Queen and My Thesis

This idea for a post came to me during a run. Around the twelfth kilometre, as the endorphins were kicking in and the village of Coton disappearing behind me, Queen’s 1991 hit, The Show Must Go On came up on my playlist, and it struck me that the lyrics of the song – recounting Freddie Mercury’s efforts to perform even as he died from AIDS – were susceptible to a reading in light of some of my recent thinking about theories of performance and actors. Here is the original music video, followed by a mix of my analysis and the words sung by Mercury, apparently recorded – much to the surprise of a concerned Brian May – in a single take after a large swig of vodka and the exclamation, “I’ll fucking do it, darling!”

Click on the picture to see the video (Hypotheses does not allow iframes apparently)

Empty spaces, what are we living for?
Abandoned places, I guess we know the score;
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero, another mindless crime;
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime;
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore?

This opening question, asked over a subdued synth line whose repetitions and tempo help to build anticipation, is open to several readings. Who are “we”? On one level, “we” designates the performers, asking why they do what they do, over and over again. On another, “we” is much more inclusive, and covers everyone, performer and audience, asking, essentially, for nothing less than the meaning of life. Both readings of this are possible because of the long-held tradition that “all the world’s a stage” – Totus mundus agit histrionem, as they carved into Shakespeare’s Globe. It is a tradition that offers several possibilities: that the performer can represent real experience, that real experience can be explored through performance, and, most importantly of all, that there exists the potential for a deep, even personal connection between what is performed and what is lived.

What are the “empty spaces”, the “abandoned places”? The rhyme connects them, and I can see two interpretations. First, they designate the theatre and (by building on the ‘world as stage’ metaphor) the world of everyday experience as well. In both cases, these arenas are denigrated, called “empty” and “abandoned”: the magic, we are given to understand, happens elsewhere. This is something Diderot would have approved of, since his Paradoxe sur le Comédien argues that true imaginative construction occurs during the performer’s preparation, and all that occurs in front of an audience is the empty, mechanical execution of predetermined plan. The second interpretation of the “empty spaces”, however, sits in tension with this, and generates the pathos of the opening: the “empty spaces” and, especially, the “abandoned places” represent the performer’s view of his world, and thus express a deep melancholy in line with such existential questions as “What are we living for?” The theatre (and the world) only *seem* abandoned because of the performer’s emotional state. In the official video, Mercury sings these lines as we see images of screaming crowds or elaborate stagesets, in other words, very full and certainly not abandoned places: the emptiness and abandonment are within.

Diderot famously proposed that the best performers were the least feeling, coldly executing outward displays of emotion constructed from memories. What The Show Must Go On registers, however, is something more primitive: the desire to know what lies behind performance, the desire to lift the curtain. This gives us such lines as the couplet “Another hero, another mindless crime; / Behind the curtain, in the pantomime”, again rich with melancholy, and crucially indeterminate as to whether it is describing the content of the show or the real life experience of the actor. We can lift the curtain because all that lies behind it is another kind of show. The “pantomime” is both “behind the curtain” and in front of it: everything is a performance, so one can be a spectator of real life as much as the show, albeit at the price of abandoning the idea of an authentic, non-performed, ‘natural’ self, and opening oneself to the grim thought of Macbeth, “life’s a poor player.” When the verse asks its third question – “does anybody want to take it any more?” – the ambiguities of “we” are stated more forcefully: this is not just “any” performer, but “anybody” whatsoever. The show is everywhere, and we are caught up in it.

This explains the force of the chorus:

The show must go on!
The show must go on! yeah!
Inside my heart is breaking,
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on.

There is no explanation for why the show must go on, just the articulation of a desire to keep going. This becomes even more powerful as the song continues. As before, the lyrics let us into the personal side of the performer, and draw their pathos from the disjunction between external signs and internal emotions. As Hamlet puts it, he has “that within which passeth show”. Jim Hutton, Mercury’s partner, commented that the lines “My make-up may be flaking / But my smile stays on” were the most potently autobiographical line of the song. As well as this, they are amongst the most powerful because they break the image of outwardly-brilliant and internally-suffering performer by suggesting that, tragically, the hidden state of the showman can no longer be fully kept from those around him. The illusion is failing, and soon there will be no more curtain left to lift.

Such urgency propels us into the desperate logic of the next verse.

Whatever happens, I’ll leave it all to chance;
Another heartache, another failed romance;
On and on, does anybody know what we are living for?
I guess I’m learning (I’m learning, learning, learning…)
I must be warmer now:
I’ll soon be turning (turning turning turning…)
Round the corner now.
Outside the dawn is breaking,
But inside in the dark I’m aching to be free.

Here, the resignation of leaving “all to chance” is mixed with a variation on the “another hero, another mindless crime” lines from before. Again, the “heartache” and the “failed romance” are either the contents of a show or the realities of the performer’s life (or both). Yet, pairing these events with such resignation offers a more subtle response, one that fully recognises the flaws of the previous desire to “hold the line”. The simple statement, “I guess I’m learning now” draws on what Diderot saw as the irrefutable proof of the actor’s power over himself during performance, the ability to modify it according to on-stage circumstance (a dropped object, a missing prop, etc.). A limited version of this self-consciousness, made possible by the resignation of the opening line, is present in these lyrics. The singer may not know what’s coming, but he knows where he is, and can see a little in front: he knows he should be “warmer”, that he’ll “soon be turning”, that a new day “is breaking”. And yet, the final line reveals how double-edged such consciousness proves to be: the performer knows above all that he is “aching to be free”. Before, the problem was expressed in a general – “does anybody want to take it any more?” – now things are more personal. The response, however, remains irrational, potent, and rich with emotion.

The show must go on!
The show must go on! yeah yeah!
Ooh, inside my heart is breaking,
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on

Yeah yeah, whoa wo oh oh!

This brings us – with a key change – to the final section of the song.

My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies,
Fairytales of yesterday will grow but never die:
I can fly, my friends!

The show must go on! (go on, go on, go on…) yeah yeah!
The show must go on! (go on, go on, go on…)
I’ll face it with a grin!
I’m never giving in!
On, with the show!

Ooh, I’ll top the bill, I’ll overkill,
I have to find the will to carry on,
On with the show…
On with the show!
The show, the show must go on…
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on…

If we moved from the general (“does anybody want to take it any more?”) to the personal (“I’m aching to be free”), we now step even deeper into the performer’s own internal pantomime, the show within the show, where even the “soul” is “painted”. This is, in my view, the richest line of the entire song: “My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies” not only marks the deepest point of the descent into the performer, it also reaches out the furthest. We could go back, for example, to Ancient Greece, and the way that the word psyche meant both “butterfly” and “soul”, which suggests the tautology that “my soul is painted with the wings of [souls]”, i.e. that performance is what the performer is, right down to his core. Alternatively, we could remember that once a butterfly’s wings emerge it only has a short time to live; or, to evoke menace in a different way, it shouldn’t be forgotten either that a butterfly’s wings often act as camouflage from predators. If I wanted to bring all these different threads together, I suppose the best bet would be something like the idea that by accepting performance, by performing at every level of his being (from painted face to painted soul), the performer may not live long but will also stand a chance at escaping oblivion. Such a reading seems to be confirmed by, first, the next line’s “fairytales of yesterday will grow old but never die”, and, second, the surge of exclamations beginning with “I can fly my friends!”

In the final seconds of the song, the main vocal line stops, and we hear only the repetition of “go on”. In a way, this is apt: finishing on a bang would not be appropriate for a song that is about both decline and artistic survival; further, though, the disappearance of the main vocals makes for an extremely haunting conclusion. So late in the track, the listener is deeply involved with the main singer, having been led to step over the barriers between internal and external that Diderot anatomised. When this presence vanishes, we are left with a doubt: for a little over four minutes, we have been plunged into a life where everything appears a show, both within and without; when we hear that ‘the show must go on’, we now understand that the show must go on because the show is everything and everything the show; and yet, hearing the faint “go on”, we know that such an aspiration can never be realised as fully as we would want it to. The show must end.

2 thoughts on “Queen and My Thesis”

  1. Can I simply say what a comfort to uncover someone who truly knows what they’re talking about on the net. You certainly know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. A lot more people have to read this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised that you’re not more popular given that you certainly have the gift.|

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