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)

5 comments:

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!


I

Aria Mohtadi 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!