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Freddie Mercury: Out on Stage, Brown in the Closet
September 6, 2012 4:26 AM   Subscribe

"Take everything you know and imagine about Freddie Mercury: the iconic British rock star, the philandering partier, the serial maker of testosteroned-anthems, and flip it around to something less familiar: Farrokh Bulsara, a demure, bucktoothed Indian boy in a Bombay boarding school, listening to Lata Mangeshkar, playing cricket." -- Janaki Challa writes about the contradiction in the openly gay image of Freddie Mercury the performer and his much more private cultural identity off it.
posted by MartinWisse (36 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Music is more boring without Freddie around.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 4:38 AM on September 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


The Cracked version.

And from Wikipedia, his personal relationships were more complicated than an "openly gay performer":
In the early 1970s Mercury had a long-term relationship with Mary Austin, whom he had met through guitarist Brian May. He lived with Austin for several years in West Kensington. By the mid-1970s, however, the singer had begun an affair with a male American record executive at Elektra Records, which ultimately resulted in the end of his relationship with Austin.[59] Mercury and Austin nevertheless remained close friends through the years, with Mercury often referring to her as his only true friend. In a 1985 interview, Mercury said of Austin, "All my lovers asked me why they couldn't replace Mary [Austin], but it's simply impossible. The only friend I've got is Mary and I don't want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We believe in each other, that's enough for me."[60] He also wrote several songs about Austin, the most notable of which is "Love of My Life". In his will, Mercury left his London home to Austin, rather than his then partner Jim Hutton, saying, "You would have been my wife and it would have been yours anyway".[61] Mercury was also the godfather of Mary's oldest son, Richard.[44]

During the early to mid '80s, he was romantically involved with Barbara Valentin, an Austrian actress,[62] who is featured in the video for "It's a Hard Life".[63] By 1985, he began another long-term relationship with a hairdresser named Jim Hutton (b. 1949, d. 2010). Hutton, who was tested HIV-positive in 1990,[64] lived with Mercury for the last six years of his life, nursed him during his illness, and was present at his bedside when he died. Hutton claimed that Mercury died wearing a wedding band that Hutton had given him.[64] Hutton died from cancer on 1 January 2010.[65]

posted by 445supermag at 5:04 AM on September 6, 2012


One of my favorite tweets of all time was during the closing ceremony of the Olympics:
Imagine being so brilliant you just stand there going "Yoddy yoddy yo" and everyone goes batshit.
posted by desjardins at 5:15 AM on September 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


My first thought is that I'm sort of nonplussed that the author of the piece himself sets up Indianness and masculinity as oppositional, even as he wonders that Freddie Mercury wasn't "out" about his Indianness and/or could not himself square those two sides of his identity.

My second thought is that I'm not sure Indianness is something one needs to be "out" about as an entertainer. I mean, how "out" is Eric Bogosian about being Armenian? I recently found out that Zoe Saldana is Latina. How "out" is Barbra Streisand about being Jewish? (I don't know much about Streisand, so I might be way off base there.) And those are all actors, so people who are probably more likely to be associated with a specific ethnicity due to casting. I honestly couldn't tell you the ethnicity of most musicians where it isn't extremely obvious by looking at them or knowing their name.

I think it's definitely better now that people are more open about ethnicity now, less likely to change their names, more likely to talk about being biracial or multicultural, and more likely to incorporate identity into their creative output (compare Freddie Mercury to Cornershop, for example). But I don't know if that means that someone who died before that came to pass was necessarily "closeted" or "passing".

Then again, I am white and not of an ethnicity that would be considered exotic by most Americans (well, maybe Cajun? But still, Cajun != Indian). So what do I know?
posted by Sara C. at 5:15 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


How "out" is Barbra Streisand about being Jewish?

Well, I've heard her say that she had tea with Prince Charles once, way back in the day, and that "if she had played her cards right, she could have been the first real Jewish princess".
posted by orange swan at 5:20 AM on September 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


My second thought is that I'm not sure Indianness is something one needs to be "out" about as an entertainer.

Keep the era in mind.

This is not uncommon. Cliff Richard, Engelbert Humperdink, and Merle Oberon, were all of Anglo Indian heritage, hiding their roots, for fear of being "tarred by the brush".
posted by infini at 5:23 AM on September 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Also, India probably wasn't the most friendly place for non hetero men. The laws against homosexuality dating back to the 19th century are only now in the process of changing.
posted by infini at 5:24 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lastly, why I came in here :)

There was a very strong rumour back in my college days that Freddie had first begun studying engineering at our college in Bangalore. Wonder if that just mythology rather than reality?
posted by infini at 5:25 AM on September 6, 2012


Its strange to hear Freddie described as 'openly gay'. Back in the 80s, when I was about 10 and me and my friends were listening to Queen's Highlander soundtrack, none of us would have guessed that. Though looking back, it seems kind of obvious. Like, the band name. Perhaps all the grown ups knew back then and just didn't talk about it?
posted by memebake at 5:25 AM on September 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Did not in any way mean to imply that any of the figures I mentioned are explicitly closeted about being whatever ethnicity, btw. Just that it's not talked about much, not the biggest part of their identity as performers, etc. Just to clarify.

Streisand might have been a stretch as an example of that, though. I'd actually be curious to know how much she talked about Jewishness "back in the day" vs. within the last 15-20 years, though.

Also, ick, who in their right mind would be attracted to Prince Charles? Makes a good joke, but uggggggggghhhhhhhh...
posted by Sara C. at 5:26 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you don't belong to any group, you're free to belong to every group. Or rather, free to have every group claim you as their own.
posted by tommasz at 5:27 AM on September 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure this article does justice to his cultural identity, actually, I'm not clear on what its trying to say. I'm not sure he was "rejected by most" of his multiple worlds, either, as it claims. I just think he had a complex cultural identity as do so many in the world, and good for pointing that out.

I'm not sure the word's stadium rocking hordes were going to be up on the nuances of being minority Asian in East Africa, of being a child of the shrunken British Empire, of boarding schools almost more English than English ones in India, and of the many children of Empire who ended up back in the capital.
posted by C.A.S. at 6:45 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I honestly can't decide if Freddy Mercury is a more or less badass name than Farrokh Bulsara.
posted by straight at 6:47 AM on September 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


I mean, how "out" is Eric Bogosian about being Armenian? I recently found out that Zoe Saldana is Latina.

It's not obvious to you because of their names?

Saldana Name Meaning: Spanish (Saldaña): habitational name from any of the places in the provinces of Palencia, Segovia, and Burgos named Saldaña.

Bogosian: Last name origin & meaning:
Armenian: patronymic from the western Armenian personal name Bołos, classical Armenian Pawłos (see Paul).

I mean, I understand if they'd changed their names (Casey Kasem, who is of Lebanese heritage, was born Kemal Amin Kasem).
posted by desjardins at 7:10 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not obvious to you because of their names?

I'm not saying that I don't know what ethnicity these people are (yes, aside from possibly Streisand they all have names that hint at their backgrounds), but that you don't think of them primarily as those ethnicities. If you're not super aware of how ethnicities map to surnames, you might not know.

I don't think I knew Barbra Streisand was Jewish until I came across Yentl, for example. (d'oh, Yentl, I take back my use of her as an example for reals now, with some caveats. Then again, Yentl wasn't made until around the time of Freddie Mercury's death, so...)

I might be wrong about this due to being not alive/a small child for most of Freddie's life, but was he actively hiding being Indian, or it just didn't come up because we don't really go around asking ambiguously ethnic rock stars why they gotta be so damn swarthy all the time?
posted by Sara C. at 7:25 AM on September 6, 2012


It's not obvious to you because of their names?

No, certainly not always. For example the sort of names that to Americans (well, New Yorkers) means a Jewish background, German names like Zimmerman or Goldstein or whatever are not recognised as Jewish (as opposed to German) here in the Netherlands (well, not so much by me anyway).
posted by MartinWisse at 7:27 AM on September 6, 2012


d'oh, Yentl, I take back my use of her as an example for reals now, with some caveats. Then again, Yentl wasn't made until around the time of Freddie Mercury's death, so...

The film of Yentl was made in 1983, Mercury died in 1991 (about 6 months before I became a huge Queen fan, with a special love for his voice, because that's the kind of luck I have).

That said, I would agree also that if you don't live in a place where names are singled out as Jewish, you don't notice them as Jewish names. For most of my childhood, I couldn't have told you that "Cohen" was a Jewish name, though I knew people named Cohen (who happened to be Jewish). It was just a name.
posted by jb at 7:54 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Especially in the New World, many people have names derived from a lone ancestor several generations back. In these cases, the name matches maybe a sixteenth of their ancestry, not necessarily their own "ethnicity".
posted by tangerine at 7:58 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, for some reason I thought Yentl was more like '89-'91, which would tie in better with the idea of 90's-2000's cultural pluralism and people being less inclined to market themselves in an assimilationist way. Though I definitely think movies like Yentl and Moonstruck* and the like probably paved the way for that sea change.

I call full takebacks on Barbra Streisand as my random coincidentally-ethnic entertainer who is not primarily known for their ethnicity.

I blame the early morning lack of caffeine.

*Oooh, should have said Cher and not Barbra. Wrong ambiguously ethnic gay icon.
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 AM on September 6, 2012


I will forever remember Freddie Mercury as a tiger, defying the laws of gravity. Or in mustache, heels, and stockings. Or in a bare-chested black-and-white jester suit.

Take everything you know and imagine about Freddie Mercury: the iconic British rock star, the philandering partier, the serial maker of testosteroned-anthems, and flip it around to something less familiar:

That's not what "flip it around" means.

Maybe the question should not only be why he wanted “hide” his Indianness, but also why he wanted to pass off as a European—or if he cared about any of these identifying categories at all.

C'mon. Watch that second video. Which culture allowed him to do that?
posted by mrgrimm at 8:20 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Its strange to hear Freddie described as 'openly gay'. Back in the 80s, when I was about 10 and me and my friends were listening to Queen's Highlander soundtrack, none of us would have guessed that. Though looking back, it seems kind of obvious. Like, the band name. Perhaps all the grown ups knew back then and just didn't talk about it?

You think?

"Freddie's not bent, just camp. Ask him if he's queer and he'll turn round and say : 'I'm as gay as a daffodil, dear'. (He has a habit of saying 'dear' at the end of every sentence.) Drummer Taylor expounds: 'Freddie's just his natural self: just a poof, really.'"

Freddie Mercury. Just a regular kinda guy. - NME, 1974
posted by mrgrimm at 8:28 AM on September 6, 2012


Okay, I'll concede that names don't necessarily make you identifiable.

My husband's surname is courtesy of his Norwegian step-grandfather, and he's constantly asked if he's Jewish (I'm sure it doesn't hurt that he has dark hair and eyes.) I don't want our name to be Googleable on mefi, so I'll just say that it's the name of the last hurricane to hit New Orleans + the suffix "son".

/derail

posted by desjardins at 8:38 AM on September 6, 2012


As long as we're on the topic of Freddie Mercury, this duet with Montserrat Caballe will blow your mind.
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:44 AM on September 6, 2012


Also, you wouldn't know this from the linked article, but the Parsis have a long and storied theatrical tradition. The apple didn't drop that far from the tree.
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:50 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


As long as we're on the topic of Freddie Mercury, this duet with Montserrat Caballe will blow your mind.
posted by Currer Belfry at 10:44 AM on September 6
I'm over here shaking my head, unreal performances. Mercury was such a beautiful man, such a great, great artist.

The article was to me pretty much incoherent, I do not know exactly what the writer was/is trying to get across, no new ground covered or uncovered. Was Mercury an Indian, was he a rock star, was he this, was he that, was he hiding out from this or from that, blah blah blah blah blah. What he was was a goddamn god of art, or, rather, Art, sent here to help us see and enjoy beauty and greatness, which is what he was.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:02 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


he's constantly asked if he's Jewish (I'm sure it doesn't hurt that he has dark hair and eyes.

That's where they got it wrong - everyone knows that (European) Jews are usually blond (or red-haired) and blue-eyed. Or so it seems that everyone I meet who is Jewish has been, or if they are dark-haired/dark-eyed, that's from the gentile-side of their family, while the Jewish side is fair.
posted by jb at 9:05 AM on September 6, 2012


Its strange to hear Freddie described as 'openly gay'. Back in the 80s, when I was about 10 and me and my friends were listening to Queen's Highlander soundtrack, none of us would have guessed that. Though looking back, it seems kind of obvious. Like, the band name. Perhaps all the grown ups knew back then and just didn't talk about it?

His bi/pan/homo/whatever-sexuality is laced through his songs, too. "I wanna make a supersonic [wo]man out of you."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:13 AM on September 6, 2012


The article was to me pretty much incoherent, I do not know exactly what the writer was/is trying to get across, no new ground covered or uncovered. Was Mercury an Indian, was he a rock star, was he this, was he that, was he hiding out from this or from that, blah blah blah blah blah.

The article actually kind of made sense to me. As an ethnic Indian carrying the passport but never having quite lived there since I was 4, I can understand some of the things the author is trying to say... or rather explore, since she's Indian too and is writing from the point of view of the unique situation Freddie found himself in, both literally and figuratively.

Freddie experienced and embraced oddity early on. He was sent off to Bombay, where he became the outsider—a newcomer from the Zanzibarian coast who did not grow up in the same cultural mileu as his classmates.
[...]
At the age of seventeen, he moved to England, where Indian English probably wasn’t the most vogue accent in town—in fact, he was ridiculed for it. There wasn’t a "category of identification" available to Freddie during his time—his foray into music happened only a short while after India’s independence from the British Raj, and racist Victorian sentiments on ethnicity and sexuality still persisted. That, and never before was there a flamboyant, Indian-East African-Zoroastrian- gay- rock-opera star.

I mean, just this, this is a mindfuck.

Freddie was born in 1946, BEFORE the British left India, much less Tanzania, where he was born. He would have been 17 in 1963.

He was breaking through everything - barriers of class, creed, religion, gender, passport, ethnicity, and did what he probably had to do, in order to be seen as just him and him alone - Freddie Mercury, in all his flamboyant glory - rather than all the other epithets you could tag on to him.

You are all reading this essay from the point of view of 2012 (mostly) United States of Political Correctness and Civil Rights, not the immediate post Independence era of the African colonies and Indian Rajas of London.

The man was a rockstar in ways you cannot imagine.

London can still make me cry, in this century, as a brown person.

Tommasz said it best up above:

If you don't belong to any group, you're free to belong to every group. Or rather, free to have every group claim you as their own.

I grew up as a teenager bouncing back and forth between cultures and countries and honestly, if I could have passed for being invisible, from anywhere and everywhere, like Freddie did, I bet I would have too.

Every global nomad, confused mixed up third culture kid has gone through this - but Freddie had much more than culture and ethnicity to deal with in his journey towards "identity" and "selfhood" didn't he?

Was identity, for Freddie, not British or Indian, African, but nothing at all related to country or creed? He let these identities have contradictions and multiple definitions, especially in songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, or Mustapha, where nothing even makes linguistic sense. Perhaps his embrace of neologism hinted at his disdain for categories. Perhaps his music manifested his apathy towards coherence, and labels.
posted by infini at 9:24 AM on September 6, 2012 [13 favorites]


One of my favorite tweets of all time was during the closing ceremony of the Olympics:
Imagine being so brilliant you just stand there going "Yoddy yoddy yo" and everyone goes batshit.


A holographic image of you standing there, no less.

Seriously, how much would he have rocked the Olympics?
All those people all hyped up after 2 weeks ready to let loose? Would have been epic.
posted by madajb at 9:40 AM on September 6, 2012


That said, I would agree also that if you don't live in a place where names are singled out as Jewish, you don't notice them as Jewish names.

When I entered high school, in the local small city, I was amazed that the 'urban' kids, who grew up a mile or two from me, were able to deduce that someone named "Cohen" was Jewish. It was like I was missing a sense that everyone else had.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:08 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


My husband's last name is Italian but he doesn't have an ounce of Italian blood. His dad was an Irish Jew adopted into an Italian family. In the US, last names get all convoluted.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:47 AM on September 6, 2012


That's where they got it wrong - everyone knows that (European) Jews are usually blond (or red-haired) and blue-eyed. Or so it seems that everyone I meet who is Jewish has been, or if they are dark-haired/dark-eyed, that's from the gentile-side of their family, while the Jewish side is fair.

jb: Sephardi Jews
posted by The Michael The at 11:54 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


decide if Freddy Mercury is a more or less badass name than Farrokh Bulsara.

Beats Freddy Protactinium or Adam Antimony. You have to admit that.
posted by Twang at 12:19 PM on September 6, 2012


His cultural upbringing was perhaps more similar to that of South Asian diasporic youth than suburban British kids. He did not walk the sodden London streets squatting in industrial buildings at 15, he did not eat bangers and mash for brunch (until later, anyway), he did not have a fully British accent when he was ten.

If the person being written about wasn't Freddie Mercury, nothing in this story would be special or unique. There must be tens of millions of people living in Britain/France/Germany/Netherlands/Sweden/US/Canada today with a very similar background, perhaps even a specifically a South Asian background given the large numbers of South Asian immigrants in all of those aforementioned countries.

People are malleable to new cultures and environments because we're all just people you know?
posted by three blind mice at 10:40 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man, the teeth he had as a kid... they look like joke teeth.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:09 AM on September 8, 2012


Man, the teeth he had as a kid... they look like joke teeth.

I swear I read once that the only couple times he ever considered fixing his overbite, he always decided not because he was afraid that would also change his voice somehow, and since that was so good, then...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:28 AM on September 11, 2012


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