I Want To Break Free opens with an emergency. An alarm clock flashes, beeps, and emits a significant amount of smoke. Something is seriously wrong in the British working family terraced house that that music video opens in.
However: no one cares.
Mamma Brian May flips off the alarm and shuffles about the house assumedly as normal, not making any eye contact with family members.
Granny John Deacon scowls at Freddie’s flamboyant entrance over a copy of the Daily Mirror whose headline whines “THEY NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD”.
The lines “I’ve got to break free from your lies/you’re so self satisfied, I don’t need you” leads to an initial understanding of this song as being about an imminent break up. However, to follow this assumption through the entire song requires a huge amount of complicated re-adjustment. (How can one want to break free from a relationship when one later admits, “I’m in love for the first time”?) It is easier to see this “you” as being plural, and as being about the other characters so far shown in the music video.
Between Freddie’s declarations of “I want to break free” and “I’ve fallen in love” he flings open the door to a closet, showing the next location of the music video. However, behind the door is not an image of freedom, as the lyrics demand, but an image of grief: a crowd of people,marching slowly in the dark, their faces hidden, each with a light on their helmet. I Want to Break Free was released the year the miner’s strike began.
It looks like a vigil.
It looks like a vigil in which those grieving do not want to be recognised.
The AIDs crisis reached the UK four years before I Want To Break Free was published.
Freddie stands at the centre, flanked by his stony-faced band-mates.
In the darkness, “I’m in love for the first time” is a declaration not only of love, but of grief. Grief for the self, grief that this darkness belongs to the self, because “this time I know it’s for real” and now “God knows”. There is no hiding from this love. There is no hiding from the knowledge and the grief that you are not yet free.
However, at least this is a scene of being one-of-many, rather than the lonely Freddie of the first verse.
The miners/mourners lead Freddie to a cave-like environment. They remain in the doorway, while he enters.
Freddie is initially alone in this new space, where he sings, “I have to be sure when I walk out that door – oh, how I want to be free”. The only door the audience has seen so far is the closet door, the one that moved the audience from a home life surrounded by silent hostility to a crowd of darkness that Freddie’s place is at the centre of.
The closet door is the centre of that household set. It sits between the kitchen and the living room and under the bedroom that the music video begins in. It sits at the heart of the family. Granny Deacon and Mamma May don’t look up when it is opened.
Back in the cave, lone figure Freddie steps out of view, and emerges transformed and surrounded by bodies. All wear full body leotards covered in abstract markings. The instrumental begins, and Freddie takes a trumpet from his mouth and hands it to the others, figuratively passing from voice to body as a method of expression, and from a single person to a group as the source of that expression.
Once again, the lonely, desperate, wanting singer transforms into one-of-many.
The contemporary dance break begins with Freddie acting out the movements of analingus. With gusto. He eats grapes that decorate the central curve of a giant sculpture of an arse. The other dancers join, a male dancer mouthing over the grapes before looking hungrily at Freddie.
It is a source of great personal joy to remind myself every day that Freddie Mercury ate ass on British TV in the 80s. And no-one (except, presumably, as we were known then, “the queers”) noticed.
On the day Freddie Mercury was announced dead in 1991, straight men across the nation were shocked to their core that the man they called “our Freddie” had been bisexual and had died of “the gay plague”. Many denied it was true. His being in a band called “Queen”, his regular cross-dressing, and his miming of queer sex had passed them by completely. Their claim over Freddie Mercury as part of “straight lad culture” is still evident in the use of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” in sports stadiums across the nation and the world. But there he is anyway: 1984, miming eating ass, miming joyfully and eagerly eating ass. In front of the nation.
Most singers who imply sex acts in their music videos keep themselves in a place of sexual power. They penetrate and control, often in a heteronormative dynamic. Analingus, on the other hand, is one of the only sexual acts that can be performed the same regardless of the genitals of either party. It also promises one of the lowest probabilities of accidental pain on either side. Nothing hard can accidentally jam into the wrong vulnerable spot. It is possibly the queerest sex act Freddie could have chosen, and it is one in which he is giving, not taking, and putting no-one at risk of pain.
The rest of the instrumental dance sequence is less sexually obvious, but it is still about sex. The dancers’ bodies look abstract and suddenly alien, thanks to the camera shots and the patterning on the outfits: the bodies are now landscape-like and new. Like the discovery of the familiar-but-new that happens during sex. The fourth shot of the instrumental exemplifies this. On first viewing, it takes a while to figure out exactly what one is looking at. It is in fact a close up of the hipbones of a dancer doing horizontal splits, her upper body dropped over her lower leg, another dancer spinning her on the axis her legs make. The dancers’ bodies are worth watching because they are new and interesting again: the camera is exploratory, and the viewer intrigued. These bodies are unfamiliar. They are something apart from the routine shapes that surround us in public every day.
The majority of the dance sequence is not about explicit sex acts because it is busy being about trust. In several different configurations Freddie is lifted, carried, or caught mid-jump and raised up by the others in the group. He jumps with full trust and is raised up by their strength in reward. This is the highest point of freedom the music video achieves.
“But life still goes on”.
We are returned to the household where the adults continue to ignore Freddie. The door to the vigil that leads to the cave is closed. Once again, Freddie mentions a ‘you’: “I can’t get used to living without, living without, living without you by my side.” This ‘you’ can be read as plural, and once again it refers to characters that were recently shown on screen. The second household scene is about having had a glimpse of freedom, a taste of what it’s like to have a community that you can trust to raise you up, and then having to return to the life you had before, bereft of that understanding and trust.
Freddie bends over the coffee table to cry out to Mamma May and Granny Deacon: “I don’t want to live alo-o-o-one”. Neither of them look up.
Freddie perches on the arm of Granny’s sofa and she moves away, avoiding touching him. She is still reading the Daily Mirror. This is a family that would rather take their opinions from the press than have a conversation with someone they live with.
“God knows,” Freddie admits, as the camera pauses first on Granny Deacon’s and then Mamma May’s faces as they studiously do not look up from The Daily Mirror or a magazine ironically titled “Home Chat”, “I’ve got to make it on my own.”
The household scene is then ripped in half like a piece of paper. We are back in the vigil. This time the band mates are separate, solemn. The camera zooms out from each of their faces, until they could almost be anyone. They fade into the crowd of small, determined lights shining out from the darkness.
Over the top is the desperate, prayer-like, “I want I want I want I want”.
Finally we see Freddie’s face. The camera zooms out, including a sea of lights and darkness around him.
Freddie waves with both arms high.
Almost like a distress signal. Almost like he’s drowning.
Almost like having made it to this community, to this vigil, where everyone is constantly mourning, where everyone is the same because everyone has to be anonymous, is not yet free.
It’s 2018, and the emergency the alarms that rang us into this music video are still ringing.
Words by Angharad