What is the Song Bohemian Rhapsody About Anyway?

Last week, Bohemian Rhapsody was released on DVD, the Oscar-winning film about the band Queen and their lead singer, Freddie Mercury. The movie is titled after the famous song of the same name, a six-minute suite blending elements of rock and opera. It's only fitting that the album from which the song came was called A Night at the Opera, released in 1975. The star track Bohemian Rhapsody is considered by many to be Mercury's magnum opus.

With the success of the film, I thought I'd revisit the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody. What is this song about anyway? Plenty of legendary rock songs are nonsense (since a lot of these guys were probably on drugs when they wrote them), but Mercury was a meticulous and brilliant lyricist. A friend of mine recently said, "Sometimes a movie is just a movie." Well, sometimes a song is just a song. But there's more going on in Bohemian Rhapsody than meets the ears.


In order to understand the underlying message, we need a little background. Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in a British territory of Zanzibar on the east coast of Africa. His parents immigrated from British India and were Parsis, meaning that they practiced Zoroastrianism; a pantheistic, free-will religion that teaches you must have "good thoughts, good words, good deeds." Though Zoroastrians believe in a version of heaven and hell, ultimately everyone will be "saved" whether they did good or bad, and they will be reunited with the "Wise Lord" in immortality. When Mercury died in 1991, his funeral was conducted by a Zoroastrian priest at Mercury's request.

As a boy, Mercury was sent away from his parents to St. Peter's Church of England School, an all-boys boarding school in Panchgani, India; later to finish at St. Joseph's Convent School in Zanzibar. It was in boarding school that he was given the more English-sounding nickname Freddie. A violent revolution rose up in Zanzibar in 1964, so Mercury fled with his family to England, where he attended a liberal arts college and graduated in 1969 with a degree in graphic art and design. Mercury incorporated these skills into designing Queen's logo and his performance costumes.

In 1970, Mercury wrote a song called My Fairy King. Toward the close of the song, he mentioned "Mother Mercury." He later said, "I am going to become Mercury, as the mother in this song is my mother." In the film Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury was criticized by his father that the Bulsara name was "not good enough." The likelihood though is that it simply never mattered to Mercury. Consider the very last line of Bohemian Rhapsody: "Nothing really matters to me."

If you knew nothing else happening in the lyrics to this song, that line would tell you all you need to know: Freddie Mercury believed, "Nothing really matters." His worldview was not driven by secularism or born out of irreligion—this was his religion. Mercury's music was a hodgepodge of religious subtext, which the movie only barely touched on.

Mercury received his primary education through Anglican and Catholic schooling, all the while underscored by his family's Zoroastrianism, a religion that preaches do what you think is right and everyone is going to the same place anyway. Therefore, "Nothing really matters."


As we dissect the lyrics, let's start with that title. What is a Bohemian rhapsody? The term "Bohemian" was coined in western Europe in the 19th century in reference to gypsies who were thought to have come from Bohemia. The word would later be used to describe any person rich or poor who lived an unconventional lifestyle. A Bohemian's interests were outside the norm, particularly when it came to expressions of art, music, literature, or spirituality.

A "rhapsody" is a single-movement piece of music or an epic poem with highly contrasting themes. So by the title alone, we might expect Bohemian Rhapsody to be a musical epic about an unconventional person. Queen's guitarist Brian May said, "Freddie never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot himself into that song."

The song begins by asking if life is "real" or a "fantasy" we're unwillingly "caught in" from which there is "no escape." Here are the opening lyrics, sung acapella at first, then underscored with piano:
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
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
Having mentioned the closing line, the song ends the same way it begins: "Nothing really matters to me." This was Mercury's approach to life. In his 1985 interview with David Wigg, Mercury was asked, "How do you want to be remembered when you die?" Mercury replied, "Dead and gone. Who cares?"

The song continues and gradually elevates in strength:
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, oh-oh
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
Now we get more religious. In several of Mercury's songs, Mama represented the feminine or nurturing side of God. This opinion about God was influenced by Zoroastrianism. The Persian prophet Zoroaster referred to their god Ahura Mazda in both masculine and feminine terms interchangeably, depending on the attribute of god he was referring to.

It's interesting to note the opening line of this segment begins, "Mama just killed a man," rather than, "Mama, I just killed a man." We would be led to think Mama was the one who put a gun against a man's head until the singer sings, "Pulled my trigger now he's dead." This was intentional. What Mercury was conveying here was that God tempted me with all these things He then called evil. They pleased me, but they displeased God. Why then did God give them to me? God put the gun against my head, but I'm the one that pulled the trigger.

Since Mercury referred to what he characterized as the effeminate side of God, the singer apologizes and says he "didn't mean to make you cry." But "carry on, as if nothing really matters." Mercury thought God didn't care about anything that happened. If He did, He wouldn't allow the people He created to be tempted by the evil that He would eventually judge them for. Ultimately, according to Mercury's worldview, there is no divine mercy, nor is there lasting punishment for evil. Therefore, "Carry on, as if nothing really matters."

The "man" who was killed in the song was Mercury himself, but this doesn't mean he was thinking of committing suicide. He was singing about a series of personal yet destructive decisions that would eventually kill him. This was not unlike Mercury to write of such things. In his song Great King Rat, he sang about a man who died of a sexually transmitted disease at the age of 44. This was somewhat prophetic considering Mercury died of AIDS brought on by his homosexual perversion at the age of 45.

It's in Great King Rat that Mercury sang, "Don't believe all you read in the Bible," and "Don't listen to what Mama says," but instead, "Put out the good and keep the bad." You already know what's best for you: "I'm not going to tell you what you already know." (In the aforementioned 1985 interview, Mercury was asked whom he turned to whenever he had a problem. He said, "I have a lot of mirrors.")

When you live the way you want to live, "Very soon you're gonna be his disciple," a disciple of the Great King Rat. Through the voice of Mercury, Satan whispers, "Don't follow God. Follow me!" All these little decisions for yourself are "dirty," and will eventually kill you. Again, it's a slow death, not a sudden suicide, as Mercury notes next in Bohemian Rhapsody:
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, oh-oh (anyway the wind blows)
I don't want to die
Sometimes I wish I'd never been born at all
The singer is slowly killing himself and he knows that, but he doesn't really want to die. A part of Mercury understood that after death comes judgment, hence why the singer thought it would have been better if he'd "never been born at all." Mercury lived his life feeding his sensuous appetites, but none of it ever brought him any fulfillment—even in 1975 when Bohemian Rhapsody debuted and Mercury was hardly 30 years old. As rich and as famous as he was, he was always unsatisfied and wanted more.

Zoroastrians see life as a battle between two spirits: Spenta Mainyu, the good spirit or the "Bounteous Principle," and Angra Mainyu, the chaotic spirit or the "Destructive Principle." Mercury identified himself with the destructive spirit since "nothing really matters." Though a person who lived destructively might go to the Zoroastrian equivalent of hell, all of creation is eventually renovated by a savior-like figure, and everyone returns to Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord," in immortality.

In Mercury's 1985 interview, Wigg asked him, "Do you think you're going to get to heaven?" Mercury replied, "No, I don't want to. Hell is much better. Look at the interesting people you're going to meet down there?" He only thought so flippantly of hell because Zoroastrianism taught him hell was just a hang-out until immortality is granted to everyone. But the Bible is clear hell is eternal punishment for those who rejected Christ and followed the devil.

From here, Bohemian Rhapsody picks up tempo and we enter into the operetta section. Likewise, the lyrics get more intense as well:
I see a little silhouetto of a man
Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango
Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me
Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro, Magnifico
Lyrics like this have led many to conclude that the song is mostly nonsense, but these lines are very revealing. The singer sees but a shadow of a man, a "little silhouetto," someone who doesn't make a great impression and is easily vanquished as a shadow disappears when someone turns on a light. A "scaramouch" is a stock clown character in Italian theater. So he's singing of someone (himself) who is of no consequence but gives everyone a few laughs for a while.

He then sings, "Will you do the Fandango?" The Fandango is a Spanish dance. It's a euphemism for hanging himself—again, keeping up the motif of slowly killing himself with the life choices he makes. "Thunderbolt and lightning" means God is displeased with how he lives his life. With that in mind, "Galileo" is not a reference to Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer, at least not entirely. (As a winking aside, Galileo was the first astronomer to observe the planet Mercury through a telescope.)

Galileo Figaro Magnifico
in Latin means "Make great the Galilean's figure" or image. Galilean is the Roman name for Jesus Christ. Maybe the singer could break the cycle of his meaningless comedy if he were to call upon Jesus (and maybe Mercury himself was asking Jesus to search him out just as Galileo found Mercury).

Of course, this is if "Figaro" was spelled figuro instead of like the character in the opera The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini. In the opera's most famous piece Figaro's Aria, Figaro sings of "a good life! What pleasures there are." He calls out his own name multiple times, but toward the end of the aria, he's so popular that he's unable to meet the demands of all his adoring customers.

In Bohemian Rhapsody, the singer calls upon Jesus multiple times to save him from the meaninglessness of life and possibly the wrath of God. But if the inference of Figaro's Aria is to be considered, Mercury thought of Jesus as being too too busy or He just didn't care—He can't meet the demands of all His adorers (Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice made this same criticism of Christ in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which preceded the release of Bohemian Rhapsody by several years).

Here's where the lyric goes next, still in an operatic style:
I'm just a poor boy, 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
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 (never let you go)
Let me go (never let me go)
Oh oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no
The singer says he's someone of no consequence no one really cares for. Being a "poor boy" means he was too immature to know that his decisions were so destructive. The accompanying choir repeats his prayer as though angels or saints (considering Mercury's Catholic influence) are also praying for him: "Spare him his life from this monstrosity." It's as though the singer is saying, "I came into these things easily; will you let me off easy?" and also, "I'm of no consequence; why bother with me?"

Then comes the line, "Bismillah, no, we will not let you go." I first heard this song a few years after it was made popular in America by the 1992 film Wayne's World. Even at a young age, the word "Bismillah" clued me in to recognizing there was more going on in the song than random lyrics. No one says "Bismillah" just because. "Bismillah" is the first word in the Quran, and it means, "In the name of God," also called, "most gracious, most merciful."

Three times it is sung, "Bismillah, no, we will not let you go." Mercury was presenting what he thought of as the personality of the Muslim god and the Christian Triune God together as the same god, whom Mercury did not think of as gracious and merciful. "Bismillah" is sung harshly. The angelic chorus pleads, "Let him go," and instead "Bismillah" curses the singer and denies him relief from cravings of his flesh: "We will not let you go."

The opera portion concludes with this:
Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go
Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me
For me, for me
Again, "Mama" was Mercury's effeminate title for God. "Beelzebub" is another name for Satan (from Matthew 10:25, Mark 3:22, and Luke 11:18). Since God is not going to relieve the singer of his lusty appetites, Satan is waiting in the wings with a devil to keep the singer company while he gives in to indulging in the passions of his flesh. The demons are better fellowship for the singer than God.

Mercury blamed God for the temptation he experienced and the sins he committed as if God was the one who caused them. He was no different than Adam in the Garden of Eden, when Adam said to God, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate" (Genesis 3:12). If only Mercury understood the words of James 1:12-15, when he said:
"Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death."
God is not guilty of your sin—you are. You have no one to blame but yourself. If indeed Mercury prayed to God and asked to be delivered from temptation, the reason God didn't grant his request was because he asked with wrong motives. He only wanted his guilt taken away—he didn't actually want to honor God with his life or stop doing what he was doing. James 4:3 goes on to say, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions."

At this point, the song leaves the opera and goes hard rock. Whatever your opinion is of rock, it is often an angry genre of music, and Mercury is straight-up spiteful as he sings:
So you think you can stop 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
Singing "baby" and saying "so you think you can love me and leave me to die" sounds like grief over a woman who broke his heart. But nothing else in the song has set the tone for that. The singer has taken on the persona of a hard-rocker singing of his broken heart when he expresses his hatred toward God for not caring about him.

From the singer's perspective, if God truly loved him, God wouldn't let him die like this. Threats of punishment against the evil-doer are not enough to stop the singer from indulging in his temptations. He's "just gotta get out" of the cycle of temptation and guilt he can't seem to find relief for. But instead of repenting of his pride and blasphemy and finding peace with God through Jesus Christ, he relieves himself by hardening his heart and giving in.

Then the song calms way down into a ballad again, and it ends the same way it began:
Nothing really matters
Anyone can see
Nothing really matters
Nothing really matters to me
(Anyway the wind blows)
Nothing really matters which anyone can see. Just like in Great King Rat, you know what's good for you. Do what thou wilt, for nothing really matters anyway.


Songwriter Tim Rice said he knew the secret of Bohemian Rhapsody. "It's fairly obvious to me that this was Freddie's coming out song," Rice said. "This is Freddie admitting that he is gay." One of Mercury's homosexual partners agreed. "Bohemian Rhapsody was Freddie's confessional," said hairdresser Jim Hutton. "It was about how different his life could have been, and how much happier he might have been, had he just been able to be himself the whole of his life."

Brian May denied it: "What's it about? None of us know. Freddie never talked about it to my knowledge and didn't want to and that's the way it should be. He had something in his mind and he loved to spin these little pieces of magic. A little bit of reality and little bit of fantasy. If anyone tries to unravel it, they'll never manage it, because they'll never know what went into those lyrics."

I searched multiple websites and read several dissections of the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody. None of them considered the influence of religion on Freddie Mercury. He feared judgment for his sins, and the honesty of his tormented soul came out in his most famous work. But instead of repenting of his sins, he blasphemed God and pursued worldly pleasure and treasure. In Luke 4:7, the Devil said, "If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Freddie Mercury fell for it, and it killed him.

When a person believes nothing we do in this life has eternal significance, then "nothing really matters." When a person believes everyone receives eternal life and no one gets eternal punishment, they will do whatever they want expecting the outcome will ultimately be the same for all. But the Bible says that those who persist in sin will "be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thessalonians 2:12). Jesus said, "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:46).

Everything matters. You were made to glorify God. Do not sell your eternal soul for the fleeting pleasure of sin, leaving you empty and leading to judgment. Know the gospel of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross as a sacrifice for sins and rose again from the grave, so that all who believe in Him will receive His eternal life. Turn from your sin and follow Jesus. He will clothe you in His righteousness. You will be received by your Father in heaven. And you will live in His kingdom forever.

Next Week: My son met Mary Sue, and he hated her.

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