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Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

by Queen

Lyrics

"Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy?"

Quick Thought

Freddie Mercury sets the stage with a little mystery and a little self-pity.

Deep Thought

Freddie Mercury, like many great songwriters, was always deliberately mysterious about the meaning of "Bohemian Rhapsody," at times claiming it meant nothing at all, at other times alluding to its references to Italian theater and Persian folktale (see below). In any case, these (now iconic) opening lines, sung in dramatic a capella, set the stage for a song that is decidedly fantastical and imaginative. They also set the stage for the piano ballad part of the performance in which the narrator sings out his woes to his mom.

"Goodbye everybody – I've got to go / Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth"

Quick Thought

Some have speculated that this song's unfolding tale, which seems to be about a young man who kills someone and has to leave his old life behind, is a metaphor for Mercury's sexuality.

Deep Thought

Although Freddie Mercury never publicly identified his sexuality, he was known to have relationships with both men and women. In the early 1970s, he lived with his friend and lover Mary Austin for several years. In 1975, though, he began an affair with David Minns, an openly gay executive at Elektra Records, ending his sexual relationship with Austin. Though he and Mary remained close friends throughout his life (and he left his estate to her when he died), 1975 was a turning point for Freddie. Given the homophobia of the time, especially in the rock scene, Mercury was probably afraid of the secrecy that his sexuality would require of him. Mary Austin was supportive, but others were likely to be less so.

According to Peter "Phoebe" Freestone, Mercury's former personal assistant, the structure of the song reflected Freddie's divided personal life: "If you look at… the way Bohemian Rhapsody is written, in its totally separate parts, it's not really a mixture of parts, it's three parts—that would describe Freddie's life at that time. He was living with Mary, he's coming to terms with his desire for men, and his actual sleeping with men."

Still, the most Mercury would say about "Bohemian Rhapsody" is that it is "about relationships."

"I have a perfectly clear idea of what was in Freddie's mind [when he wrote the song]," guitarist Brian May once said. "But it was unwritten law among us in those days that the real core of a song lyric was a private matter for the composer, whoever that might be. So I still respect that."

Producer Roy Baker put it another way when pressed by the New York Times on the topic of the song's meaning: "If I tell you, I would have to kill you."

"I see a little silhouetto of a man"

Quick Thought

Or is it a silhouetto of a chicken?

Deep Thought

Nobody does Queen like the Muppets.

"Scaramouche, scaramouche will you do the fandango"

Quick Thought

Huh?

Deep Thought

It sounds like Queen is rocking nonsense here, but actually, Freddie Mercury's songwriting betrays his middle-class British education. Scaramouche is not a made-up word, but an Italian performance archetype from the commedia dell'arte tradition. Commedia dell'arte started in the twelfth century and featured masked performers that resembled clowns or mimes. Scaramouche is a character who typically wears a black mask and black tights along with a black cape. It was no rare occasion for a Freddie Mercury costume to resemble an Italian commedia dell'arte character.

"Galileo Figaro – Magnifico"

Quick Thought

You can think of this line as seventh-grade science meets ninth-grade theater, with a little bit of medieval Italian feudalism mixed in.

Deep Thought

Your guess is as good as ours as to why Mercury chose 17th-century Florentine physicist Galileo Galilei as the name to belt out operatically—and many times—throughout the middle section of this song. When he throws in Figaro—presumably a reference to the familiar Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro or to the main character in Rossini's earlier work The Barber of Seville—it seems he's just showing off his knowledge of important European people. Finally, the Italian word magnifico, which means "nobleman" but can also be used to refer to a "person of distinguished rank, importance, or appearance," is thrown in a few (totally epic) times. It's safe to assume that Mercury knew what he was talking about, even if no one will ever know why he was talking about it.

"Bismillah! No ¬– we will not let you go – let him go"

Quick Thought

Bismillah is a very common Arabic word that translates approximately to "in the name of God"—and may have allowed "Bohemian Rhapsody" to be released in Iran.

Deep Thought

The Arabic phrase Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim (translated as "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful") is recited at the beginning of every Qur'an verse. The phrase is also often used as a blessing over any activity or statement, and has many beautiful ways of being written in Arabic calligraphy.

The connection for Freddie Mercury to Bismillah, and Muslim religion in general, is a complex one. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in the East African republic of Zanzibar (now a part of Tanzania). His parents, Indian citizens who worked for the British colonial offices, were ethnic Parsis. Long ago, the Parsis were persecuted in Persia (now Iran) for their Zoroastrian religion. The group fled Persia for India in the tenth century, following the Muslim conquest of Persia, in order to freely practice their religion.

The land that was Persia is now the Islamic Republic of Iran, where most European and American music is banned by a strict religion-based government. "Bohemian Rhapsody," however, has been released in Iran, along with several other Queen songs. According to this 2004 BBC article, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was distributed with a translation of the lyrics and a statement saying that "'Bohemian Rhapsody' is about a young man who has accidentally killed someone and, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil. On the night before his execution he calls God in Arabic, 'Bismillah,' and so regains his soul from Satan."

Although Freddie Mercury probably would not have explained the song in such a religious way, its quasi-religious content allowed it to become one of very few rock songs ever released legally in Iran.

"Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go"

Quick Thought

Now we see why it made sense to call this album A Night At The Opera.

Deep Thought

"Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me"

Quick Thought

We love a good Beelzebub reference.

Deep Thought

In Arabic, Beelzebub literally translates to "Lord of the Flies." In ancient Hebrew, Beelzebub referred to a Semitic deity who was mocked in some ancient Jewish rabbinical texts for being an object of idol worship. In Christian texts and theology, Beelzebub has been reinterpreted to be an actual demon; the name is used to refer to either Satan himself or to a minion of Satan.

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