Monday, August 26, 2013

Consequential Lyrics #1: Queen

I have finally come to terms with the idea that I'll never know what Freddie Mercury meant.

I fell in love with Queen as an eight year old and Freddie Mercury still has the honour of being my most important musical influence. Given all the personal meaning I invested in his creative output, I thought that Freddie would think about it in much the same way. However, when it came to talking about his music and lyrics, Freddie was vague. And flippant. Annoyingly vague and flippant. He boasted about the disposability of his music, famously likening his songs to Bic Razors. It was an irksome message: "You listen to it, like it, discard it, then on to the next. Disposable pop."

In his earliest interviews, he spoke of the difficulty and irritation associated with lyric writing. In later interviews, he spoke of the routine nature of creativity, the analogy that struck me most was that making music was much like churning out sausages in a factory. He consistently avoided disclosing any personal meanings and associations, urging listeners to develop their own interpretations. At the same time, there was a tantalising suggestion that there was some autobiographical meaning there: "People are always asking me what my lyrics mean. Well I say what any decent poet would say if you dared ask him to analyse his work: if you see it, darling, then it's there."

I've spent a lot of time with Freddie. I've read a lot of books and listened to a lot of interviews. I have talked to a lot of people about his attitude towards lyricism and musical creativity: from musical collaborators, biographers, documentarians to representatives from Queen Productions. Some fascinating revelations came from that research, one contributor even theorised that Freddie's reluctance to disclose the nature of his creative process was due to a superstition. Apparently, he feared that if he described his working process, he would lose that ability to create... and here I imagined that he just wanted to keep it all to himself, not make his feelings conversational fodder for untrustworthy music journalists.

I was in this never-ending search for this lost sound byte, where Freddie gives up the coy bravado and reveals something consequential. I'd find flecks of honesty here and there, a re-imagining of Freddie pulling up a piano to his bed, to play melodies if inspiration ever struck during the night. Of course there's that immortal anecdote of Crazy Little Thing Called Love being composed in a tub at the Munich Hilton. It was not because it particularly affected my relationship with his music, but I just never bought his dismissive "forget this, it means nothing" routine. Given the passion and complexity of his work and the immense effort it took to create it, I fail to see how he honestly believed his music was disposable.

But perhaps it was just me, perhaps it was just me! Perhaps I had just spent so much time with this music and I had theorised about it so much that I wanted to feel as if he invested something personal in his art. There was always that possibility that he only viewed music as a money-making venture, but I was forever hopeful that he had approached it as a sentimental artist. While everybody else I talked to could accept what he said at face value, it was harder for me to accept that maybe, he just didn't care as much as I did and maybe, just maybe, I didn't know him as well as I thought I did.

Ironically enough, there was once a time when I didn't really care what Freddie thought of his own lyrics. As a teenager, I wrote wildly preposterous online essays interpreting various Queen lyrics. I employed provocative techniques to get readers enraged and engaged. I wanted them to tell me I was wrong: "That was not what Freddie meant!". For me, it was not about being right, as such, it was about motivating listeners to articulate their personal understanding of these songs. The passion and the authority with which readers spoke about his lyricism really inspired me. Even though there was no citations for any of it, I was often moved by the insight and eloquence of these people who took the time to study his music so carefully.

All those essays, that research and production work invariably led to the invention of this series. Consequential Lyrics is a project which celebrates the meanings we independently create, as lovers and listeners of pop. We are naturally pre-disposed to create personal meanings, in such a way that provides comfort, wisdom and insight. For all the songs we do love, it's rare that we get that opportunity to faithfully articulate that significance in a properly ordered way. I suppose this project as an opportunity for you to express those private meanings, to record your voice, describing the significance of those songs in such a way that it legitimises the process of personal identification.

I may never find that sound byte, that phantom interview where Freddie reveals exactly what I want him to reveal. Frustration lies in the fact that nobody really asked the right questions, not the questions I would have wanted to ask, anyway. I comfort myself at the thought that he would have extremely unimpressed at my preposterous suggestions and my tenuous theories, connecting lyrical fragments to a varied succession of internal conflicts. Yet now it doesn't even really matter, I see now that his reluctance inspired to something far more personally meaningful. Whatever his feelings were about his music, life and words, I'm grateful to him for all the love and curiosity he inspired within me.

Consequential Lyrics #1: Queen
The Night Comes Down
The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke
The March of the Black Queen
In the Lap of the Gods (Revisited)
Spread Your Wings
The Show Must Go On

Download (53.3 MB)


James! said...

VERY much enjoyed this. I had never heard all but the last of those songs!

Can't wait for next week!

Eleanor said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, James! I'm thrilled you're looking forward to forthcoming episodes, I can't wait to hear your contribution too!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your article. Thank you. Before, I was also frustrated to not know. F.M. not explains his work, maybe because of philosophy

"Let everyone debate the true reality
I'd rather see my world the way it used to be" from a song "Going back".

Now, I prefer discover my self the reality, than to belive what he said. Thank you Freddie for your encourangement!


Unknown said...

Thank you Eleanor, for this great, insightful article/podcast.

I think interpreting songs based on our mind's "general-consensus" (whether it be, the pre-disclosed information we've gathered on the author's - or in this case, the lyricists's - body of work, or simply our general literal understanding, regardless of age and studies) is just as essential as analyzing a work against the facts (like, for instance, how the song 'Scandal' was inspired by the tabloid press commenting on Brian's divorce, etc.).

Just to further add on what you mentioned regarding the ongoing thread traced in 'My fairy king', etc. , take their following album, Queen II, for instance. Regardless of all the mythological associations one would come up with on analyzing the metaphoric values of the White/Black queens, the battles and the realm of Rhye, or who might have penned what song, Brian, Roger or Freddie, the lyrics alone could take you on a journey, like a novel or a film would.

Maybe that's what Freddie meant; the expression of feelings is there, and it's beyond real-life associations. After all, some say that a work of art should speak for itself, by itself, that sometimes no outer reference is needed to feel it, but just a bit of escapism.

Very excited about your future episodes.

Greetings from Iran,

-Aria Mohtadi Haghighi-

Eleanor said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, both Aria and Anonymous! I appreciate that you understand where I'm coming from!

I'm glad that you can see that we (sometimes, even unconsciously) gather information to determine the meaning of these songs. It's not a definitive conclusion, obviously, but we have a pretty good idea of what it's all about.

And you're totally on the mark with "what Freddie meant", Aria. It's quite a perfect articulation.

Thanks for your support!

Shot97 Retro said...

Part 1 of 2

I just loved reading this! I think Freddie was a mystery on purpose, and even those that knew him best often contradict each other when they talk about the stuff he told them. Brian May once said that he'd listen as Freddie told everyone the songs meant nothing to him, but he didn't believe it because he saw how much time he would spend on the lyrics. Some of the songs are fairly obviously a glimpse into his soul; like Love of my Life. Brian shared a story about Freddie writing My Fairy King and telling him the "mother Mercury" in the song was his mother, and would become Mercury, and he took that name.

Other times I wouldn't mind thinking it was a bit nonsensical. Sometimes people just want to have fun. I don't think he shared where they came from with many people, if any. I've seen interviews with people he was supposedly lovers with and they've talked about song meanings with songs that weren't even written by him. I know he just loved talking about I Want To Break Free and all the questions that would come his way because of a song that John Deacon wrote and the video. I mean he sort of did love that though if you see the way he responds to questions. Imagine being asked the same things over and over again...

Someone asked him about I Want To Break Free in English and he responded saying it wasn't his song... But then the same person asked it again in Spanish wanting him to repeat the answer... So he said "Okay, well this time, yes it is my song!"

I've really been pondering a lot of his later material. Originally it was hard to judge what was his because the band decided to give writing credits to the entire band after The Miracle. But after reading a bunch of books on Queen and Freddie I've come to find out that the later albums were largely his doing. He wanted to make as much music as he could before he died. The Miracle was done mostly without the band knowing, but he knew... And I look at the songs he wrote on that one, and he actually wrote quite a bit of that album including a bunch of the rockers which he hadn't been doing in some time.... The Miracle itself, Was it All Worth It... Almost like words from someone who knows something "might" be coming, but at the same time he thinks he can beat it. It's so hopeful.

Then there's Innuendo, and everyone knew it was coming to an end there. I had always thought that the Show Must Go On was Brian's, turns out Freddie wrote the first verse and had Brian complete it. He just wanted to get as much as possible out there. Even after that there was Made In Heaven (which I've got on white vinyl and it's amazing!) and I think A Winter's Tale from Freddie is amazing on that. Almost like Innuendo was like "oh no, it's almost over now..." and then the final few songs he worked on for Made in Heaven was like "I'm ready..."

-----End part 1

Shot97 Retro said...

Part 2 of 2

Anyway; I think he puts a lot into his lyrics. But sometimes even as a fan I like not knowing... Brian said that the first time he heard We Are The Champions he thought Freddie was mad because it was such an arrogant lyric. And Freddie told him "No, that's not it at all. This is about everyone." And yes, it's a song about true togetherness, teamwork.

Brian also said he hated Don't Stop Me Now because he viewed it as very much inspired by his clubbing activities... and I kind of wish I never knew that honestly. But that's just what Brian thinks of it. I look at that song as one of the most joyous songs that was ever created, just pure fun and energy.

I think the reason we want to know what these people were thinking when they wrote is because when we listen to their music is speaks to us. It reminds us of something in our lives. So we seek out their opinions, almost to justify our own thoughts. Sometimes the truth is better, sometimes it's awful. I've heard the truth about some of my favorite songs before straight from the mouths of those who wrote them, and it almost ruins them for me... I think Freddie understood that true art speaks to the person looking. He'd make fun of himself, saying it was all disposable... Well, maybe a self defense mechanism perhaps... Or maybe he just didn't want to sound too into himself. But I've always thought he put so much into his lyrics and music... The music itself was the same way; He made fun of his piano skills and later on didn't do as much of it, but he put quite a bit into the stuff he played on piano. He was an amazing piano player, or at the very least super unique with a style nobody else had. A band of 4 staying together for 20 years when personalities broke up everybody else. I think even at the height of thinking it was a sausage factory, that factory was his life.