There were 13 years between Freddie Mercury’s death and the launch of YouTube. Smack in the middle of that interim, my preteen Queen obsession blossomed and subsided.
The Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit theaters last weekend, where it earned $50 million at the U.S. box office. I spent much of last week interviewing folks about Queen and doing my own consequent deep dive. As a 12-year-old in 1999, my Queen obsession felt all-consuming — the band’s original “Greatest Hits” collection was the only thing I listened to that year — but now, as I weigh that childhood experience against last week’s deep dive (see: hours of YouTube viewing), I realize what I missed.
And what I missed was Mercury’s physical presence. As it turns out, that’s a huge omission.
I wasn’t a stranger to Mercury’s general appearance, his flamboyance, his consummate frontman status and Queen’s reputation as a stellar live act. (Even a casual engagement with Queen makes most of those things inescapable.) In time, I listened to most of Queen’s music, including the live albums. The majority of my time on YouTube is spent watching live music. All of that, combined with the visceral expressiveness of Mercury’s voice, had convinced me that yes, I had actually watched Queen perform numerous times.
Last week, as I watched copious Queen music videos and live performances, I realized that no, I actually hadn’t.
Having come of age in the years between Mercury’s death and YouTube’s rise, Mercury’s countenance — the way he strutted and writhed and quivered as a moving image — was only peripheral for me. I had convinced myself otherwise, cobbling together an approximation of his physicality based on the rest of my Queen diet.
The one thing this approximation never factored in, though, was Freddie Mercury’s uniquely endearing physical awkwardness. I never could've gotten this from his voice or static image.
Watching Mercury in action, I learned last week, is to watch two selves working in tandem: The first, a swaggering, fist-pumping rock ’n’ roll god; the other, a physically peculiar man (That overbite! Those chicken legs!) with some odd, pretty awkward mannerisms. These two selves don’t seem to compete, necessarily. They’re both part of who he was, and they just coexisted.
On Saturday I heard an episode of “Heavyweight,” a popular podcast someone suggested I try. In a recent episode, the host, Jonathan Goldstein, helps a cripplingly shy 20-something named Joey repair a few relationships. Those relationships break because of Joey’s inability to engage in basic interactions, and as the episode unfolds, we see Joey’s biggest flaw: a fear not just of standing out, but of simply being seen. The lengths he goes to be unseen, though, are so abnormal that it has the opposite effect.
Goldstein enlists one of his friends, a man named Greggor, who is Joey’s polar opposite. No interaction is too awkward for Greggor. He leans into the awkwardness, he courts it, embraces it.
“Greggor has mastered something that Joey is still learning: the art of saying, ‘Here I am,’” Goldstein explains.
Sometimes I get lost in Instagram’s Explore section. Traversing that never-ending feed of algorithm-generated pictures is like putting your mouth to a fire hose of multitudes, all screaming “here I am.” This version of “here I am” doesn’t resemble Greggor’s, though. It hides the messy rather than embracing it. It is purposely incomplete, and in that way, the Explore section feels weirdly dehumanizing.4 comments on this story
I have a distinct memory from when I was 12 or 13, laying down in the backseat of our family minivan during a road trip. It was dark, and I felt hidden, listening to Queen’s “Greatest Hits” on my personal CD player. Two minutes into “We Are The Champions,” at the song’s climax, Mercury sings, “And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.” He struggles on the word “fighting,” and the note is glaringly flat. It drove me crazy at the time — “We Are The Champions” is immaculately produced, and the vocal flub sticks out like a sore thumb. My young brain couldn’t handle it.
As the years have passed, though, that flat “fighting” has become my favorite part of the song. It’s the sound of someone, well, fighting till the end. It’s Freddie Mercury saying, “Here I am — all of me.”
I think the world could use a little more of that.