My introduction to Queen was through their 1991 music video “I’m Going Slightly Mad,” in which Freddie Mercury dons a stalk of bananas and sings, “I think I’m a banana tree.” I was 13 and never had a singer more perfectly expressed the inner workings of my soul.
OK, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration.
Nevertheless, eight years later, the banana-clad man and his bandmates occupy the walls of my bedroom, the number one spot on my Spotify Wrapped playlist and the center of my heart. Queen’s bizarre beauty never ceases to astound me, and the staying power (no pun intended) of their influence in my life and the lives of other fans is no accident. It’s the byproduct of a variety of factors working in tandem. It’s a je ne sais quoi that characterizes Queen and Queen alone.
Many attribute it to the character and talent of Freddie Mercury, frontman and longstanding cultural icon. Rolling Stone places him among the top 20 on their list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. Rumors that Mercury had a four-octave vocal range are largely unsubstantiated, but one thing remains explicitly clear: The man had a voice like no other.
His technique, commonly employed by Tuvan throat singers, demonstrates exquisite control over his vocal faculties, allowing Mercury to switch between lofty operatic tones and growling belts within the same song. His signature blend of flawless technique and rock ‘n’ roll roughness, as demonstrated in upbeat ballads such as “Save Me,” “It’s Late” and of course, “Somebody to Love,” is a balance that only Mercury can strike.
Nevertheless, this is not the reason for Queen’s greatness.
Mercury is astounding, but he rose to prominence concurrently with other artists of similar vocal prowess. Mercury was not the first nor the only artist to demonstrate pristine technique and unabashed showmanship. The voices of George Michael, Tina Turner and Michael Jackson are comparable in terms of technical excellence.
Queen’s greatness, which propelled the band through Mercury’s solo career, lies beyond mere talent. It lies in the ever-evolving genius of their craft. The joint efforts of Brian May (lead guitar and vocals), Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), John Deacon (bass) and naturally, Freddie Mercury (lead vocals, piano), culminate in a subgenre of rock that is impossible to define, yet strikingly distinct.
Take one of my favorite tracks, “My Fairy King,” a lesser-known rock ballad from Queen’s debut album. It mixes upbeat rock vocals with fairytale-like verse, then seamlessly shifts into a tragically beautiful piano ballad, only to crescendo to a dramatic battle between piano and guitar, followed by a gentle lull into somber chords once more. It exemplifies the vibrant symphonic arrangements Queen creates so well.
What differentiates Queen from its rock contemporaries is an unparalleled ability to experiment with sound. They borrow from different genres while still maintaining their signature powerhouse sound and lyrical complexities. It’s a collage of Whitney Houston-level vocals, Elton John-level composition and Dolly Parton-level lyricism.
And each member of Queen brings their own flair to the creation of their music. May provides clever lyrics and soulful vocals to ethereal pieces like “’39,” Deacon provides kickass bravado to brash anthems like “Another One Bites The Dust,” Taylor amazes with not only his drumming skills but his brassy rock vocals as well. And Freddie — well he does all three.
Within the confines of any given album (take A Night at the Opera for example), Queen traverses heart-wrenching lyrical boundaries through the unexpected combination of rock and opera. From the heavenly melancholy of “Love of My Life” to the bouncy beats of “Seaside Rendezvous” to the track (which will remain nameless) responsible for Rami Malek’s 2019 Oscar for Best Actor, they defy expectation. It’s everything and anything, it’s nonsensical and biting, warm and familiar.
It has been eight years since I first encountered Freddie and his banana hat, and the connection remains. It’s the glorious weirdness that pierces the soul and moves the feet. It’s the soulful cantos that mangle the mind and seduce the senses. It’s the bright and flashy, the simple and somber. It’s impossible to define and impossible to forget.
It’s unapologetically Queen.
Daily Arts Writer Darby Williams can be reached at email@example.com.