Queen's Brilliance at Live Aid: What Bohemian Rhapsody Missed
Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic named after one of the British rock group’s most famous songs, opened in theaters two weeks ago. The movie’s re-enactment of the band’s appearance at Live Aid, the 1985 concert to benefit Ethiopians affected by famine, is a triumphant climax in an otherwise standard retelling of Queen’s formation and meteoric rise to fame in the 1970s and 1980s. Actor Rami Malek’s uncanny portrayal of singer Freddie Mercury during the Live Aid scenes, in particular, has sparked renewed interest in the London and Philadelphia shows that were broadcast to one-third of the earth’s population more than three decades ago.
Publications such as The New York Times and USA Today are now parsing Bohemian Rhapsody and original concert footage for insights into Queen’s set that day at Wembley Stadium, where guitarist Brian May’s power chords and Mercury’s voice and sexually-ambiguous dance moves mesmerized the masses. However, neither the film nor recent media coverage has fully recognized the most important element of Queen’s performance at Live Aid: the fans.
Why the fans mattered
On July 13, 1985, hundreds of millions of music lovers in dozens of countries––including 72,000 at the U.K. show, 100,000 U.S. attendees at JFK Stadium, and countless teens (like me) who were glued to the TV broadcast via the planet’s first live intercontinental satellite hookup––heard songs that made us believe we could change the world. In 2018, at a time when technology dictates instantaneous point-and-click philanthropy, a concert literally “changing the world” might seem trite, outmoded, and naive.
Yet, Live Aid’s more than sixteen hours of real-time rock and roll opened many eyes to the imbalance of Western wealth and extreme poverty for the first time, and in some cases the concert’s influence led directly to fans’ future career choices in journalism, health care, or nonprofit work. The event also influenced the well-documented rise of international development organizations, think tanks, and celebrity charities.
U2, Elton John, and Paul McCartney gave historic performances at Live Aid, but Queen was the most effective act of the day. Why? Because the moment the band played that first note onstage, it transferred all its power directly into the hands and hearts of the fans.
Queen’s timing, talent, and selfless musicality transcended airwaves. The band’s kismet moment at Live Aid could be likened to Adam touching God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Ben Franklin wielding a lightning rod or E.T. phoning home. It was electric, awe-inspiring, and intergalactic.
Queen’s performance went far beyond audience participation. As the sun dipped below the stands at Wembley at about 6:45 PM London time and the band took the stage, at-home viewers’ televisions transformed into mirrors. When the live audience clapped in unison during “Radio GaGa,” an ironic song about clinging to music amidst the waning influence of radio in a TV universe, the shock wave rippled across oceans as we saw ourselves moving in tandem with people on the other side of the globe. Those handclaps marked the instant in which we woke to a common humanity––a rush of adrenaline pumped by the possibilities for collective good in a newly-interconnected world. For many fans, it was the first time we realized we could make a difference beyond ourselves, our families, and our neighborhoods.
“We Are the Champions,” the final number in Queen’s main Live Aid appearance, cemented organizer Bob Geldof’s impetus to take action and save lives. In the context of the day, the Queen ballad recalled the Mahatma Gandhi quote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” At Live Aid, the price of a ticket or a telephone donation was the equivalent of a delivery of rice or medicine or water to a person in need, and being aware of global issues and motivated to create change was as important as the amount of money raised.
The legacy of Live Aid is not perfect: the event’s lack of gender and racial diversity, purported reinforcement of a “white savior”mentality, and the questionable effectiveness of its disbursement of millions of dollars have been widely criticized. However, the music, and particularly Queen’s performance, has stood the test of time. In the movie theatre while watching Bohemian Rhapsody, the power of Live Aid returns. It’s a fleeting moment worth savoring.
Additional note: None of the several recent articles which popped up on Google search for “Queen at Live Aid” has included a byline by a female music journalist (I found three women’s bylines –– all were written for fashion magazines). Every time a documentary or historically-focused story about rock music includes multiple voices but excludes women’s participation, it perpetuates the idea that the entirety of the genre’s lore––including Queen’s unforgettable Live Aid performance in front of more than 1.5 billion viewers––can only be remembered, decoded, and analyzed by men. I don’t believe women writers deserve special treatment or separate standards, but just as we have begun to insist that political pundit panels on cable TV reflect gender and racial diversity, so must we insist that cultural roundups about one of the most important concerts ever held include women’s words. Whether it’s coverage of Live Aid or everyday music stories, when we shut out women from the narrative about the legacy of rock and roll, we are creating a dangerously sexist and narrow archive of music history for future generations.