Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Queen – “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #4 in February 1978
A bisexual man of Parsi descent shouting an triumphalist tub thumper? What, you hate fun?
As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve treated sports as the spectacle of sports, for how can one separate them? Spectacle requires a soundtrack. Mass enthusiasm — conscription by any other name — repels me, a guy who shrinks from parades, applause, whistling, and public means of demonstrating approval.
Unfair as it is to blame appropriation for the way in which it has shaped my responses to Queen’s double-sided monster, I can’t think of any other context in which “We Are the Champions/We Will Rock You” gets played enthusiastically and, more importantly, deliberately, as in, “I want to listen to Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You.’ Let me queue it…” Perhaps a new generation of fans programmed by the execrable queerphobic biopic Bohemian Rhapsody does. Certainly I’ve heard them in the wild more times since last November than I had since the Wayne’s World era, the last Queen revival. An ideal moment then to explain their loathsomeness.
“Committed to blasting the nosebleeds into submission, he moved the camp self-regard of the era’s blowsy arena rock acts from subtext to text,” I wrote two weeks about Mercury. Had Queen been Queen in 2018 and Mercury the open, comfortable queer man his public persona projected but remained to American youth as much a show biz put-on as Elton’s glasses, “We Will Rock You” would depend on subtext for its frisson: the audience, numb from the effort, receiving Mercury’s leering, thrusting innuendos, abetted by the priapic boom-boom-pow of the percussion. Sexual triumph clothed in the garb of football hooliganism would not have made Robert Plant stifle a swivel; what galls about “We Will Rock You” is how baldly and badly it demands submission. To dismiss these efforts as, to cite an infamous 1978 Rolling Stone review of the defensible Sheer Heart Attack, “elaborate music from shards of nostalgia for the British Empire” is the kind of stretch made by a zealous axeman at a blood-moist chopping block; but the monotonous of guitarist Brian May’s battle cry calls on none of Mercury’s gifts. He can’t shriek without sounding like Sylvester the Cat. When his voice drops a couple notes on the last syllables of “kickin’ your can all over the place,” he reminds me of Richard Burton attempting a Southern accent. Mercury is at his best when, like disciple George Michael, he can fuse his yearning with the audience’s. Attempting to erect a monolith to his band’s ambition, he shuts out the audience; he shouts at them, they shout back, monkeys in bubbles.
In the early 2000s I was taken by “Looking for the Next Best Thing,” Warren Zevon’s ode to settling for less — resignedly, then, as the synth-glazed chug goes faster, enthusiastically; it’s easier for one’s health to be second best. When I deal with students complaining about the 93.4 they earned instead of the 94.3 they’d calculated, or when I attended division-wide retreats, I remember “Looking for the Next Best Thing.” The massed chanting, timed fuzz solo, and insistent chorus of “We Will Rock You” have glam on the brain — Gary Glitter’s glam, say, the essence of simplicity.
As for “We Are the Champions,” someone might make the case that the yearning in which Mercury specialized brightens another repugnant lyric: an affirmation in the manner of Christina Aguilera’s later “Beautiful” (note the lovely way that Mercury sweetens “We’ll keep on fighhhhtiiing“), a song and video that paid attention to Aguilera’s queer fan base. This interpretation would make “Champions” the necessary palliative to “We Will Rock You,” thus requiring us to praise the band for the clever pairing. Yet the double A-side compounds the cynicism. Doing basic glam was apparently beyond Queen; a back-to-basics approach didn’t suit “We Are the Champions,” thanks to the stench emitted by the use of “losers” and the multi-tracked vocals that affirm the title a breath later. Perhaps young gay men in 1977-1978 felt their isolation evaporate as Queen pummeled their angst into a powder. It wouldn’t be the first time pop music told sweet lies, as it was meant to.