Give Us A Kiss

Every once in a while a band puts out a record that reminds us that pop music can be more than bubblegum. For the generation before mine it was probably Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds, but for me it was Queen's A Night at the Opera, although I heard it a few years after its 1975 release. It took a while for pop culture to drift to the end of Manitowaning Bay in the late 70s. Our TV brought in three stations and the only time rock music was featured on the tube was if it was outrageous or tragic enough to make the national news, like the punk rock phenomenon, the death of Elvis or The Who concert disaster in Cincinnati. There weren't any older brothers in my house and the one good rock station, WLS (AM!) from Chicago, only intermitantly drifted in at night. Even then I only knew about singles and 45s. My awareness of the rock LP ended with Nazareth Greatest Hits, Trooper Hot Shots and maybe Kiss Destroyer.

 

 

Pop music has always been about the hit song. FM and AOR (Album-oriented Rock) notwithstanding, the record business is driven by short, catchy singles with simple repetitive melodies and easy to remember lyrics. For all the artistic integrity of bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, pop music was and is about marketing and promotion not creative exploration. But A Night at the Opera remains unique. Most people think of "Bohemian Rhapsody" (thanks to the Wayne's World movie) if they think of the record at all. But what made Queen's magnum opus important and memorable was not the faux-opera section of the album's "hit" but that every song was distinct, every track a story different from the one before. From "Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon" to "I'm In Love With My Car" to "39" the album has everything from campy show tunes to hard rock to skiffle. Musically fun and endlessly interesting, A Night at the Opera is fearless, curious, and definitely "not cool". Queen (led by a bisexual south-Asian with a penchant for vaudeville!) always rejected the chauvinism and conformity of "cool" identifying with "geek" and "queer" before those concepts even existed. Unfairly lumped in with the "bloated excesses" of corporate rock, the band was, in fact, highly subversive, a counter-culture movement disguised as mainstream.

 

 

Obviously Queen's greatest achievement is a result of four very different songwrtiters with a budget and a top recording studio for a playground. And while I don't know the original rationale (if there even was one) behind putting out an album that mixes bouncy ukulele songs with screaming guitars I suspect there must have been serious discussions about whether the record would work as a whole and whether fans would accept such a mad jumble of styles and sounds. Imagine the lead singer of a cult band that was desperately trying to become a headlining act bringing a song like "Seaside Rendezvous" to the table! Remember, in 1975 Led Zeppelin ruled the rock world. Important music was "heavy" and humourless and violently heterosexual not to mention almost exclusively white. A Night at the Opera eventually became a huge commercial hit but when it was conceived it was unconventional in the extreme, flamboyantly exotic and culturally and sexually ambiguous.

 

 

That no artist has released anything even remotely matching the audacity of A Night At The Opera proves not only the genius of Queen but also the persistence of homogeneity and chauvinism in pop music. Tragically the corporate fantasy of "cool" is continuing to cow the masses into conforming to a cultural identity which serves the interests of the so-called "lifestyle industries". After all, how could McDonalds and Coke, with their banal "products", possibly be expected to seduce a hoard of sexual and cultural mongrels each with a unique and indefinable identity? There is sound reasoning behind the hysteria and sheer volume of mass media today: it is becoming harder and harder for these merchants of bland to shout down the millions of voices singing in their own unique and beautiful voices. Human beings thrive on diversity and wither in monoculture.  We need a range of experiences and stimuli. We need kotos and Marshall amps. We crave both vaudeville and glam. We demand machismo and mincing. Our hearts don't beat at a consistent 120 beats per minute, neither are our souls tuned to one prefab emotion. The sooner we all reject the "normalization" of pop culture and embrace our inner complexity in all its weirdness the better. That's why, when it comes to music I say, "God save the Queen."

 

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