A Zanzibar-born, queer person of colour with African and Indian roots may not be what comes to mind when describing a rock god of the 70s and 80s.
Freddie Mercury was out of kilter with the image so many of the other faces of rock & roll at the time had created. A rock star of that time would ideally be American, specifically from California (The Beach Boys), New York (Lou Reed), Florida (Jim Morrison) or Washington State (Jimi Hendrix, Freddie’s idol).
Liverpool also made the list thanks to the Beatles, while Mick Jagger was another icon, hailing from London. What most of these men had in common was that they were white and heterosexual, exuding traditional, raw masculinity that rock encapsulated at that time.Born in Stone Town, Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara, first-born son of mother Jer and father Bomi, the chances that Freddie Mercury’s life would go in the direction it did were seemingly microscopic.
Cosmo Hallstrom, a consultant psychiatrist is quoted in Mercury’s biography saying “Zanzibar would have been constraining to a personality like Freddie’s, to someone with a restless spirit.” Had he been coming up as a star today, many might see Mercury’s cultural background as an advantage. The more blended and obscure an artist’s cultural and musical heritage nowadays, the more desirable – but things were different in the 1970s.
Having graduated from Ealing Art College in the early 70s and just started dabbling in music, Freddie legally changed his last name to Mercury, creating his own identity and deciding how he wanted to present himself to the world, knowing full well that he was meant to do great things even early on in his life.
In the first six years that Queen was established and started to gain notoriety, Freddie was in a long-term relationship with a woman, Mary Austin. It was his life on the road, doing shows, meeting new people and experiencing what it meant to be a rock frontman when Freddie finally realised what he’d been in denial about his whole life: he was attracted to men.Former BBC Radio 1 presenter and radio personality Paul Gambaccini said: “The self-realisation process would have been so important to him. Freddie came from a culture in which you are not supposed to love men so you try and conform, even though you are tortured within. It’s not uncommon. Elton (John) did it twice. On the route to self-discovery for a gay man from a repressed background, there is often an interlude of having a girlfriend. This is sometimes about need, and sometimes a case of trying to do what is expected of one.”
Although Queen’s music didn’t fall directly into the glam rock genre, they would adopt the style, particularly Freddie, whose memorable stage outfits remain iconic to this day. Glam rock as a genre had a big role in pushing the solid conventional gender boundaries in pop culture at the time. It’s defined as music “which was performed by singers and musicians who wore outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles, particularly tight-fitting, colourful outfits and platform-soled shoes.”
Glam was a phenomenon in the early 1970s that never caught on in the United States the way it did in England. Glam artists intentionally played around with gender conventions, with the purpose of appearing outlandish and androgynous. It illustrates the progressive nature of pop culture, in a time when people who had very traditional, conservative views might have been outraged at the blatant purposeful rejection of societal and gender norms.
One of the pioneers of this movement was David Bowie, another queer man who wasn’t afraid to push the envelope in his music videos, concerts and personal style by donning a gender-ambiguous look that blurred the lines between masculinity and femininity. By creating the alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie presented his sexual identity quite literally outside of human convention. Freddie Mercury greatly admired and related to him, and the feeling was mutual – Bowie really respected and looked up to Mercury as an artist and person. The pair eventually collaborated on one of Queen’s hit singles Under Pressure.
Other notable artists who were a part of the Glam rock scene were Elton John, New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper. Some of these were probably artists that Freddie had seen and marvelled at their carefree disregard of traditional masculinity, yet they still maintained the powerful rock persona that he so craved to be. This representation of freedom of expression in the 70s no doubt played a pivotal role in inspiring Freddie Mercury to go out and do the same, just as he would go on to inspire countless numbers of people to express themselves free of the gender binary.In a 1973 interview, Mercury said “We’re confident people will take to us, because although the camp image has already been established by people like Bowie and (Marc) Bolan, we are taking it to another level. The concept of Queen is to be regal and majestic. Glamour is a part of us and we want to be dandy. We want to shock and be outrageous instantly.”
His stage wardrobe of skin-tight sequin bodysuits, masks, vinyl trousers and suspenders embody Mercury’s love for theatrics – a concept he always tried to incorporate into Queen’s shows. According to their drummer Roger Taylor in an interview, Freddie’s sole aim with the band was to confuse people, or “make them gasp”.
They succeeded in doing just that upon the release of the music video for I Want To Break Free:
I want to break free
I want to break free
I want to break free from your lies
You’re so self-satisfied, I don’t need you
I’ve got to break free
God knows I want to break free
This is the opening verse of one of Queen’s most loved hits. The song has gone on to be not only a cult classic, still maintaining its popularity and catchiness decades later, but an anthem for the LGBTQ community. The music video features the band dressed in drag, each a caricature of different women from the 60s. It was originally said to be a parody of Coronation Street, meaning audiences in the UK would take it better than those in the US, where it was far from well-received and ulteriorly banned on MTV.
This, if nothing else, is a testament to how times were, and how they’ve vastly changed since – but the judgemental social climate wasn’t enough to hold Freddie or Queen back from expressing themselves and using their music to make a statement.
Blogger Juliette Rowsell wrote: “Freddie Mercury was singing about more than just breaking free from the pain of a failed relationship. Mercury sings about the constraints of 80s Britain and its rigid social values. He dreams of a world where gender and sexuality are no limitations, where people are ‘free’ to be who they want to be.”A lot of the backlash to the Break Free video was aimed at Mercury exclusively, labelling him as vulgar. Many took it as confirmation that he wasn’t actually a heterosexual man – although Roger, Brian and John were all dressed in women’s clothes, makeup and wigs as well. This might have been because Freddie was the ‘face of the band’, which made people direct their anger towards him rather than his bandmates, or it might have been because he never confirmed or denied his sexuality publicly and it was always sort of a grey area to the media. The internalised homophobia ingrained in society at the time was highly prevalent and anyone who didn’t subscribe to traditional masculinity & heteronormativity would be hounded about their sexual preference.
Freddie Mercury never made an official public statement about who he was or who he was attracted to, perhaps he never saw it as necessary or worth the time. But it might have also been because he felt unsafe to do so in a world that detested anything it didn’t understand. In an interview, when asked about his sexuality, he replied: “I’m as gay as a daffodil, my dear.” Although it was intended to be a light-hearted side-step to a serious answer, his statement and attitude came at a time when the LGBTQ community had not nearly made as much progress as it has today. Being openly gay and a public figure was taboo, news-worthy and even scandalous.
Some might say Freddie Mercury played a big part in the Western world taking its first steps towards acknowledging and accepting LGBT people and started a conversation that gave visibility to a group of people who’d previously been living in fear.
In 1978, sociologists Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie published a theoretical essay titled Rock and Sexuality. They reject the commonplace idea that “there is some sort of ‘natural sexuality’ which rock expresses”, arguing instead that “the most important ideological work done by rock is in [the] construction of sexuality.”
Knowing that Freddie Mercury had internally struggled with coming to terms with his sexuality for years can make one look at Queen’s songs in a different light. It adds another level of meaning to the lyrics we know and love.
If we take a look at arguably their most popular song, Bohemian Rhapsody, at first listen it may seem like a catchy rock belter written solely using artistic license, but when taking a more critical look at the lyrics with the consideration of Freddie’s own journey, it holds a lot more weight.Writer Sergio Perez dissects the first verse saying “He sings of how he killed a man. This refers to the man he once was, the straight closeted gay man. He now has rid himself of that identity and cries of everything he had when he was that man is now gone, in a sense, everything he believed and what others believed is not true. He is singing this verse to his mother, he expresses how he knows that she might not accept him for who he is, and goes as far as telling her to carry on without him ‘as if nothing really matters’.”
Towards the end of the song Mercury triumphantly sings about how he won’t let others stone him or leave him to die, this could connote him becoming comfortable with who he is and standing up for himself, not allowing others to persecute him for his identity and making it clear that he is willing to leave anyone who can’t accept him. This is something that can touch a note with anyone, particularly those in the LGBTQ community.
Heteronormativity is the invisible constraint over queer or trans people, making them feel that it is socially ‘deviant’ to live outside of what’s considered normal in the patriarchal system created by straight men to benefit themselves.
Sociologist Gayle Rubin’s research on the matter looks at how heteronormativity functions in the service of sustaining a patriarchal gender binary. It’s especially important to understand heteronormativity when looking at someone like Freddie Mercury who lived a life that “contradicts the expectations of a heteronormative society.”
Considering how, even today, some people have a hesitance to express any part of themselves that contradicts or doesn’t adhere to a strict gender binary because of how others might perceive or react to them, this further illustrates Freddie Mercury’s bravery in rejecting the norm in a time like the 1970s and 80s when it was far riskier.
Freddie Mercury was a man of supernatural showmanship, infamously having a vocal range spanning four full octaves – a group of scientists recently released an analysis proving that he essentially has the best voice in rock – while the version of himself he presented to the world may seem larger-than-life, those closest to Freddie say that behind closed doors he was a completely different person – humble, reserved, happiest when he was at home with his cats. As soon as he set foot on stage he transformed into this untouchable deity that the world looked at in awe.
Freddie Mercury could have put on a front of masculinity to fit in with what was acceptable, he could have toned down his flamboyance to avoid scrutiny and controversy, but he chose to express his authentic self wholeheartedly in the face of adversity.
This is something that we can all take away from his time on earth, that one doesn’t have to feel ashamed about not fitting into the constraining moulds of what’s considered normal. His life may have been cut short but his unique legacy of self-acceptance and using his differences to his advantage, as well as challenging traditional masculinity will always resound in the hearts of his fans.
Featured image by Bernd Bragelmann via Wikimedia Commons.