Bohemian RhapsodySome popular songs lose their appeal and fade into obscurity as soon as they have existed long enough to have outgrown the attractiveness of being new and current. Other songs make the transition from current hits to oldies and become nostalgic memories for some and offer a sense of musical stability over time for others. Yet other songs never leave the mainstream and continue to be popular for an indefinite period of time. Bohemian Rhapsody falls into this category. Recorded and released by the English rock band Queen in 1975, the song is still well known and loved by a notably large portion of the inhabitants of our culture. Its appeal does not lie only in its musically aesthetic quality, for there are many pieces of music in existence that are aesthetically pleasing, and long-term popularity cannot be ensured simply by being a “good song”. Bohemian Rhapsody’s timeless role in pop culture is a result of other likable qualities, such as its vaguely abstract lyrics that make just enough sense to be thought-provoking, seemingly metaphorical, and universally relatable, without being specific enough to confine the song to a single context.

Bohemian Rhapsody begins simply with the line, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”, introducing a binary opposition and a tone of uncertainty which sets up the sense of a dichotomy, even though the question is answered to some degree by the following line: “Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.” The listener can relate to the singer as he questions the nature of reality and implies that he is trying to escape from it. The song continues, “Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see. I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy.” It is not clear who the singer is addressing and what exactly the implied audience is supposed to see in the skies. It is also not clear whether this rejection of sympathy is sincere, or whether the statement is ironic and actually is meant to evoke pity.

BohemiaThe song articulates its theme in the next couple lines: “Cause I’m easy come, easy go, little high, little low, any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me, to me.” This sense of directionless is what puts the word “Bohemian” in the title. Although Bohemia refers to a specific geographical location in central Europe, the song title is using the word to refer to the bohemian lifestyle. Although the term has been used in some officially defined contexts, Bohemian generally can be used to mean more or less the same thing as Hippie. Although “bohemian” is an older phrase, they both describe a type of person who prefers a free and unstructured way of life than that of normal society.

After a brief pause in the lyrics, the second verse begins, and the poor boy who needs no sympathy informs us of the context of this monologue. As it turns out, he has committed a murder. He sings, “Mama, just killed a man. Put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger now he’s dead. Mama, life had just begun, but now I’ve gone and thrown it all away.”  The listener is not told why the singer killed a man. Maybe it was self-defense, or maybe it was an argument that escalated into a gunfight, or maybe it was a cold-blooded murder committed for no reason at all. This detail is evidently not relevant to the song. We can infer that the singer is on the run because he continues, “Mama, Ooh-ooh-ooh, 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.” Although he is repeating a line from the previous verse, this same phrase carries a very different meaning this time. Now the singer is using this idea of meaningless as a word of comfort in a miserable situation, but he is acknowledging that it is only an act; that things do in fact matter.

Bohemian RhapsodyIn fact, the singer now sounds to be anything but carefree. The next verse begins, “Too late, my time has come, sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time. Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go. Got to leave you all behind and face the truth.” It would seem that at this point, the singer has been caught and is being taken to trial, or perhaps he is turning himself in to the authorities. His remark about facing the truth seems somewhat ironic when juxtaposed to the opening lines of the song, which questioned reality. Apparently, that question has now been fully answered, and we are to assume that this is “the real life”, not fantasy. The other question is whether or not anything really matters. Although that point was never stated as a question, it is evidently something that the singer does not decisively know; he seems to change his mind. Now, he evidently does not believe that nothing really matters, because this verse does not end with that previously repeated line. Instead, it ends “Mama, Ooh-ooh-ooh, I don’t want to die, sometimes I wish I’d never been born at all”, followed by a dramatic instrumental where the dismissively carefree line otherwise would have been.

Scaramouche

Scaramouche

After this instrumental, the song changes. The melody is different, and there are additional voices. The lyrics, now sung by someone other than the poor boy with whom the listener is already acquainted, continue “I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” Scaramouche is a character of the commedia dell’arte, a theater tradition which originated in 16th century Italy. It was by nature comic and somewhat improvised, and the characters were exaggerated stock characters that were meant to be ridiculous. Scaramouche, also known as Scaramuccia, is a rouge who is known for his black mask and his conceited manner of speech. Presumably, the people singing this line in the song are either the authorities or upper-class people, and this line indicates that they are pigeonholing the main singer into a stock character role, so to speak, because of his comparatively low social status. If this part of the song is taking place at the trial or in jail, it is evident that neither he nor his crime is being taken particularly seriously; the case is a matter of entertainment and humor for those around him. This fact is emphasized by the quicker and more staccato melody at this point in the song.

The following line, “Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me”, is sung by a larger group of people, who then take turns singing the name “Galileo” followed by the name “Figaro” and the word “Magnifico”. Galileo, of course, is the name of a very influential Italian scientist of the Englightenment era. Figaro is the name of a famous opera character, but the famous Barber of Seville opera was in fact based upon a play by the same name that was inspired by the aforementioned commedia dell’arte tradition. Magnifico refers either to a Venetian nobleman or to a high-ranking person in a less specific sense. Whatever these lines contribute to the plot of the song, a class distinction is being emphasized between the lead singer and this other group of people.

Poe boyThe original singer continues this theme as he now sings, “ I’m just a poor boy; nobody loves me.” This echoes the beginning of the song, but at that point, the singer continued by saying he needs no sympathy, and now he is asking for sympathy. A chorus jumps to his defense, singing “He’s just a poor boy from a poor family; spare him his life from this monstrosity!”

This is followed by a three-way argument between the ‘poor boy’ and the two groups of people. The original singer begins, “Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?” One chorus responds, “Bismillah! No! We will not let you go!” Bismillah, short for the Arabic phrase “Bismillah- ir Rahman-ir-Rahm”, is an exclamation that more or less means “In the name of God!” (Technically, this “god” is Allah) In repeating and slightly overlapping lines, one group demands the release of the ‘poor boy’ and the other refuses to let him go. The original singer re-enters the melee with the line “Mama Mia, Mama Mia, Mama Mia, let me go!” and his supporters join in on the third “Mama Mia!” The phrase “Mama Mia” is Italian for “my mother”, but it is also a generic exclamation, (one that is more vernacular than “Bismillah”) and it hearkens back to the “Mama” lines earlier in the song.

I tried to write this blog post without mentioning Weird Al's version, but I just couldn't do it.

I tried to write this blog post without mentioning Weird Al’s version, but I just couldn’t do it.

The chorus continues, “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me!” After a brief upbeat instrumental which makes it obvious that this song is ideal material for the likes of Weird Al Yankovic, the song becomes a monologue once again, as the original singer says, “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 got to get out, just got to get right out of here.” But then the song becomes quieter and slows down again. After a couple “Ooh yeah”s, the song returns to its earlier theme: “Nothing  really matters. Anyone can see. Nothing really matters… nothing really matters to me.”  Finally, the line “Any way the wind blows” recurs one more time at the very end.

Essentially, the song alternates between the idea that “nothing really matters” and the need to escape from an unpleasant situation that clearly does matter. It also presents the dichotomy between the so-called Bohemian “any way the wind blows” philosophy and the theme of confinement. Additionally, the opening question about reality, which seems to have been forgotten in the lyrics of the rest of the song, is implied again by these dichotomies. The singer of the song speaks as a bohemian sort of person who believes that “nothing really matters” and who goes through life with an “any way the wind blows” mindset, but he finds himself in a situation where he is described as a stock character and where he is must plead for his release in a very non-“any way the wind blows” way, so is that really the real life? It’s certainly not his idea of “the real life.” And, of course, the song is itself a composed piece of art; the exact scenario that it relates didn’t literally happen, at least not to the specific people singing the song. Presumably, it is meant to be metaphorical in some way, and perhaps it is also meant to be a social commentary.  At any rate, one thing is clear. The song itself is not real life, it is just fantasy.

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