Post Structuralism and the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody
Recently, I procured a copy of the BBC documentary “The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody.” As part of the documentary, the producers assembled a group of distinguished Oxford scholars to discuss the song’s meaning. This whole scenario interested me for two reasons. First, the Oxford scholars seemed stumped about the meaning, and second, before my viewing of the documentary, my students and I had already discussed and derived at our own understanding of Bohemian Rhapsody in the graduate level lit theory course I teach online for Southern New Hampshire University. Several theoretical perspectives might shed light on this enigmatic, epic hit.
First, embracing a good perspective on poetry is helpful, keeping in mind that lyrics are a type of poetry.
In his teaching company course “How to Read and Understand Poetry,” Willard Spiegleman suggests that a search for meaning, especially a deeper meaning, is not the best approach to poetry. Instead, we should ask “how poets go about their business of communicating thought and feeling” (1).
Poetry is more a matter of method than message. As Coleridge once said, “Poetry is the best words in the best order.” Thus, order of composition and form are central (Spiegleman 1).
All lyrical poems can be reduced to a series of clichés, with the meaning irrelevant:
She loves me; she loves me not.
I am happy; I am sad.
I feel at home in the world; I don’t feel at home in the world.
I am old, and I must die. . .
Thus, we should not ask what a poem means; instead, we should consider questions such as:
What do I notice about this poem?
What is strange, different, or unique about it?
What new words does it present, or familiar words in fresh positions?
Why is the poem the way it is and not an alternative presentation?
Poetry can be thought of as an equation between expectation and the fulfillment or undermining of expectation. We should ask, “Why did the artist make this choice rather than that choice, use this word rather than that one?” Approaching poetry involves paying close attention to diction, syntax, and form (Spiegleman 1).
This approach to and understanding of poetry, which doesn’t dwell on meaning, fits in well with the deconstructionist idea that a literary work isn’t centered around a fixed structure of semantics but a “free play” of meaning, to use Derrida’s terminology. The meaning is not exact but opaque, a skeptic might say even meaningless. The Owl by Wendy Videlock may illustrate:
Beneath her nest,
a shrew's head,
a finch's beak
and the bones
of a quail attest
the owl devours
The Owl suggests a philosophical statement, but the statement isn’t clear. Something is missing in the metaphorical equation of vehicle over tenor present in the poem’s analogy:
Vehicle / Tenor = the owl’s eating habits / X (unknown).
Consider another selection, in translation, by Vera Pavlova, To converse with the greats:
To converse with the greats
by trying their blindfolds on;
to correspond with books
by rewriting them;
to edit holy edicts,
and at the midnight hour
to talk with the clock by tapping a wall
in the solitary confinement of the universe.
This poem, full of startling paradoxes, despite its poetic structure, serves as one long sentence fragment; it doesn’t express a complete thought and therefore lacks unity. The meaning of the poem is lost because the thought is never finished. The reader is left asking, “To converse with the greats, is what . . . .?” The idea is incomplete so the meaning remains obscure, not centered around a fixed structure, in this case, a completed thought.
As Spiegleman has suggested, we shouldn’t ask what a poem like this means because it has no precise meaning, only a topic. Understanding it lies in an analysis of diction, syntax, and form. Think about it this way; it doesn’t matter what a poem means if it isn’t well crafted.
If you read a large survey of poetry you’ll find that, although some poems do, in fact, seem to have some unified structure of meaning, others simply do not. They are topics without statements, and this is especially the case with more contemporary selections of the variety found in Poetry. If you try to “decode” these poems, an ill-advised endeavor, if you try to find a unified thought or meaning, all you’ll get is a headache! But Poetry is not alone.
Where, by Moira Lineman is another example of a poem of this mien.
Where the Acushnet met the Lima near the Equator.
Where Herman Melville, a Green hand aboard the Acushnet,
met with William Henry Chase, a young teen aboard the Lima,
Chase the son of the first mate on the Essex, rammed and sunk
by a sperm whale before William Henry was born. Where
father and crew survived three months in whaleboats, eating
those who died. Where the younger Chase loaned the future writer
his father’s book, Narrative of the Wreck of the Whaleship
Essex, book the son had brought with him to sea. Where Melville
read “this wondrous story upon the landless sea & chose
to the very latitude of the shipwreck”—this where
where converged in the waters of the Pacific an ending,
a beginning. Where Melville first signed Moby Dick. (240)
One can infer from the publication in which this poem appeared, Christianity and Literature, that it concerns the spiritual, the supernatural, the transcendent—that Aha moment with the divine that occurs on the wanton waves when the eyeball rolls a bit crazily in search of the elusive white whale, but the idea is only hinted at. Here, coincidentally, we are faced with another string of sentence fragments that prevents the expression of a complete thought, leaving the center of the work a freeplay of meaning.
Like these poems, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody centers around a freeplay of meaning. This rock smash has been described as “not obvious” or “magnificently obscure” (Jones 179): “If you try to dissect the lyrics, the song is utterly meaningless. It is about nothing. It is just a string of dreams, flashbacks, flash-forwards, vignettes, completely disjointed ideas” (183).
Bohemian Rhapsody can aptly be described using all the favored vernacular of the deconstructionist. The song is “fragmented, self-divided, and centerless” (sic). It is “inherently relativistic,” with “no absolutes or fixed points,” a “decentered universe” (sic) (Barry 65). The song is full of shifts and breaks, expressive of “instabilities of attitude, and hence a lack of fixed and unified position.” It demonstrates “the way language doesn’t reflect or convey our world but constitutes a world of its own, a kind of parallel universe or virtual reality” (72).
The song is very post modernistic, being “characterized by open-endedness and collage” (Rabkin 45). The song is multi-sectional, with different speakers in different situations. The story seems to change. First we are presented with the cowboy who’s shot somebody, but by the end of the song, we’re learning of a romantic relationship that’s gone awry—sandwiched in between these episodes, opera and other fragmented pieces.
The song’s pastiche-like quality certainly derived from the technique Freddie Mercury used for its composition:
“It was really three songs and I just put them together. I’d always wanted to do something operatic, something with a mood-setter at the start, going into a rock type of thing that completely breaks off into an opera section – a vicious twist – and then returns to the theme.” (Brooks, and Lupton 45)
The song begins by asking a philosophical question: “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy?” The boundaries between reality and fiction are questioned. Again, this is all very characteristically postmodern, where we wonder what is true and what is illusory. Mercury had Indian roots. Might this have influenced his post modernistic sensibilities, given postmodernism’s disillusionment with the Western World?
Interviewers repeatedly asked Mercury what the song was about, and he couldn’t say. He once replied that the meaning was personal. In another interview he stated that the song had no meaning at all. Of course, he was referring to the lyrics, not the instrumentation:
“People still ask me what Bohemian Rhapsody is all about, and I say I don’t know. I think it loses the myth and ruins a kind of mystique that people have built up. Rhapsody is one of those songs that has a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then decide for themselves what it means to them.” (Brooks, and Lupton 49)
In some video clips, Mercury appears even irritated at such inquiries. He once told an interviewer that he didn’t like questions about what his songs meant:
“I hate actually trying to analyse my songs to the full. You should never ask me about my lyrics. People ask, ‘Why did you write such and such a lyric and what does it mean?’ I don’t like to explain what I was thinking when I wrote a song. I think that’s awful. That’s not what it’s all about . . .”
“I prefer people to put their own interpretation upon it – to read into it what they like. I just sing the songs. I write them and I record and produce them, and it is up to the buyer to interpret it the way that he or she feels (Brooks, and Lupton 49-50).
Mercury seemed to feel that it was not his responsibility to interpret his music. Moreover, to do so would be boring and might “shatter a few illusions” (Brooks, and Lupton 50). Yet this reaction is understandable given that meaning in a text can be seen as unfixed or opaque, the center a free play.
“Does it mean this, does it mean that, is all anybody wants to know . . . F--k them, darling. I will say no more than what any decent poet would tell you if you dare ask him to analyse his work: ‘If you see it, dear, it’s there.’” (Jones 179)
So what is the meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?
We don’t ask what it means. From a post structuralist perspective, we cannot render such determinations. Of songs, of poems, of texts. Mercury was right. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari put it in A Thousand Plateaus, “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier, we will not look for anything to understand in it” (379). Scrim by David Ferry best summarizes the composer’s dilemma:
I sit here in a shelter behind the words
Of what I’m writing, looking out as if
Through a dim curtain of rain, that keeps me in here.
The words are like a scrim upon a page,
Obscuring what might be there beyond the scrim.
I can dimly see there’s something or someone there.
But I can’t tell if it’s God, or one of his angels,
Or the past, or future, or who it is I love,
My mother or father lost, or my lost sister,
Or my wife lost when I was too late to get there,
I only know that there’s something, or somebody, there.
Tell me your name. How was it that I knew you?
Lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody: http://www.queenwords.com/lyrics/songs/sng11_01.shtml
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.
Brooks, Greg, and Simon Lupton, ed. and comp. Freddie Mercury: His Life in His Own Words.
New York: Omnibus Press, 2008. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. "A Thousand Plateaus." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed.
Julie Rivkin and Ed. Michael Ryan. 2nd. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 378-386. Print.
Ferry, David. “Scrim.” Poetry. Poetry Foundation, February 2009. Web. 23 Aug 2012.
Jones, Lesley-Anna. Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography. London: Hodder and
Stoughton, 1997. Print.
Linehan, Moira. "Where." Christianity and Literature. 61.2 (2012): 240. Print.
Pavlova, Vera. "To converse with the greats." Poetry. Poetry Foundation, January 2012. Web. 19
Rabkin, Eric S. Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works:
Parts I & II. Chantilly: The Teaching Company, 2007. Print
Spiegelman, Willard. How to Read and Understand Poetry: Part 1. Chantilly: The Teaching
Company, 1999. Print.
Videlock, Wendy. "The Owl." Poetry. Poetry Foundation, January 2009. Web. 24