'Bohemian Rhapsody,' From Queen to 'Glee'

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>Let's face the truth: a song that is part piano-tinkling ballad, part mock opera, part head-banging rock, a song that features a choir singing—repeatedly and sometimes in falsetto—"mama mia," "Galileo," and "magnifico-o-o-o-o," a song that typified the glammy theatrics of the '70s, a song that was sung on video by a whippet in a white satin tuxedo with Cleopatra eyeliner and an overbite, is just destined (as much as one might object) for enduring greatness.

The Muppets recognized this. So did Mike Myers. And The Flaming Lips. And of course it was the song Vocal Adrenaline would select to win the regional title (battling it out in a duet with Quinn's labor pains), ending Glee's inaugural season on a literal high note. How apt that "Bohemian Rhapsody" played out on the nonpareil of karaoke stages.


Other than "Happy Birthday," I can think of no other song that has followed me so consistently throughout my life. I was ten years old when it hit our local radio station, and I was absolutely obsessed with Mercury's fatalistic lyrics. Still young and literal enough to believe that songwriters sang about their lives, I actually thought Freddie was performing the number from prison:

Mama just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead

Mercury, who originally scribbled ideas for "Bohemian Rhapsody" on scraps of paper, refused to explain the meaning behind the words, other than to say the song was about relationships. My mother once told me that she preferred the songs from her 1950's youth because they told stories (she has recently become a fan of country music for the same reason), and I do think that the power "Bohemian Rhapsody" first held for me lay in its compelling narrative. "I sometimes wish I'd never been born," he sings to his mother, over what I imagined was a prison pay phone. (The lyrics were made even more poignant by Mercury's death in 1991.)

At ten, I couldn't really wrap my head around the song's second act. When Mercury performed an early version of the song for Roy Thomas Baker, who would go on to produce it, the musician played the beginning on the piano, then stopped and said, "This is where the opera section comes in."

Of course, it's the thunderbolts and lightening part that's most fun to sing. I'll never forget the night I went over to a friend's townhouse for her engagement party. I was the only white person in attendance, a fact I didn't notice until "Bohemian Rhapsody" came on the radio. All of a sudden, guests from all corners and all levels of the house gathered en masse around the speakers and began to sing along, word for word, at the tops of their lungs, first note to last. It was a joyous and amazing moment in time. Not that I think the song is white people music. I was just surprised that black people liked it, too. It was like I was in some Technicolor musical, where a song had the capacity to turn a roomful of people into a Judy Garland-on-the-clanging-trolley number where virtual strangers magically know all the same words and dance steps.

"It sticks, it sticks," insists my friend when I ask her to explain the song's staying power. It sticks to everything, in fact. By not being confined to any one genre of music it's remained essentially ageless. And thanks to its recent show-stopping appearance on 'tween favorite Glee, the song will stick to a whole new generation of kids. Long live the Fandango.

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Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney'sMore

Cathy Alter is a DC-based writer and author. Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, Washingtonian, the Huffington Post, Self, and McSweeney's. Her book, Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood (Crown) was released in 2004 and her memoir, Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over (Atria) was released in July 2008 and is now available in paperback.
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