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.
Curiously enough, the one thing Freddie Mercury was never asked, nor spoke openly about, was his Indianness. […] There were no Indian rock stars in England, sure. But there were also no Indian rock stars in India. Or Tanzania. Let alone gay, Indian, Parsi, third-culture-kid rock stars in either India, England, or Tanzania.
Freddie could not refer to any identity or trajectory other than his own. It is clear from interviews with his family and friends that he was not self-hating, not the type to try hard to be “white-washed.” His silence or dismissal about his cultural background—and one so formative and dramatically different than British life at that—can be interpreted as a political and social symptom of his time:
Freddie lived in the same Britain that has given the world its Victorian feelings about desire, sex and gender. Perhaps he rejected British Victorian taste at the same time he rejected his Indian Africaness. Even American liberal Lester Bangs was made uncomfortable by Mercury’s bare chest. What we call ‘queer’ now with feelings of empowerment, then, was still scary and threatening even on the music scene. Did he consider himself British? Or like Bowie who came after, an alien altogether?
[…] But this is the Freddie we all know: Take, for example, September 1978—his prime. He was handsome, with an angular though slightly bovine jaw, and vaguely ethnic features. Even as someone unfortunate enough to have never witnessed his performative tenacity in real life, the visual archives of Freddie Mercury make certain things apparent: he was magical, soft-spoken, and—to complicate and contribute to his paradoxical bustle—clear that he was the toughest, coolest queen the world had ever seen, whose work, as effeminate and genderbending as it was, is still considered pretty manly today. V.S. Naipaul once said: “write every book as though it is your last.” Freddie, with vatic intuition, took a page out of that book, and sang every song with the same sentiment. It is universally agreed upon—I think—that it is seldom one finds artists who exalt both abandon and irony as debonairly as he.
Despite the fact that he seemed to dismiss categories, reject a slew of social norms, he was ironically, a creature of caricature, of extremity, and high-Victorian causticity: “There’s no half measures with me,” Freddie said in one of his last interviews, unintentionally referencing an apt musical notation. From the dramatic flippancy of his costumes, to his 8-octave baritone perusing vocal extremes with relative abandon, to the fact that he—without doubt, and to the agreement of nearly everyone who lived in his era—defined what it meant to “party like a rock star, “ Freddie was not one for subtlety when it came to his artistic tastes.
And it is also possible that Freddie was not “stuck” in multiple worlds—though he was rejected from most— but liberated. And maybe he had the right idea about culture—that he was not Indian, Zoroastrian, British, or Zanzibarian—but quite simply, he was all that became of his passion: just rock ‘n’ roll.