Queer: Queen, “We Are The Champions” (1977)

Is there a queer musical hook?  Try not to think about dress, gestures, biographies, or lyrical content.  Also, try not to think about the sense in which music as such—our most sensitive, fluid, pleasure-seeking idiom of expression, swamping or seeping through all dams of restraint—may be thoroughly queer.  OK then:  what, other than anything at all, could count as a distinctly queer moment in music?

There’s an obvious problem of stereotype.  Whatever is queer must be deeply subversive of our sex-related expectations, and yet it probably can’t register that way unless it looks like an already-recognized “gay” or “lesbian” type of deviation from the heterosexualist norm.  Another problem is that a queer hook will be especially difficult to appreciate as such in a rock context, where all kinds of weirdness merge into the general theatricality of rock.[1]

I could easily get this wrong[2]—patience, friends (or come to my aid!)—but the impression I get from mass media is that there are well-nigh standard gay and lesbian musical hooks, too standard to be really queer.

(a) The gay male hook is operatic-histrionic impassioned singing, especially with wide intervals and high notes.  The middle-class version is Tom Hanks’ gay lawyer character inhabiting a recorded aria by Maria Callas in Philadelphia (bathed in red light); in rock, it’s in a style like Freddie Mercury’s.  In theory, this challenges me as a heterosexual male because it exceeds my normal bounds of expression; it sets a compelling example outside my comfort zone.  (In fact, though, I’m comfortable with it.)

(b) For lesbians, standard musical ways of conveying something inconsistent with susceptibility-to-male-conquest are the detached coolness of a Janis Ian (interestingly just over a certain line from a Julie London coolness that counts as “seductive”)[3] and the punkish grrl power of a Joan Jett (hard to keep distinct from punk attitude in general).  These stances are challenging to me because, well shoot, you know why.  (But again—it’s okay.)

I want to cite something really subversive.   I’ll go with Freddie after all in Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” specifically the second line of its refrain with the soaring high note on “fighting”—a queering of fighting itself by swooping up above any fray, going somewhere over the rainbow where queers stand a chance.

“We Are The Champions”

Precisely because this song has been adopted by billions as a sports victory anthem,[4] there’s a thrill to be had in retrieving its irony and wondering how much the masses are consciously or unconsciously deviated by it.  However normal the song seems now, it takes the cheering and keeps on queering.


[1] Good on this subject:  “Sex, drags and rock ‘n’ roll,” Chap. 17 in Laurence Senelik’s The Changing Room (London:  Routledge, 2000).  Before “androgynous” became, likewise, a typical manner of addressing our expectations, a musician could be deeply disturbing in that way, like David Bowie around 1972.  But does “Ziggy Stardust” sound sexually weird any more?

[2] While I myself can’t draw directly on gay or Lesbian ways of experiencing musical performances, plenty of people can, multifariously—see e.g. Elizabeth Wood, “Sapphonics,” in Philip Brett et al., eds., Queering the Pitch:  The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (New York:  Routledge, 1994).

[3] And where is Suzanne Vega in relation to this line?

[4] I see that Freddie Mercury claimed to be thinking of football when he wrote it.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Identities, Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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