Professor dissects “Bohemian Rhapsody”

On Friday, April 8, St. Olaf hosted a lecture by Jack Boss, a visiting professor of Music Theory and Composition from the University of Oregon, entitled An Analysis of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.

The event started at 7 p.m. with Boss playing the Bohemian Rhapsody music video in its entirety. Despite being an academic lecture, the room was full of the toe-tapping and restrained head banging of attendees who couldn’t help but be infected with the rhythm and vitality of Queen’s iconic hit.

From there, Boss began by explaining that this song had an immense impact on him when it was released in 1975. Though, being only in high school, he said he could not put a finger on it then what exactly it is was that drew him to Bohemian Rhapsody. He claimed that after 40 years he finally had nailed down why it was he liked listening to it and hoped by the end of the lecture that the audience would know why too.

The first aspect of the song that he analyzed was the lyrics. He gave a compelling reading of them, saying that the famous line “Mama, just killed a man” was not describing someone confessing to his mother about committing murder, but in fact was describing Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, coming out to his girlfriend, Mary Austin, and killing the idea that he was just a heterosexual man.

Boss further expounded upon this reading when he pointed out that the song’s defiant tone with lines like “so you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?” and repetition of “nothing really matters to me” indicates the character in the song’s desire to transcend oppression and legitimize the gay experience.

The second, and longer, section of the lecture was an analysis of the theory behind the song. While Boss at some instances did link how what the music was doing complimented the overall message he was arguing Bohemian Rhapsody conveyed, for the most part he merely went through and explained what the music was doing in terms of music theory.

This part of the talk was much less accessible for the casual music lover who may have been in attendance. Boss did cover the basics like discussing the chord progressions and key changes that those with any music theory would have understood, but any non-music majors would have become very confused once he jumped into discussing how this rock song loosely mimicked sonata form and how to understand the structure of Bohemian Rhapsody using Neo-Riemannian theory.

Unlike his fascinating explanation of the lyrics, it was hard to find an underlying theme or point to this part of the talk. Part of this may have been the complexity of the theory he was delving into, but even so it would have been nice to see more of how that contributed to the song as a whole, whether aesthetically or in terms of how it conveyed the message.

In the end though, Boss was able to share with his audience what he loved most about this rock song: the multiple layers of meaning in the lyrics and the complexity of its form.

Though many of those at the lecture will walk away to return to thinking of Bohemian Rhapsody as an eccentric, unique product of the hard rock genre and continue to use it as a preferred song to sing in the shower, doing all of the voices à la Wayne’s World, they certainly will have gained a new appreciation for the song and a recongition that there is more to it than meets the eye.

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