low,
Anyway the wind blows,doesn't really matter to me,
To me

It is of course very important that Freddie is not a poor boy. In fact, he grew up in India, but also England, and had a childhood that he actually said he quite enjoyed ("My time at boarding school was very enjoyable...") So, what does he mean by calling himself a poor boy?

There are of course two Freddie's in this discussion: one the poor (gay) boy, who is a little low, and another, the family boy, who is not poor at all, but is a little high.

I think this stanza, early on, establishes the dual nature of the song: the family boy easily comes in and is welcomed, but the poor boy is easily sent out and shunned.

Mama,just killed a man,

Put a gun against his head,

Pulled my trigger,now he's dead,

Mama,life had just begun,

But now I've gone and thrown it all away-

Mama ooo,

Didn't mean to make you cry-

If I'm not back again this time tomorrow-

Carry on,carry on,as if nothing really matters-

This is in some sense the true beginning of the song. In most shortened versions, this is how the song begins, "Mama, just killed a man."

Of course, that man is himself. Or his family-loved, childhood self.

But the gay self has put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger, now he's dead.

Mama, life had just begun.

He was 14 when he had his first homosexual affair. He's gone and thrown it all away.

He's made his mama cry.

If I'm not back again this time tomorrow-
Carry on,carry on,as if nothing really matters-

In a surface reading of this song, it is the person who pulled the gun who won't be back tomorrow.

But I think it is the family-loved, childhood self who won't be back tomorrow. Won't ever be back.

But, his family will carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters ...

This is a paradigm mark of depression. All depressed people wonder whether things will carry on, carry on without them. The world will. We all know that. Will everyone else? Will your friends? Will your family? Will your mother? These are the questions of every depressed person contemplating the end. Contemplating whether they really matter, or if, as they believe, nothing really matters.

Here's the stanza we are currently on:

Too late,my time has come,

Sends shivers down my spine-

Body's aching all the time,

Goodbye everybody-I've got to go-

Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth-

Mama ooo- (any way the wind blows)

I don't want to die,

I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all-

There's nothing here that requires any additional explanation given the theory at hand.

Too late,my time has come,

His time has come out of the closet.

It is too late to go back.

Goodbye everybody-I've got to go-

Who's got to go? The Freddie that his family loved.

Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth-

But, that one has got to leave you all behind and face the truth -- that the other one -- the one out of the closet -- is the true Freddie.

And of course, the song is addressed to the same person throughout:
Mama ooo-

But, there's this fake optimism that comes along, in the background, not through the lead singer, if I am right
(any way the wind blows). It is common through the song. It represents two things: the dual nature of the entire song: one of them is strong; strongly moving on with his life as the family's son is dying, the other accepts his place kicked out of the family. It also represents though that there's something false about this acceptance -- he cannot really accept that his family does not accept him, but he, in his mask, pretends he can, but really....

I don't want to die,

We immediately get back to the person who wants to be both selves -- both gay and accepted by his family...

I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all-
And, the stanza, like the last one, ends with a strong bit of depression. The acceptance of his fate, the acceptance of the blowing of the wind, was, as told previously here, always a false mask.

Here's the next bit:

I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche,scaramouche will you do the fandango-
Thunderbolt and lightning-very very frightening me-

We start with a sense of smallness in the distance. There's a little silhouetto of a man. It's not a big man. It is not even a man. It is a little silhouetto of a man. It is one of the two Freddie's -- and I think it is obvious which one, but if not, the rest will make it clear.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on Scaramouche:
is a historical novel by Rafael Sabatini, originally published in 1921 and subsequently adapted into a play by Barbara Field and into feature films in 1923 starring Ramón Novarro and 1952 with Stewart Granger. It is a romantic adventure and tells the story of a young aristocrat during the French Revolution. In the course of his adventures he at one point becomes an actor portraying "Scaramouche" (also called Scaramuccia, a roguish buffoon character in the commedia dell'arte). He also becomes in the course of the novel a lawyer, politician, and lover, confounding his enemies with his elegant orations and precision swordsmanship. The later film version includes one of the longest, and many believe, best swashbuckling sword-fighting scenes ever filmed.

The novel has a memorable start: (BOOK I: THE ROBE, CHAPTER I, 'THE REPUBLICAN') "He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony. His very paternity was obscure, although the village of Gavrillacs had long since dispelled the cloud of mystery that hung about it."

The man who is merely a little silhouetto of a man is also a Scaramouche. I wonder whether Freddie had read the novel. I bet he read this beginning. It is of course possible that he meant it to be a reference to the stock characther, Scaramuccia, from Italian plays, but it is also possible that he read the novel, and those opening lines. It is a reference to someone born with the gift of laughter in a world that was mad, but with obscure paternity, and who, through the novel, comes on to play many roles to define who he is and win his love.

It's not at all mysterious given this reading. He is a little silhouetto of a man who must pretend to be someone else to be free and find his love. His paternity is obscure, but not because there is a mystery about who his parents are, but because it is not clear they are any longer his parents.

If as the website says, this opening is famous, then it is sufficient that Freddie knew about it to make the points above.

Then, of course, my favorite line for my interpretation:

Thunderbolt and lightning-very very frightening: me.
It is very important that contrary to the way many do the syntax of this line, there is a stop after "frightening." There are thunderbolts and lightening, as if to mark a change in the play. This is quite common in plays of the sort that Scaramouche would be. When characters undergo drastic transformation, the scene lights up with lightning and the stage roars with the sounds of thunderbolts. Then comes out the new person, the new changed person, such as inthe old Conan show at Universal Studies, when he goes from being a skinny boy to a buff man.

Thus, the me suggests a new me that wasn't there before this line.

The old " me" was the family-boy who was loved by his parents. But that boy can no longer be. That boy must put on a mask to the world and leave his parents behind. That boy must become like Scaramouche -- he must change who he is so that he can be loved by someone else -- his parents won't love him.

So, post-thunderbolts and lightning, the new "me" is the gay singer, who invited the old me to do the fandango, but it is too late, there is now only one Freddie remaining.

Galileo galileo
Galileo figaro-magnifico-

There are lots of rumors that Galileo is gay, but I can't find anything on the internet about it, so I want to hold back on that. After all, there's the following argument:

  1. Everything is on the internet.
  2. Galileo being gay is not on the internet.
  3. :. It is not true.
But, by the same premises, I think the conclusion also follows that it is not false since by "Everything" I think we can mean everything that is both true and false, and so, Galileo being gay must be incoherent, but that too would be on the internet, so I don't know what to make of it.

Instead, I think it should be more properly linked to the previous line, immediately prior to Galileo:
Thunderbolt & Lightening. Very Very Frightening: Me.

What Galileo is of course known for is two things: a) discover of the center of the solar system; and b) an outcast.

In this sense, I don't think it matters whether he was gay: he was outcasted because he discovered something (that Earth is not the center of the universe) that went against religious teaching -- just as Freddie has discovered something (that he's gay) that goes against religious teachings. Galileo is a hero for his discovery now, and Freddie calls out to him upon being re-born in the previous line. Just as Galileo fought against religious teachings and was killed, Freddie's previous self -- the one loved by his parents -- has made a discovery and was killed -- earlier in the song. Now, Freddie wants to go on and be a hero for being a new person, one who made a giant discovery that changed the way religion should look at the world.

What we should expect if this interpretation is right is that there's a religious reference later in the song. And of course, that's what we get..."Bismillah!" The first word of the Koran. Thus, his discovery is meant to change the way religions ought to think, and he is later in the song suggesting that religion must start over and accept homosexuality (though religion, as we will see, will refuse, "No! We will not let you go!" is their response to Bismillah. No restart. No acceptance...but of course, this is exactly what they did to Galileo as well. And look where he is now: mentioned in probably the finest song ever written...).

Figaro is the lead character in the Barber of Seville, an opera made famous by Alfalfa, who is pictured here.

Figaro is just a poor boy from a poor family, but he too was a bit of an innovation on the world stage -- somewhat an innovation that not only changed religion, but also the world. You could even say, he was magnifico.

Figaro's character, in the Barber of Seville, is the first servant in an opera to stand as an intellectual equal to his master. Like we are accustomed today, he plays the wiley servant who outsmarts not only his master's enemy, but also does so at a rate that his master cannot keep up with. It is something we are accustomed to today, but Figaro is the first.

It is the second play of the trilogy though that stands out as revolutionary, the Marriage of Figaro. Louis the XVI banned this play, and Mozart rewrote it to take out the best parts. I assume Freddie would have been aware of this operatic history.

For example, here is a speech of Figaro's, which I believe is lost in the Mozart version that you can see performed today:

"Because you are a great nobleman," he says to the Count, "you think you are a great genius. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born - nothing more! For the rest - a very ordinary man. Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century."

Or this exchange:

the Count complains that "the servants in this house take longer to dress than their masters" to which Figaro replies, "Because they have no servants to assist them."

The play was a big hit, and perhaps led to the French Revolution, which began about five years after the release of the play, which played for 100 days. You can read more about it here.

There's a clear change within six lines of the song between two individuals:

  1. A silhouette of a man/Scaramouch
  2. Galileo/Figaro
There's two Freddie's as well: the one who fits along with the two members of 1, who is now dead, and the new Freddie, who attempts to be like Galileo and Figaro: a discover of a new path that changes the world.

Thus, this is the crucial climax of the song. There's a soft, slow moving struggle between the two up to here, and we are now warming up to a heated fight...The old Freddie is dead, but there's a new one here now, ready to blaze a new path -- a path of self-discovery, and a path that will change the world... a path that is magnifico...

But I'm just a poor boy and nobody loves me-

He's just a poor boy from a poor family-
Spare him his life from this monstrosity-Easy come easy go-,will you let me go-

I've covered much of this one before, but I think the point is just that he's poor in love -- from a family that's poor in love.

It is not clear what the "monstrosity" is.

Is it his homosexuality, or is it his mother?
Or, is it the combination of the the two that costs him his mother's love?
I take it it is that one since no where in the song does he attack his homosexuality, and it is unclear if he ever straightforwardly attacks his mother.

It is also an important shift in the song -- both in the lyrics and the music. It draws you back to the beginning of the song after the major change to a different type of song.

The "But" is very significant then -- it signals that he's not ready for the huge change that the thunderbolt and lightening brought out. He's not as ready to go on his own voyage of discovery, ala Galileo. There's a holding back. He's not a discover -- he's a poor boy from a poor family.
Something's holding him back -- the other him.
This suggests a new meaning for the line:

Spare him his life from this monstrosity-
Maybe the one who wants saving is the old Freddie -- the one who we thought was murdered, but as happens in operas such as this one, maybe not -- just as the new one is experiencing his birth -- the old one is attempting to hold on.

And hold on he does, by refusing to grow into the new Freddie -- by refusing to accept "this monstrosity."

But the new Freddie still wants out -- he wants to be let go, by his family, by his old self -- into the new world where he can be his true self, and be happy with it, but something's holding on, so he has to ask:

Easy come easy go-,will you let me go-

Bismillah! no-,we will not let you go-let him go-

Bismillah! we will not let you go-let him go
Bismillah! we will not let you go-let me go
Will not let you go-let me go
Will not let you go let me go
Notice, the first word of the first three lines is always "
Bismillah!" The first word of the Koran -- suggesting an attempt to start over -- start over with the acceptance of God (and his mother and his old self), but no, he does not get that acceptance...he can only start over without acceptance, which we will see in the last two lines...

Mama mia,mama mia,mama mia let me go-
Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me,for me,for me-

The first line here is obvious for the interpretation given so far. Everything's leading up to it. He's transitioned to his new/gay self. He's only looking for his mother's accpetance. Will she let him go (be himself)? Of course, we know the answer is no.

But if the answer is no, then we have a dual meaning for the next line.

On one meaning (the surface one), I think Beelzebub is be taken as something bad:
the standard take is that the devil has put a devil aside for him.
This is not a crazy reading. He's forced into a new life; a rather scary life to be starting on; and his mother will not be there to guide/protect him, as mothers are known to do. His best hope is that a devil will guide him, but that is of course a confused hope since the Devil is the one who has put forth the devil for him. He's being led into a dangerous life, and his only guide is a devil sent by the Devil.
As he has gone against his parents, and he has gone against his religion, he can expect no Angel to guide him.
The "No" in this case is coming from both his mother and his religion: Neither will "mama mia" let him go, nor will his restart of religion, ala "Bismillah."

But I don't think that's the best interpretation of the song as a whole. The thunderbolt and lightning, as they always do in an epic performance such as this one, signify a peaking change. They are immediately followed by a pulling back -- it's the peak of a moutain, not a cliff. He's struggled to this point, he's finally turning it around and accepting himself. So, I don't see this line as being a bad thing, but a mixed message.

So, I don't take it as a sign that it is Satan or the Lord of the Flies that is keeping a devil put aside for him. No, he's on a new start, and in spite of it being a start that leaves back his mother and his old self, it is a start that is positive.

So, who is Beelzebub?

Two things to say. And of course, we don't know what Freddie knew, so it's always hard to guess at these things.

But we can think he would be familiar with the bible. The passage where Jesus is accused of working for Beelzebul is quite odd:

Jesus and the Ruler of Demons
20 Jesus went back home,

w 3.20 went back home: Or "entered a house" (perhaps the home of Simon Peter).
and once again such a large crowd gathered that there was no chance even to eat. 21 When Jesus' family heard what he was doing, they thought he was crazy and went to get him under control.
Some teachers of the Law of Moses came from Jerusalem and said, "This man is under the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons! He is even forcing out demons with the help of Beelzebul."
23 Jesus told the people to gather around him. Then he spoke to them in riddles and said:
How can Satan force himself out? 24 A nation whose people fight each other won't last very long. 25
And a family that fights won't last long either. 26 So if Satan fights against himself, that will be the end of him.
27 How can anyone break into the house of a strong man and steal his things, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can take everything.
28 I promise you that any of the sinful things you say or do can be forgiven, no matter how terrible those things are.
But if you speak against the Holy Spirit, you can never be forgiven. That sin will be held against you forever.
30 Jesus said this because the people were saying that he had an evil spirit in him.

You can notice right away that Jesus never denies that he works for Beelzebub. It's a little less clear in the other texts (Matthey and Luke), but he never denies it. There are two interpretations of the text, one more dangerous than the other, but not if you don't worry about these sorts of things: 1 is that Jesus is denying he works for Beelzebub because the latter is Satan; 2 is that Jesus is denying that Beelzebub ought to be associated with Satan, but ought to be associated with the Holy Spirit.

So, who is Beelzebub? Or Baal?

Well, he's a Semitic God. It's actually a title that can be used for any semitic God. But, then it is not that bad of a thing, is it? Jesus is semitic, so it makes sense that Baal is a title that could be used for his God as well.

In fact, we can think of Beelzebub as a name for any god.

But, if this is meant to be a positive thing, why should Beelzebub put aside a devil for him?

On the surface reading, it is a devil put aside because he's done wrong.

But, no this reading, it is a devil put aside because he's about to enter the fight of his life.

If right, we'd expect the next lines to show a strong, fighting Freddie, whose ready for what the world has for him because he's getting help. Not help from a standard deity, but help from a new deity who accepts him for who he truly is. If right, the next lines should be about strength in the face of acceptance of adversity...

So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye-
So you think you can love me and leave me to die-
Oh baby-can't do this to me baby-
Just gotta get out-just gotta get right outta here-

Nothing really matters,
Anyone can see,

Nothing really matters-,nothing really matters to me,

Any way the wind blows....

So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye-
So you think you can love me and leave me to die-
Oh baby-can't do this to me baby-
Just gotta get out-just gotta get right outta here-

Nothing really matters,
Anyone can see,

Nothing really matters-,nothing really matters to me,
Any way the wind blows....
The ending of the song, unfortunately requires little more work than the rest did. It sums up the argument I've been making just as in PCU when Gene Hackman and Michael Caine appear in the same movie.

I think most readings of the song will suffer at this point. How do we make sense of the sudden change in music and lyrics unless we think of a rebirth -- a bringing about of a new Freddie? One where the devil is not out to get him, but out to protect him? And from whom?
He's just killed a guy, we learn at the beginning of the song, what right could he possibly have to be so defiant now? What right could he have to be on the defensive? And he's not on the defensive in a weak way. The lyrics alone don't tell us that, but the music does. He's changed. He's a new guy. Why? Because the guy he killed was the weak version of himself. The weakness is dead now. The devil is there to carry along and help out this new Freddie, who you cannot treat like crap like the old Freddie.

So, he's getting out of here. You can't do this to him, baby, because he's out. He's out of his old life as weak Freddie, he's into his new life as strong Freddie. It is all over for anyone who thinks you can spit in his eye.

It is all over for his mother thinking she can determine who he is.

His identity is no longer a product of what his mother wants it to be.

Strong Freddie's identity is up to Strong Freddie.

Now, when we hear this openness to change, this openness to go with the wind, it is not empty. It is not weak Freddie who wanted to be open to accepting what the world laid out for him, but could not. It is strong Freddie, who really is going to go any way the wind blows... but with a devil put aside to help him along...


Thanks Mona for all your help and for putting up with my haphazard pace of doing this...


meghan said...

So this is interesting...

Maybe this is a stupid question, but what is problematic about a literal interpretation of the song? I mean, why isn't it just the story about a poor boy who killed a man (obviously not Freddy's story but....)

James Rocha said...

Hey Meghan,

I think a literal interpretation of the song doesn't capture the positive (though it is through a struggle) rebirth of the character in the end of the song. It's an odd song if taken literally because the first half is about how his life has taken a turn for the horrible, but the second half is about how killing this man has made him into a (new?) stronger man. But nothing in the song can explain this rebirth, but I think Freddie's life does explain it. I think it is what he must have felt like and gone through and why he struggled with his mother throughout his life and his music.

(By the way, you love Nagel? How cool!)

meghan said...

Ok so I relistened to the song a few times and I can understand the point about the rebirth: of course, it's dangerous to try to "interpret" a song after reading an interpretation because obviously one will see it in a new light (and as correlated to the interpretation.)

So I guess when I listen to the song with your interpretation in mind, I can agree with it. Prior to that, when I heard the song, my childlike interpretation was as follows:

A guy killed someone. He knows that friends of the person he killed will want to kill him, but he also knows he has to face the music. So he goes off to face them, then we have the struggle between him and the friends, then he is ultimately victorious, and doesn't die, and somehow establishes himself. And now he finds himself fearless. So the nothing really matters at the end is a contrast of things not mattering because he has overcome them vs nothing mattering because his death is inevitable.

When I read that now it just seems juvenile but, whatever it's honestly what I thought (without having ever really thought about it?)

AND YES. NAGEL IS THE LOVE OF MY LIFE. I've been working on this paper on him for like six months but I think it's almost done. Nagel is brilliant but impossible to write about.

James Rocha said...

Hey again Meghan,

My theory about how literary genius works is that there has to be two interpretations of the song that make sense. There has to be a surface interpretation that -- far from being juvenile -- is the one that the author wants us to get to with some thinking. But, usually genius attempts to put a second interpretation underneath that the surface interpretation is a distraction to finding.

I tended to have the interpretation you gave until I heard an interview with Brian May. May said that he will never reveal the true meaning of this song becaues he doesn't like it when people reveal the true meanings of his songs.

Now, if other people think the song has a secret meaning, it might not mean much. But May said Freddie told him the actual meaning, so I thought that proved there had to be something there, so I went back and looking for it.

In the end, I'm just trying to copy Herb Morris, who I TAed Philosophy of Literature for. We read a story by Borges, "Emma Zunz," which even Borges said was an ugly little piece with no deeper meaning. But Prof. Morris found the truth lying under that story that was such a clear sign of genius that I was deeply touched by his interpretation. So, now I enjoy looking at pieces that might be pieces of genius and seeing if there are clues like he found in "Emma Zunz"

meghan said...

yes that makes sense.

BTW, I also love the song Fish Heads.