History and Meaning of 'Bohemian Rhapsody': An Autistic Meltdown in a Song
Yesterday, my son and I were driving along the road and I had just put on my old Queen CD. I gave a quick glance in my rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of him. Momentarily, his eyes were closed and he was smiling. Adam is autistic and this is his usual reaction to a song he particularly likes.
When the tempo of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody changed, Adam began rocking in time to the beat and began laughing. He was definitely getting a buzz from Freddie Mercury’s artistic input. A few months back, Adam had the same reaction to some other Queen songs, including, Radio Gaga and It’s a Kind of Magic.
Having just recently written an article about Queen’s flamboyant front-man Freddie Mercury, I was immediately taken by how often he was depicted as being a completely different person than the man he actually was. I never knew that underneath the stage persona Freddie Mercury was a highly creative, artistic, soulfully deep and infinitely more interesting man than the brash outward facade we usually saw from him.
History of Bohemian Rhapsody
Bohemian Rhapsody was the brainchild of the lead singer of the group Queen, Freddie Mercury. He wrote the song in 1975 for their album Night at the Opera. It was considered a very risky move at the time to release Bohemian Rhapsody as a single. It was totally different from any other song around during the 1970s. The biggest obstacle to its release was the fact that it was 12 minutes long and had no chorus. Instead, it was considered to be a group of different tunes and melodies all mixed together.
- An introduction
- A ballad
- A guitar solo
- An operatic passage
- A hard rock section
- A conclusion
Back in 1975, it was the most expensive single ever made. Queen had to fight very hard to convince their record company that Bohemian Rhapsody could be a commercial success. They were right. Despite the record company’s initial reservations about Bohemian Rhapsody, the song made it to number one and it stayed there for a total of nine weeks. When Freddie Mercury died from AIDS in 1991 it went to the top of the charts again for another five weeks
Ever since Bohemian Rhapsody was first released, it has captivated many. It started a trend that still goes on. Ever since then, the members of Queen have always been asked, 'What is Bohemian Rhapsody really about?'
What Is an Autistic Meltdown Exactly?
My interpretation of an autistic meltdown is as follows:
A meltdown, for me, is a release of all the pent-up emotions, anger, frustration, stress, depression, anxiety, etc. that I have been holding in for a while. Suddenly, something trigger’s its release and I go ballistic. It is a tough old world for a person with Aspergers Syndrome and every day normal stuff that NT’s can just instinctively do we have to analyze and strategise about. This really is quite a stressful way to live and, unfortunately, depression and anxiety levels are quite high among autistic people.
Although, the thing to note here is that I really can’t control my emotions once they start spewing out and the best thing to do really is to avoid me like the plague for at least an hour until my emotions have had a chance to be released. Then, gradually, I will start to come back down into some kind of normal emotional rhythm again. It feels pretty much like I'm the Incredible Hulk. Don’t make me angry when I am in meltdown mode. If you think you might, then a walk, a drive or just sending me on my way somewhere else can help me to get over it.
You may ask what triggers a meltdown. That’s the tough part. It could be something big like the meltdown I eventually had after I had spent months banging my head off brick walls trying to get an autism diagnosis for my son until, eventually, I snapped and let a doctor have it. Or it might be just be a little straw that breaks the camels back (e.g. somebody has eaten the last bowl of cereal). If you're already going down the meltdown route, then small things can really set you off.
Stages of an Autistic Meltdown in "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Autistic meltdowns are not limited to young children on the spectrum. Tweens, teens, and even adults with autism may have meltdowns. Autistic meltdowns generally begin with warning signals called "rumblings." This song seems to perfectly encapsulates those feelings.
Verse 1 (Stage One of Autistic Breakdown)
At first the person seems to be in a normal mood, at least to the casual observer (i.e. no more anxious than usual). The band sings in a calm, contemplative voice while there is also piano music playing. The mood is mellow and the music is soft. The lyrics display Mercury questioning whether this is "real life or just fantasy." People with autism often feel like everything around them is surreal, so this would often be the kind of thoughts that an autistic person would have before going into meltdown mode.
As this verse finishes, the words become a bit more telling of stage two of an autistic meltdown. Freddie sings about feeling a 'little high,’ and a ‘little low,’ but he still maintains that he doesn’t care and, whatever way the wind blows, he is not too bothered, really.
Bohemian Rhapsody is fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle.— Roger Taylor of Queen
Verse 2 (Stage Two of Autistic Breakdown)
Gradually, his thoughts start to race and anxiety starts picking up momentum. In the second verse, Freddie Mercury sings about killing a man. It's possible that this man is himself and that he is singing about how he has become disillusioned with his life. This song was released around the time that Freddie was coming out as a gay man. He had just told his long-time girlfriend Mary Austin that he thought he was bisexual, although, she then told him she felt it was more likely he was gay. So, obviously, Freddie Mercury was grappling with a lot of inner conflict about his sexuality as well as the guilt he was probably feeling towards ending his relationship with Mary Austin after seven years. This type of confusion and bewilderment is often the cause of an autistic meltdown.
In verse two of Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie sings about saying to his mother that his life has just begun, but now he is throwing it all away. This could relate to Freddie relinquishing his mother’s expectation that he is going to marry Mary Austin and settle down and have a family. Instead, he has to be true to himself and split up with her.
Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.— Brian May of Queen
Verse 3 (Stage Three of Autistic Breakdown)
Then, quickly, the mood starts to head towards uncontrollable. Negative emotions start to build up and the voices of self doubt and anxiety invade the person’s brain very persistently. We see this when he sings:
‘…goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth…’
This, to me, strikes of a man relinquishing one persona and embracing another. The Freddie who dreamed of marrying Mary Austin and settling down now realizes this would be living a lie. So instead despite the hurt he will cause he must do it. He seems to be grappling with the emotions he feels, should he be true to himself and his feelings above all else? The verse ends with him singing,
‘…I don’t want to die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all…’
This is a real snapshot of the torment that is going on inside his head and is all too typical of the conflicting array of emotions that a person going through the stages of an autistic meltdown is feeling.
Bohemian Rhapsody started off really in Freddie’s head… It developed a little bit a long the way, but basically that’s Freddie’s dream or Freddie’s nightmare and it still lives on.— Brian May of Queen
Verse 4 (Stage Four of Autistic Breakdown)
A meltdown is imminent. This will always mean a release of pent up emotions. It can be anger, frustration, grief, sadness, despair or really any combination of extreme emotions.
The tempo changes straight away in this verse and the music becomes more intense. This is in conjunction with the end of stage three and the beginning of stage four of an autistic meltdown when the voices of self doubt, uncertainty and self condemnation take over inside the person’s head. The person is now beginning to lose complete control of their emotions. They are now at the stage of no return and they need to dispel their pent up emotions at all costs.
It's one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them... 'Bohemian Rhapsody' didn't just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?— Freddie Mercury
Verse 5 (Stage Five of Autistic Breakdown)
At this stage the autistic person no longer has control of their emotions and there is nothing anyone can do except try to make sure the person remains safe and wait for this tirade to end. Any other attempts at reasoning, or other interventions once this stage is reached, are not going to work
The music changes to hard rock with pounding drums and powerful guitar playing. Freddie is singing about being released from this monstrosity and being let go. He is angry because the voices in his head are refusing to let him go but he pleads with them to release him. Once again, it seems he is acting out his inner emotions through the words and music in Bohemian Rhapsody. He is dealing with the confusion and conflict he feels about moving on to this new phase of his life. Whether he wails of 'Mamma Mia, Mamma Mia' are actually related to his relationship with his mother or his girlfriend, Mary Austin, or both, is left uncertain.
…the title draws strongly on contemporary rock ideology, the individualism of the bohemian artists' world, with rhapsody affirming the romantic of art rock ideals…— Sheila Whiteley (music scholar)
Verse 6 (Stage Five of Autistic Breakdown Continued)
We are still definitely at stage five of an autistic meltdown:
I think when he refers to:
‘…so you think you can stone me and spit in my eye
So you think you can love me and leave me to die…’
Obviously anger is the overriding theme to this verse. But I think the person Freddie Mercury is most angry with is himself. He is acting out how he imagines his girlfriend must now feel about him when he tells her he believes he is bisexual. She then tells him that she thinks he is actually gay.
It is common for autistic people in the throes of a meltdown to blame and berate themselves for everything that they perceive they have done wrong. Emotions and feelings that have been suppressed for days, weeks, months or even years can all suddenly come spewing out of their tortured minds.
At the end of the verse Freddie says,
‘…just gotta get out just gotta get right outta here…’
Often the emotions that can be unearthed during an autistic meltdown are very intense and the person feels the only way they can deal with this torrent of unleashed pain is by running and getting away from everything that they see as causing their problems.
Mercury intended... [this song] to be a 'mock opera', something outside the norm of rock songs, and it does follow a certain operatic logic: choruses of multi-tracked voices alternate with aria-like solos, the emotions are excessive, the plot confusing.— Judith Peraino
Verse 7 (Stage Six of Autistic Breakdown)
We are at stage six of an autistic meltdown. Suddenly like a light switch the meltdown just switches off and the person is quite calm and stable again. All the pent up emotions have evaporated away and the person can function well again. The length and frequency of meltdowns can vary a lot from person to person.
All the anger is gone, Freddie is once again calm and saying that he is indifferent to everything that is going on around him. In fact he ends the song by suggesting.
‘…Nothing really matters nothing really matters to me
Anyway the wind blows…’
Bohemian Rhapsody is so much more than just a song. I think it is actually Freddie Mercury working through his catalogue of intense emotions.
In a previous article I explained how I felt Freddie Mercury’s unique brain was the real reason for his artistic genius and musical creativity. In "Bohemian Rhapsody" I really do think he is depicting the various stages of an autistic meltdown without being aware that this is what all of his intense feelings towards this song are.
That’s my interpretation anyway although I know too that there have been countless others over the years and unfortunately the man himself is no longer available to confirm or deny any of them. Freddie Mercury died of AIDS on 24 November, 1991 and the world lost a legend that day. So, on November 24 this year just remember a true iconic, pop legend.
…I think Bohemian Rhapsody was the turning point. That made him realise that he didn’t need to doubt himself. Even though he was told the radio stations wouldn’t play it because it was too long, there was no way Freddie was going to cut it.— Mary Austin (Freddie Mercury’s lifelong friend and former girlfriend)