Rock History, What I Leave Out: Queen

September 11, 2008

Queen is just too diverse musically to talk about in a rock class.

OK, I know that sounds wrong, and that it sounds like I’m saying that rock music in general is not musically diverse.  That is not what I mean at all.  And still, you’d think this wouldn’t be too hard to get around.  After all, I teach other musically diverse bands, such as the Beatles, in addition to those who continually mine the same territory *cough*Rolling Stones*cough*.

I also know that one could counter with a standard, “But you teach a classical music class, too!  How do you deal with being too diverse musically there?”  The answer is: I often don’t face that problem, since the class–again, a survey–frequently focuses on one person or one example to represent entire style periods and ends up, by necessity, being even more reductive about musical style and eras than my rock class.   But that’s beside the point.  We’re talking about Queen here.

Freddie Mercury was a terrific frontman, with the courage to wear sparkly unitards and total moustache-leatherman getups in front of audiences who would probably have been less comfortable meeting a gay man in real life.  He could work an audience, they say.  Also, did you know he was Indian?  And Brian May is close to my heart, if just for the fact that he finally got his PhD in astrophysics some 30 years after having begun his dissertation.

Queen has also sold an ungodly amount of records, influenced countless bands in countless genres, and provided the soundtrack for the single best scene involving Wayne and Garth and their friends.  And talking about Queen could provide a template for understanding the meaning of “camp,” which the band illustrates better in its music and Mercury’s visual style and onstage/audience interaction and so on and so forth.  And lord knows college students often need a healthy introduction to camp.  For that alone, they are entirely worthy of including in the history of rock and roll.

But finding that core topic around which one focuses a class is difficult with Queen.  With the Beatles, our above musically diverse example, we can trace the development of rock and roll, not as something necessarily linear, but at least logical and timely: from their beginnings as a “guitar band” with tight vocal harmonies to a band influenced by psychedelia to a band drifting apart, their story fits a standard and understandable narrative of the 1960s.  It may not be in the totally “true” story of the Beatles, but it enables students to get a larger picture of how popular music developed along with major historical events.

Queen’s musical diversity, on the other hand, is more about bricolage, or the piling up of many different musical styles, often within the same song.  Think about “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that signature song.  It’s got operatic choruses, rock riffs, extended piano sections… and I want to analyze it all at a level that will leave students glaring at me for having ruined a perfectly decent song, since it will take the entire hour and a half to get through it.

Most of Queen’s music is that way.  It’s interesting because it doesn’t fit a standard narrative, but that also makes it harder to explain to a group of students whose only knowledge of the band is, at best, some exposure to Queen being performed at sporting events.  And it’s also more difficult for them, since most of them have very little understanding of musical concepts, to understand high-level musical discussions.  This is a freshman level class, after all.

I would like to teach them, though, in order to find the right tone to introduce the interesting musical aspects of Queen and to reconcile them with the other issue above, camp.  While there’s a lot of Velveeta involved in Queen’s music, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m being a jerk and saying that’s all there is, and teaching them would allow me to explore that knife’s edge of teaching.

At any rate, I will leave you with something completely cheesy and in the spirit of camp: Anton Corbijn as Freddie Mercury:

P.S.  It’s Anton Corbijn week at Bad Cover Version!  Tomorrow’s exciting post will feature a thorough examination of why I think he’s bad luck for the bands he’s photographed.


3 Responses to “Rock History, What I Leave Out: Queen”

  1. Agent M said

    I want you to teach an entire course on Queen and allow me to come in for a guest lecture on the evolution of Freddie’s moustache and its place within their musical career.

  2. Instead of teaching “the band” Queen, could they not fit into a more “phenomenon” based lesson? The Rock Anthem, for instance…or high-fantasy lyrical concept, sharing The Lord of the Rings with Led Zeppelin, or … something?

    I consider Freddy Mercury in the top five, if not the top talents as a rock vocalist. I think his voice pretty much transcended genre and sang to a huge, diverse audience – as you mentioned in Bohemian Rhapsody’s variance – often in the same song. Paired with Brian May – spectacular.

    I also think that young people have a much wider exposure to Queen than you intimate. People continue to use the music in all sort of ways, television, movies – badcoverversions – they are everywhere. When they did that “Rock Band, Supernova” show – which was an odd thing, at best, one of the top contenders was a guy who traveled with Queen … on Idol, Mercury is one of the artists that people try to emulate to make a name for themselves, and continually fall short of. People know the more popular of their songs, and there were a LOT of them.

    Maybe just a nod during a session about longevity, and how few bands have been able to make continual transitions over decades, remaining on the charts and holding their mystique.

    Ah heck…you may be right. It would take a class all unto itself…

    Macabre Ink

  3. Wayne from the UK said

    Great debate. Interestingly we were chatting about Queen tonight whilst watching their “Live from Wembley” concert from 1986. Freddie was the ultimate performer and this concert and of course Live Aid say it all about Freddie’s ability to work the crowd.

    As David said, what a vocalist. Not a single singing lesson by the way. A natural.

    But we were all agreed that Queen’s album output was generally weak. True they had a mightily impressive singles career, but they didn’t in my opinion ever nail an album completely.

    Whether this writes them out of rock history is debatable. What would basketball/US football etc do without Queen? Live Aid without Queen?

    For the latter reason alone, i would keep them in!

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