Is This the Real Life? “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the 1970s

The 70s. I lived through them, from 7 to 17. If, for kids growing up now, everything is fast and small and mobile, back then the world was clunky and enormous, slow and stuck in the earth: huge golf ball movie theatres with IMAX screens; towering hotels; blimps floating from above; tv stars in captain’s hats sunning on the decks of giant yachts; chugging spacecraft sniffing out planets; seven foot afro’ed ballplayers; and enormous home speakers: great teak blocks named after one German family or another. People aspired, or defaulted, to the large: big cars, big pants, tall heels, Texas mickeys, and Elton John sunglasses. ELO came out of a spaceship. The Tubes had thirty men and women on stage with giant rubber cocks protruding from their jumpsuits. Ted Nugent arrived on stage in a tank and Queen had a number one record with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a brilliantly self-parodying, self-indulgent epic that lasted north of six minutes, and took two weeks to record.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” b/w “I’m in Love with my Car” is the statue 45 of its times. It defines the aesthetic and sensibility of its age the way “Smells Like Teen Spirit” defined the 90s and “Billie Jean” defined the 80s. It’s a construct that’s part Jodorwosky, part Mel Brooks, part Doug Henning and part Stonewall riots. It’s fancy, ribald, dexterous, passionate, funny and true: a candy cannon firing caramel squares that sting with surprise. “Is this the real life?” could have been the alternate name of any film or book or essay published about the pre-fab, decadent, narcissistic, linoleal 1970s. It’s not so much that people asked themselves this question, but, rather, how they asked it, shaking their head (in Canada, anyway) at their fat luck, freedom and relative Western prosperity: a microwave (or three) in every home, a hot tub in the backyard, six televisions and a huge car plus a huger motor boat. “Is this the real life?” is the perfect opening line for any work of art because it’s an elemental question, and there hasn’t been a more transparent verse in rock and roll. Another 70s thing: enjoy the dream, because, soon, you’ll probably kill it.

The first part of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is accapella– born of 40s music hall theatre and barbershop quartet– before a grand– baroque, even– piano figure guides the melody down a cobblestone’d Sweeney Todd laneway. There, we learn of a murder– commited by a gun with a BANG flag at the end of its barrel– and the despair of Freddie Mercury’s central figure: a man who has come to the end of his life’s journey, escorted to the splendid afterlife by drums, guitar, bass. Then, another self-effacing and self-reflexive 70s bumper sticker: “Nothing really matters.” Over the first few minutes of the piece, Queen– despite creating an inspired and stunning masterwork– tells us two things: one, not much about the composition is real, and no matter how capable the song is at being unreal, it’s still a moot point. Art is art, but mostly, art is bullshit. Rock and roll is bullshit. TV is bullshit. The 70s are bullshit, and they were. “Nothing really matters.” Whatever you’re hanging on to through the narrative of the song, it’s too much.

A lot has been written about the absurd final act of the piece– the faux operatic odessy– and how it took the band ages to play because of the laughter that consumed them take after take after take. And if what comes before wasn’t so existentially interesting, it probably wouldn’t play, as it does, on its own terms. But as we’ve seen over the course of these 45 studies, the best records are the ones that surprise, and there have been few greater surprises in the history of rock than the last movement– “movements” are bullshit, too, by the way– of this song. It’s hard to know it’s full affect without hearing it for the first time because none of us are nine years old, but as the earth winnows and time weathers and we move inexorably to whatever conclusion awaits our civilization, I’d like to think that this is the performance we might leave for whatever species picks through the wreckage. They’d listen to it and hear a people who took themselves seriously enough to know not to take themselves too seriously. If art isn’t trying to fool you into believing, it isn’t trying hard enough. Few songs try this hard.

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