Can anyone who grew up in the ’70s truly be said to have “discovered” Queen? The band was just there, bubbling up through the rock zeitgeist, everywhere at once with no discernible starting point. If there was ever a time that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was not on the radio, that epoch, much like the period before “Stairway to Heaven,” has been lost to my personal prehistory.
I didn’t get into Queen, in the sense of owning any of their records, until The Game, which came out in 1980 and coincided with my discovery that there was a music store ten blocks from my house where I could augment my meager record collection (no one called it “vinyl” then) for $5.99 a pop. The hits from that album, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” were all over the radio the year I entered 9th grade, and so when my English teacher, a rock fan (no one called it “classic” then) who looked to have modeled himself after Bruce Springsteen on the Born to Run cover, assigned us to write an essay that was a review of a favorite album, I picked The Game.
I no longer remember what I wrote, except that I thought it was pretty bad even at the time — one of a series of essays I cringed to be forced to read aloud in class — and that it left me with the indelible conviction that writing about music is an impossible task. But I do remember what my classmate Adam said, as we were leaving class that day, a remark that may have been meant as offhanded but which cut to the bone:
“Nice review. But you didn’t mention that ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ is one of the top disco songs.”
We need, perhaps, some context. This particular Adam was one of the cool kids in my grade — all the Adams were, for some reason — with an encyclopedic-compared-to-me music knowledge and the enviable ability to get through the day without a dozen insults lobbed at him about how he looked, acted, or dressed. And he was fairly friendly to me, for some reason, so had earned my admiration as a potential lifeline out of my being a loser and a reject and whatever other categories high-school kids consigned each other to in the 1980s in order to clamber their own way toward the top of the pecking order.
As for “disco,” there was hardly a more loaded term in 1980. This was the time of Disco Demolition Night, the rock-radio-themed baseball promotion that began with the promise of blowing up a crate of records between games of a White Sox doubleheader and ended with a riot; and of WKRP in Cincinnati‘s Johnny Fever, the epitome of aging-rock-guy cool who spat the word as if it were a hideous slur.
And it did stand in for one. And that slur was “faggot.”
If there was one word that otherwise liberal high-school kids on the Upper West Side of Manhattan used to consign each other to the ranks of loserdom, that was the one. I’m pretty sure not a day went by that I didn’t hear somebody using it to refer — or one of its adjectival forms, like “faggoty” or “faggotized” — to refer to a classmate in a way that conveyed utter disdain, connoting not merely gay but also weak and uncool to the point of being beneath contempt. Racial slurs were tremendously uncommon at my school, and would ensure you a talking-to from a teacher at least if they were overheard; the F-word, though, was safe for all, except those who it was directed at.
I didn’t understand at the time that discos were associated with proud homosexuality. (I didn’t even understand the double entendre of Queen’s band name.) All I knew was that it was established doctrine that rock was good, and disco was bad. And Queen, somehow, despite being one of the staples of rock radio — with a massive guitar sound and thundering drums and, yes, strangely baroque choral vocals, but no more so than other accepted rock bands of the time such as, yes, Yes — had in recording a song that could be played in discos crossed the line to the dark side.
Looking back, I can only think of the moment when Queen came of age as a kind of magic, or at least a capitalization on an instant in music and cultural history that would never quite come again. In 1975, when “Bohemian Rhapsody” exploded onto the radio, the rock/disco and straight/gay splits had presumably yet to become fully ingrained in music culture. And so Queen could be loved by hard rock devotees (no one called it “metal” then) and gender iconoclasts alike, for different reasons and by different subcultures to be sure, but without setting off outrage and epithets, at least not that trickled down to my pre-teen ears. (I didn’t understand at the time that David Bowie was associated with transgressing sexual limits, either, because it was still a thing not publicly spoken about, by straight-assumed young teenagers at least.) There was no contradiction to any of this at the time, and while that no doubt relied a good bit on being publicly closeted — Freddie Mercury, incredibly, never officially came out during his lifetime, though he hardly tried to keep it a secret — it also meant that a band like Queen could have it both ways, if making proudly gay-positive music while appealing to the homophobic rock masses is having it both ways.
I stopped listening to Queen eventually — it may even have been abruptly, after Adam’s comment let it be known that I’d find more favor in the straight-assumed high school pecking order if I listened to, say, Rush. (Led Zeppelin would have been even better, but I had my limits.) The band didn’t reenter my life, or my iTunes collection, until the last few years, when my son, inspired equally by classic rock radio and the sublime Muppets version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” became a fan. We even went to see “Queen with Adam Lambert” last summer, where the former American Idol star camped it up in the Freddie Mercury role, making plain for 21st-century crowds what was always implicit in the original lineup. That he could — and get an arena full of rockers to clap along — is undeniably an advance in some ways, but I couldn’t help feel like he got something wrong, in an ineffable but important way. By seizing the iconography of rock swagger and making rock’s promise of liberation stand for more than just the freedom to grow your hair out, Freddie Mercury was more revolutionary than that; even if, by 1980, the counterrevolution had already won.