'Bohemian Rhapsody' shows our past, present and future [December 15, 1991]
Plus: the best of 1991!
This week’s Number 1: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ — Queen
I have nothing new to say about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
It’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Everyone knows it. It’s the most-streamed song of the 20th century on Spotify (just slightly behind ‘Havana’ by Camila Cabello). Wayne’s World. Bismallah! All that good stuff. You don’t need me to explain ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to you.
Instead, lets talk about why this song from 1975 is suddenly Number One again, here in December 1991.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ had been hastily rereleased and surged to the top of the charts because the world was in grief. Just a few weeks earlier, Freddie Mercury had died.
He was by no means the first gay man to die of AIDS. But he is still the most famous, even today.
I’ve been thinking about how I felt at the time about Freddie’s death, and as usual I want to indulge myself, but there’s nothing interesting about my reaction. Instead, I’m thinking about some other people I knew.
In particular, I’m thinking about the kids I knew who were gay but didn’t dare admit it. Three kids I knew back then ended up coming out later in life. One is doing great, I believe. Another is an alcoholic, or was the last time I heard. The third one killed himself in his 20s.
What was this moment like for them?
Ireland in 1991: homosexuality is still illegal. Condoms—so vital in the fight against HIV—are only available on prescription. There are no support services for queer or questioning teens. Over in the UK, it’s illegal for teachers to even mention homosexuality to pupils.
What is it like to be gay and 14 in this moment?
What is it like to read about Freddie Mercury’s death? To know that no amount of money or fame can protect you from this illness. To know that nobody really cared or was trying to stop it. To hear people talk about Freddie and his lifestyle and say, “well, that’s what you get…”
I imagine that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sounded very bitter for some people. The DJs on the radio talked about how sad it was about Freddie Mercury, and then they played this song and never mentioned it again, and nobody ever said, there is a crisis and we should help.
I’d like to mention that I was a good ally in this time
I would like to, but I can’t. I was like most straight kids of the era, throwing slurs around in the playground with liberal abandon. Talking about the queers with disgust.
(In my area, we used the word “queerhawk”, which is a fabulous word that the LGBT+ community should revive and reclaim.)
I feel deeply disappointed in myself for that. You always like to think that you would be the one who stands up to evil. What would you do if you witnessed the rise of the Nazis?
Experience teaches me that I would be the kind of guy who wakes up in the middle of the night some time in 1955 and says, “hey, I think Hitler was actually kind of problematic.”
Why mention all this? It’s the last issue of this season, I don’t want to go out on a downbeat note.
But there’s an important lesson here about nostalgia. The past always looks rosy, especially a chaotic future filled with viruses, climate change and alt-Nazis.
It’s tempting to look back and say, “yeah, 1991, that was a golden age.”
But it was not. Or at least it was not for everyone. And many things have gotten better since then.
A few weeks ago, my own daughter was involved in a ceremony to raise a big, bright Pride flag over her school. Gay people can get married now, live normal lives. Teen kids have love and support, or at least they have more than they did in 1991.
Looking back on the past is nice. But sometimes, the best thing about looking at the past is that it shows us how far we’ve come.
A Top 10 of 1991
We are wrapping up for the Christmas break! Thank you so much for reading, for commenting, for sending me messages, for threatening to hurt me if I didn’t stop talking about Bryan Adams.
I really appreciate all of it. I hope you’ve enjoyed everything so far, and I hope to see you back here in January, when we tackle 1992.
To finish off, I’d like to make a personal top 10 of 1991. You’re welcome to argue and post your own list if you like. Just hit this button:
Here’s my personal top 10:
10: ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ — Color Me Badd
It is an objectively bad song. It is also a great song in its own way. I have enjoyed it every single time I heard it in the last 30 years.
9: ‘Chorus’ — Erasure
Underrated pop kings also had the magnificent ‘I Love to Hate You’ in a banner year for them.
8: ‘Summertime’ — DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince
One of those songs that transcends any individual year. It is to a sunny day what ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ is to December 1st.
7: ‘Love… Thy Will Be Done’ — Martika
Prince had an amazing year with Diamonds and Pearls, but I prefer his collabs with Martika.
6: ‘I Touch Myself’ — Divinyls
One of many songs about sex that charted this year. Austin Powers helped emphasis the camp silliness at the heart of this catchy 70s throwback.
5: ‘Last Train to Transcentral’ — The KLF
KLF crushed it in 1991, outselling most other rave acts put together. You can take your pick of White Room singles, but ‘Last Train’ slightly edges it for me.
4: ‘Losing My Religion’ — R.E.M.
A crucial turning point in the American college radio scene, plus a really big day for mandolins.
3: ‘Set Adrift on Memory Bliss’ — P.M. Dawn
Utterly heavenly multi-genre pop, mixing intelligent hip-hop with Spandau Ballet.
2: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ — Nirvana
The song that defines 1991, if not the entire decade.
1: ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ — Massive Attack
A perfect song. Everyone brings their A-game here, but the show is stolen by Shara Nelson’s extraordinary vocal.
Here’s everything on a Spotify playlist, including the honorable mentions below.
‘Apparently Nothing’ — Young Disciples
‘Baby’s Coming Back’ — Jellyfish
‘Can’t Truss It’ — Public Enemy
‘Charly’ — The Prodigy
‘Enter Sandman’ — Metallica
‘Fall At Your Feet’ — Crowded House
‘Higher Than The Sun’ — Primal Scream
‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ — Salt-N-Pepa
‘Love Rears Its Ugly Head’ — Living Colour
‘The One and Only’ — Chesney Hawkes
‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ — St. Etienne
‘Mysterious Ways’ — U2
‘Now That We Found Love’ — Heavy D and the Boyz
‘Planet of Sound’ — Pixies
‘A Rollerskating Jam Named Saturdays’ — De La Soul
‘Sexuality’ - Billy Bragg
‘The Show Must Go On’ — Queen
‘Sit Down’ — James
‘Stay Beautiful’ — Manic Street Preachers
‘Walking Down Madison’ — Kirsty McColl
‘Wear Your Love Like Heaven’ — Definition of Sound
‘You Could Be Mine’ — Guns N’ Roses
‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ — Bryan Adams
The Fly - U2
This tune more than Mysterious Ways for me.
You Could be Mine - Guns n Roses
A new GnR song? Terminator 2? An amazing drum intro? One of their best.
Enter Sandman - Metallica
Probably the moment Metal became commercial. At the time I felt the song and video were slightly scary. In hindsight, one of their more vanilla songs. Loved it then though.
‘Can’t Truss It’ — Public Enemy
I can play the main riff of this at will, in my head, at any time.
Smells Like Teen Spirit — Nirvana
Not the best tune off of Nevermind, but still great.
Set Adrift on Memory Bliss’ — P.M. Dawn
Summertime — DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince
I don’t really like this, but like a lot of other Will Smith songs it’s a hit and it feels like it’s always been there.
Unfinished Sympathy — Massive Attack
As you’ve mentioned, a perfect song.
Give It Away - Red Hot Chili Peppers
I really wish they’d gone with this sound instead of Under the Bridge for later albums.
Alive - Pearl Jam
In hindsight this song owes a lot to seventies rock, but I didn’t know about any of that back then. Pearl Jam have more in common with those bands than any of their Grungey friends.
Hunger Strike - Temple of the Dog
Love the contrast between the two vocalists and the folk-ish sounding guitars.
No More Tears - Ozzy Osbourne
This was probably my introduction to Ozzy. I didn’t even know he was in Black Sabbath at this point. In truth I kind of saw him as an inferior Alice Cooper. Good tune though and written by Lemmy from Motorhead, I think.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Into the Great Wide Open
This video/song was everywhere and it introduced me to Tom.
Dead Embryonic Cells - Sepultura
My first exposure to extreme metal. These guys were only 21 when this came out and the musicianship is amazing. They paved the way for non-American, non-Europeans to succeed in Metal.
Honorable mentions to Prince, Martika, REM and The KLF.