As a parent, I am conscious of my daughter not falling into the trap of focusing her life on the unrealistic world and lyrics manufactured by her pop idols. I think that there is a fine line between promoting and elevating the world of the pop idol and adding value to the surreal world in which they live and in turn devaluing the lives of the students.

Since sitting down and starting to contemplate this article, amazingly an icon of the 1970’s popular music scene has begun playing on the radio, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen…….and I just can’t help myself. Before long I’m singing along….
“Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality….”

And suddenly I can see the vast potential for using and accessing popular culture in the classroom to identify and explain social issues. Whether it is the gang violence, racism and justice outlined in musicals like West Side Story or even opera’s like La Boeheim or to looking at Beyoncé’s lyrics to talk about gender equality in a feminism unit or revealing ones gay sexuality, as some suggest are the meaning behind Mercury’s lyrics.

Teaching in a girls’ school I am constantly aware of student discussions about their latest idols along with food, exercise and body image. These issues come up time and time again in class when talking about stereo types, beauty, success and the empowerment of women; however, I want to dig deeper into how popular culture can have more subtle uses for developing students’ thinking and critical reflection skills. Recently in my Modern History class we have moved from discussion on the Suffragette Movement to modern feminist movements and in the process discussed the role of the media in creating populist and ideal images of women.

To keep it real and to provoke discussion I have shared this video clip with the girls

What I really want to stress is that I’m not really concerned with how we alter and cover blemishes and change proportions of a person’s face, it is why as a society we find this necessary action to undertake. It is this popular reaction to sights and sounds that such as the sharing and appropriation or music and what music inspires that allows for cultural practices to be transmitted. Therefore, effective use of popular culture mediums is about making a connection between subject matter, and the intended learning outcomes. To do this requires a knowledge and understanding of not only the focus of your investigation but also a deep understanding of the theme you are trying to expose and how it is implicitly and explicitly evident in the item or genre under investigation.

So back to my Mr Mercury inspired connection – and that song. During his lifetime Mercury was regularly asked to explain the meaning of many of his lyrics and Bohemian Rhapsody was no exception; however, no explanation was ever given other than it was about relationships. Because of the ambiguity and lack of documented evidence surrounding the lyrics meaning, I believe there is a wonderful opportunity to use this text as the basis of a higher order thinking activity and social inquiry investigation.

While many popular artists’ lyrics currently appear to be quite self-absorbed (just thinking of the numerous romances and breakups of Taylor Swift reproduced in her song’s lyrics) the words and music of Bohemian Rhapsody provide a range of potential opportunities for educators to delve into topics that concern ordinary people and society on a much broader scale. It is for this reason that I feel educators have a moral obligation to deconstruct an artist’s work to help students understand implicit messages and social commentary in an artistic form. It is through drawing a wider audience into questioning and critically understanding controversial topics that social change occurs.

It is very easy to shy away from what superficially might appear to be trashy lame lyrics generated in a factory of like process to produce cheesy tunes and messages, but I ask you – why does this formula work? Obviously, people like and relate to the boppy sounds and catchy lyrics of boy bands and reality television music shows. But the question remains – why are these tunes five minute wonders, while the works of Mercury have stood the test of time, still being popular 40 years later.  I think that it is important to avoid the obvious trashy elements of popular culture in the classroom as they can bring unnecessary distractions; however, I think that it is important that we also want our kids to group up critically analysing and being aware of the superficial veneer some celebrities generate all in the name of image and making a quick fortune.

There is no doubt that Eddy Mercury was a complex character and his music was certainly brilliant in its structure and the number of genres that it embraced, but its messages are not always understood or even fully comprehended. It’s widely acknowledged that Mercury refused to explain the meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody. While some might argue that this was deliberate decision to assist in creating the cult of personality and the mythology surrounding this legendary figure, others suggest that the reason may be entirely personal. It is these questions and lines of inquiry that students can start to investigate with this song. What factors influenced Mercury’s imagination and reasoning to form the song’s content? How and why do the lives of celebrities differ from our own lives? Is there anything within the lyrics or music that deceives or inspires us as society or as individuals? How might religion, ethnicity or gender influence and affect writing, performing or interpreting lyrics? From Mercury’s lyrics we can even question how we as a culture think of death and dying, how class and status influences these things or even how do we respond to suffering, pain, desire or sexuality? By having our students question these things we can use popular culture to explore how society at large provides a sense of meaning to everyday things and purpose to our lives.

It is clearly through the means of popular culture that we can investigate the nuances and interpretations that make us individuals and as a society and the ambiguity of meaning and inference in works life Bohemian Rhapsody provide a valuable source of inspiration for the classroom.  Is it a story as this cartoonist thinks…(see below) ??

I would instead prefer to leave the last response to Brian May, who in an interview with Roger Taylor discussing Queen’s Videos Greatest Hits DVD, said:

“What is Bohemian Rhapsody about, well I don’t think we’ll ever know and if I knew I probably wouldn’t want to tell you anyway, because I certainly don’t tell people what my songs are about. I find that it destroys them in a way because the great thing about a great song is that you relate it to your own personal experiences in your own life. I think that Freddie was certainly battling with problems in his personal life, which he might have decided to put into the song himself. He was certainly looking at re-creating himself. But I don’t think at that point in time it was the best thing to do so he actually decided to do it later. I think it’s best to leave it with a question mark in the air.”

“Anyway the wind blows……..”


Cartoon source:

Featured Image: Eddy Mercury performing Bohemian Rhapsody as part of Live Aid taken by Press Association