The risk of hypocrisy here is enormous. But I promised 500 words, so I’m going to do my best. Really, if I had time and money and sense, I’d find someone with the right perspective to write this for me.
So this is Brian trying to express sympathy and solidarity for the genocide of Native people led by European colonists. I think the intention is pretty solid.
Of course, he’s Brian May, so he’s doing it through the medium of hard rock, some Queen’s hardest, actually.
I think it’s the first time we’ve seen Queen being actively political (aside from the implied personal politics of loving whilst gay and not out) . I’ve tried to shoe horn anticapitalism into a few of the earlier songs, but this is clearly written with a very specific intent. Taking culpability and trying to process and amplify that white people destroyed nations and lives to make space for itself.
There’s a problem though. And it’s the same problem I end up with if I go much further with this.
He does it all by taking the role of the Native.
The narrator of the song challenges, curses and holds the white man accountable.
Now. Freddie’s relationship with colonialism is complicated. But May is a quintessential white man.
At best, the whole thing is an acre of cringe with a solid guitar crunch underneath it. In reality though, it’s another invasion. Another space colonised. May’s attempt to give voice to a struggle ends up supplanting that voice with his own. He escapes blame by speaking from the oppressed position. It feels like allyship at its worst.
Which of course, is why I don’t want to judge the song, and talk about the narrative in any more detail. It doesn’t matter if it seems right or wrong to my ear (and the use of a clear racist epithet at the start of one verse speaks against it). Really, it needs to be torn apart by the people whose voice May is trying to speak for.
And that’s not me.
There’s a chance, of course, that I’m miles off. That the whole piece was constructed in consultation with the surviving Native people (the song makes no effort that I can see to specify a particular nation or culture). That May did the legwork, talked to people, wrote collaboratively, and is giving voice to a specific person.
But, well, there’s no sign of it. And to do this right, you have to attribute and specify, really. Freddie’s own colonised and immigrant history probably isn’t enough to wash off the sense of privilege.
Sure, there’s probably some excuses about the time. I’m sure this felt like sticking a neck out and doing the right thing. But it doesn’t really make a difference, and it stops me from being able to discuss this in any other light. I can’t gloss over, and I can’t go deeper without repeating the problem.
So this is what you get. A link to the song, and a set of problems I can spot, even from my position of ignorance and privilege.
One of my worries about Queen, and a lot of music I’m passionate about, is that it essentially becomes a form of escapism, ignoring the realities of the world for the sake of emotional release. So on some level, I want to praise Queen for taking up a political cause and making a statement. And it is clearly trying to be on the right side. It’s not as if I’ve ever criticised them for a lack of nuance before.
But no. It’s not enough to make the statement, if you don’t figure out how to do it right
Sorry if I’m being just as bad. I’d really love to hear the views of anyone Brian is trying to speak for here. I’ll happily remove anything I’ve to make space for that perspective. And I’m sorry I haven’t sought it out already.
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.
Illustration by Emma.