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Over the Flop. Queen’s Album Hot Space (1982) and the Sways of Disappointment

Les excès du flop : l’album Hot Space (1982) de Queen et les chemins sinueux de la déception
Jan Giffhorn

Résumés

Cet article réfléchit aux différents usages et significations du terme « flop » à partir de l’album Hot Space (1982) de Queen. Hot Space est l’un des albums les moins réussis de Queen et fait aujourd’hui encore l’objet de controverses en raison de son orientation funk et disco, perçue, même par de nombreux partisans de Queen, comme une rupture de style. Cet article appréhende Hot Space comme une invitation à aborder les questions fondamentales de notre jugement esthétique, en particulier la stratification complexe qui structure la notion de flop. Sont examinées les composantes esthétiques, stylistiques et sociales à l’œuvre dans les jugements dont Hot Space a fait l’objet, en tant qu’elles se manifestent à la fois dans la juxtaposition du rock et du funk-disco, et dans les conflits liés à la personnalité de Freddie Mercury, en particulier de sa sexualité. Cet article conclut que le flop de Hot Space s’explique non seulement par la simultanéité de ces aspects, mais aussi dans l’interaction entre ces différentes strates conflictuelles — une interaction qui, ainsi que nous le montrerons, délivre cependant un message qui semble inadapté au rock. Cet article conclut que l’étiquetage de Hot Space comme un flop n’est pas justifié et suggère qu'il s’agit plutôt d’un « hit en détresse ».

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Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

échec, gay, homophobie, flop, jugement, Queen, rock
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Texte intégral

Introduction

1The terms “flop” and “hit” are commonly understood as opposites, captured in a binary coding where success and failure are quantifiable. Musicologist Volkmar Kramarz, for example, states that,

  • 1 Translation: JG. Original: “Bei der Unterscheidung von Hit oder Flop zählen also nahezu nur die be (...)

[w]hen differentiating between hit or flop, it is almost only the business figures that count. That is, it is the consumers alone who by buying a music release make a production a success, a purely economic profit, because inner artistic factors and their appreciation need not play any role.1

2The simplicity of this model is appealing and is in line with the common understanding of what should be considered a flop. If successful, then hit; if not successful, then flop. But if we take a closer look, the clarity quickly begins to waver, as we would have to allow at least something like a relative flop as a category. A relative flop would be one in which, measured against previous successes, a lower success is the result. In addition to that, if one leaves the binary division, the question arises as to whether the “inner artistic factors” mentioned above do not indeed play a role after all.

3This article explores this very question and examines the extent to which not only financial, but also aesthetic and social aspects play a role in an album’s classification as a flop and contribute to its status as a flop. This will be reflected on the basis of the album Hot Space (1982) by Queen. To this day, this album has the reputation of being a flop. From a purely empirical point of view, the status of a flop can hardly be justified, as we will see.

4In our examination, we draw not only on reviews, biographies and statements by the band themselves, but also on the musicological publications Freddie Mercury and Queen: Technologies of Genre and the Poetics of Innovation (2009) by Barry Promane, History without royalty? Queen and the Strata of the Popular Music Canon by Anne Desler (2013), and On the Margins of the Mainstream: Queen, the Rock Press, and Gender (1999) by Jennifer De Boer.

5The analysis begins with the history of the album, its release and the reactions that followed. Subsequently, various elements that characterize this album are discussed. In this context, the style conflict rock-disco-funk plays a major role, especially in combination with aspects of sex, sexuality and gender, particularly as it emerges in regards to Mercury’s persona. Finally, we ask why the reputation as a flop is still prevalent today. To do this, we include some reviews from today and analyze them in terms of evaluative criteria and motives. This example will be used to show whether and how exactly a mixture of different evaluations and judgments, which have both an aesthetic and social foundation, are responsible for the status as a flop.

Hot Space

History

6When Queen released Hot Space in 1982, they were one of the most successful rock bands in the world. After an international breakthrough with the album A Night at the Opera (1975) with its single “Bohemian Rhapsody”, success remained constant and reached a peak with the 1980 album The Game, which featured “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, two of Queen’s biggest hits, particularly successful in the USA.

  • 2 Richards Matt and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury (...)

7Hot Space, however, was a surprise. With its strong funk and disco elements, it clearly deviated from Queen’s previous albums which had been more dominated by rock, glam rock and progressive rock. The new album was from the beginning “perceived as a flop”2 as Mercury biographers Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne point out, an image that has persisted to this day.

8As early as 1982 Rolling Stone’s Christopher Connelly declared Queen’s US label Elektra one of the big losers of 1982 on the strength of Hot Space: “A monumental flop. A total stiff.”3 This seems all the more remarkable because there is little empirical justification for the image of a flop. The album was in nearly every top ten listing. It was gold-certified within days of release both in the US and in the UK4, reaching #22 in the US5 and even as high as #4 in the UK. The single “Body Language” made it to #25 in the UK6 and as high as #19 on the US Billboard charts7. The US-single “Staying Power” still is dubbed an “almighty flop”8, though it reached #40 in the USA9

  • 10 Citing from Blake Mark, Is this the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen, Kindle ed., Cambridge, M (...)

9Queen themselves became defensive, as was evident on the Hot Space Tour as early as May 1982. Queen biographer Mark Blake reports about the concert in Dortmund’s Westfalenhalle in May 1982, when Mercury reprimanded hecklers after announcing “Staying Power”: “If you don’t want to listen to it, fucking go home!”10 Four weeks later, in Milton Keynes, Mercury more or less justified himself when he announced the same song:

  • 11 Citing from Promane Barry C., “Freddie Mercury and Queen: Technologies of Genre and the Poetics of (...)

Most of you know that we have some new sounds out. For what’s it worth, we are going to do a few songs from the funk/black category or whatever you call it. That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock ‘n’ roll feel, OK! I mean, it’s only a bloody record. People get so excited about these sorts of things.11

10In July 1982, Mercury confessed to the Philadelphia Inquirer that it had probably been a mistake to release “Body Language” as the first single:

  • 12 Greenleaf Vickie and Stan Hyman, “With Queen, the show’s the thing”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 07/23/ (...)
  • 13 Actually, Mercury was wrong about that, given that the first single from the album was not Body La (...)

The single just wasn’t as big as previous singles from the other albums. […] The first single is always important. If you have a number-one smash, then you’re likely to have a big album.12,13

  • 14 Purvis Georg, Queen: Complete Works, p. 141.

11The critical reception to the album was lukewarm to even “surprisingly positive”14 as Queen historian Georg Purvis summarizes:

  • 15 Ibid., p. 141.

Record Mirror opined, “New styles, and a whole new sense of values. You’ll love Hot Space, eventually.” Sounds purred, “Queen have never made particularly blinding albums, but you’ll have to agree that Hot Space shows more restraint and imagination than tripe like Jazz.” Even NME, who normally reviled everything Queen released, was (relatively) glowing: “The production of the whole album is really a peach.” Rolling Stone was mixed, praising “Back Chat”, “Calling All Girls” and “Cool Cat”, though censuring the rest as “at best, routinely competent and, at times, downright offensive. Give me your body / Don’t talk, sings Mercury in “Body Language”, a piece of funk that isn’t fun.” It was a viewpoint shared by most fans.15

12Perhaps most revealing in this respect was Boo Browning’s review from the Washington Post. In July 1982 he identified a “highly stylized album” that has a “normal” and a “weird” side:

The ‘normal’ Queen side displays the melody-making talent of Brian May at his best (“Put Out the Fire”, “Las Palabras de Amour” [sic]) and the hit-making instincts of John Deacon, Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor at their most acute (“Cool Cat”, “Calling All Girls”). If that’s not enough, there’s one of the year’s best Lennon tributes (“Life is Real”) and a co-performance with David Bowie (“Under Pressure”). In short, there isn’t a throwaway in the bunch.

  • 16 Browning Boo, “A Glorious Queen, A Humble Squier”, Washington Post, 07/23/1982, https://www.washin (...)

The ‘weird’ side can best be described as rechauffé disco. It’s as though the group were just now discovering the form, and although comparisons to 1980s “Another One Bites the Dust” are inevitable, they’re mostly inaccurate, since Queen has elevated disco to a stature it never attained during its natural life. This is mesmerizing stuff, almost totally physical in its presentation; and if “Body Language” is its best representative, the rest of the side cooks and churns just as confidently, those hot spaces blowing like calculated drafts through icy-cool progressions.16

  • 17 Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen: Technologies of Genre and the Poetics of Innovation”, p. 5.
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 Ibid.
  • 20 Blake Mark, Is this the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen, Kindle ed., Cambridge, MA, Da Capo P (...)

13Of particular interest is the “weird side” which Browning identified as disco and the Rolling Stone as. Promane describes the album in his dissertation Freddie Mercury and Queen: Technologies of Genre and the Poetics of Innovation (2009) as a “perilous move”17 due to a fusion of “elements of funk, disco and rock”18. For him, it became “a potpourri of sonic and visual contradictions”19. Blake makes a similar point, considering it as failed. “[W]ith its dance grooves and noticeable lack of guitar” the album “proved an experiment too far”20.

Matters of Style

  • 21 Hince Peter, Queen Unseen: My Life with the Greatest Rock Band of the 20th Century, Kindle ed., Lo (...)

14However, strictly speaking, that was not entirely new. There had already been songs on the album Jazz (1978) with “Fun It” and on News of the World (1977) with “Fight from the Inside”, which can be seen as forerunners. In addition, the album The Game (1980) produced the very successful “Another One Bites The Dust”. According to Queen biographer and roadie Peter Hince The Game “skipped through power ballads, heavy rock, disco, pop and rockabilly on its first side alone” 21.

15A diverse combination of styles was thus not unusual with Queen and also not seen as contradictory but more as constitutive. The artistic choices made for Hot Space may have been somewhat unexpected in the album’s final manifestation, they did not come completely out of the blue. The stylistic ‘dose’ seems to be crucial: Only one traditional rock (“Put Out The Fire”) can be found on Hot Space, whereas the elements of funk and disco dominate overwhelmingly.

Clear and present danger

  • 22 See Fast Susan, “Rock”, Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • 23 Shuker Roy, Shuker Roy, Popular Music: The Key Concepts, London ; New York, Routledge, 2003, p. 27 (...)
  • 24 Brett Philip, Wood Elizabeth and Nadine Hubbs, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer mus (...)
  • 25 Hawkins Stan, Queerness in Pop Music, Routledge, 2015, p. 34.

16At this point, one must consider the background of the respective styles, which presented a clear and present danger through stylistic contamination for the traditional rock audiences, which were male and white dominated22. From its beginnings, disco was “linked to the gay community and specific club scenes”23. Musicologist Philip Brett goes so far as to call it the “pulse of gay liberation on and off the dancefloor”24. In this music, the electric guitar – an unquestionable protagonist in rock – was demoted to a musical prop. In its place came instruments that were in turn in need of legitimation for rock, though not categorically excluded. These were, according to musicologist Stan Hawkins “a combination of orchestral (strings, brass, woodwinds), and popular (kit, bass, guitar)”25. By the end of the 1970s, disco was increasingly discredited for its dominance of the music scene, expressed in the slogan “Disco Sucks! and culminating in 1979 with the legendary Disco Demolition Night in Chicago.

  • 26 See Brackett David, “Funk”, Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • 27 Morant Kesha M., “Language in Action: Funk Music as the Critical Voice of a Post-Civil Rights Move (...)
  • 28 As Straw puts it, “Funk remains unsettling”, Straw Will, “Consumption”, in Frith Simon, Straw Will (...)

17The element of funk posed similar problems. Just as disco was associated with gay liberation, funk was politically and socially charged26, with its “unapologetic nature”27 and inner restlessness28. In particular James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968) represented one of the cornerstones of funk and contributed significantly to its association with the Black Power Movement.

18In Hot Space, the confluence of funk and disco is important, as these styles were considered by some to be almost antithetical. A revealing article from 1979 by music critic Geoffrey Himes laments the unclear distinction between the two genres:

Lately any song with a black-accented vocal and a dance beat has been quickly labeled disco, a stereo-typing which is not only misguided but is an affront to funk, a black dance music with the complexity and personality that disco lacks.29

19A hybrid style (disco-funk) did become apparent in the mid-1970s. It would be worth investigating how the demarcation lines between these styles actually flow and in what form this is reflected in detail on Hot Space.

  • 30 See Desler Anne, “History without royalty? Queen and the Strata of the Popular Music Canon”, Popul (...)

20In any case, it is remarkable that the terms disco and funk were used almost synonymously in the reception of this album. The reason for this might be that the exact distinction does not matter, but that the terms are defined through negation: the actual identity and expression of these styles was secondary, since it was sufficient as a primary characteristic that they were considered incompatible with rock traditions. For the purposes of this study, it is sufficient to note that the elements of funk and disco were all traditionally socially and politically charged through their rootedness in marginalized (sub)cultures in ways that were in clear conflict with rock. Queen’s image as authentic rockers had already been suffering before from an overly generous interpretation of the glam elements they relied on30, but the new album, now finally led to the following dilemma:

  • 31 Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 132.

[M]any rock enthusiasts could not forge meaningful associations with Hot Space, and so they regarded the work as a hodgepodge of incongruent features through which Queen failed at every level to hybridize convincingly disparate genres.31

Mercury Descending: Sex, Gender and Sexuality

  • 32 See Promane “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 5; Desler, “History without royalty”, p. 394; de Boer (...)

21There is consensus in the relevant literature that reasons of style alone are not responsible for the lukewarm reception of Hot Space. The conflict between funk, disco and rock may be essential, but it is not the only decisive factor. The cause, which is mostly blamed for the decreasing success following Hot Space, lies in the persona of Freddie Mercury and his clone-like appearance, which clearly associated him with gay elements after 198032.

  • 33 Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 22.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 49.

22We have to put this into perspective. Queen, especially in their early days, showed many characteristics of glam rock and progressive rock in their performances, for example in the opulent productions, theatrical elements and the sexual ambivalence. Promane identifies elements of “glam, progressive rock and heavy metal, demonstrated through extended guitar solos, flamboyant and androgynous imagery and the incorporation of classical, jazz and world music”33. Further he assigns a crucial function to these glam elements, as through them Freddie Mercury is able “to allude to his homosexuality, without having to commit affirmatively or pronounce declaratively his preference towards men”34. Just as this disposition allowed Mercury the discreet disclosure of a hidden truth in a kind of play, so in return it did not force his fans into the position of having to judge or take a position.

  • 35 See de Boer, “On the Margins of the Mainstream: Queen, the Rock Press, and Gender”, p. 3, 34; Patt (...)
  • 36 Desler, “History without royalty?”, p. 388.

23Musicologists De Boer and Pattie characterize Mercury’s sexuality as “elusive”35. Desler speaks of an “ambiguous sexuality”36.

24Queen’s lyrics often had been loaded with sexual innuendo, without ever ultimately confessing a gay element. A clear example can be found in “Get Down, Make Love” (1977):

  • 37 Queen, “Get down, make love” (Track 7), News of the World, Island (Universal Music), 2011 [1977].

You take my body / I give you heat / You say you hungry / I give you meat / I suck your mind / You blow my head37

25“Don’t Stop me now” (1979) provides a further example:

  • 38 Queen, “Don’t stop me now” (Track 12), Jazz, Island (Universal Music), 2011.

I’m burnin’ through the sky / 200 degrees / That’s why they call me Mister Fahrenheit / I’m travelling at the speed of light / I wanna make a supersonic man out of you38

26Even more explicit is “Good old-fashioned lover boy” (1976)

  • 39 Queen, “Good old-fashioned lover boy” (Track 8), A Day at the Races, Island (Universal Music), 201 (...)

Oh, can you feel my love heat? / Come on and sit on my hot seat of love39

  • 40 Hawkins Stan, Queerness in Pop Music, New York; London, Routledge, 2015, p. 144.

27In terms of his sexual persona, Mercury can be placed between the extremes of aggressive openness and coy shyness. Hawkins’ term seems most apt, ascribing to Mercury a “sexual mystique”40 that ultimately serves his performance:

  • 41 Ibid.

As Queen’s own ‘queen’ his knack was to add innuendo to words and phrases with great panache, in addition to a speeding up or slowing down the tempo of phrasing in order to get his point across. His use of fermatas also stands out as an effective technique for exaggerated significance. Most of all, Mercury’s persona was constructed around an aestheticization that was decidedly camp with an air of theatrics. As a result of his palpable vitality, his singing was infectious, his performances magic, and fans had little difficulty in identifying with him.41

28De Boer points out that Mercury took a different path than, for example, David Bowie. Both attack the binary model in different ways, but there was a striking difference, because,

  • 42 De Boer, “On the Margins of the Mainstream: Queen, the Rock Press, and Gender”, p. 59.

Bowie’s challenge to the binary took the form of androgyny, which can be interpreted as a withdrawal from the terms of the binary, into a new space of non-gendered possibility.42

  • 43 Ibid., p. 60.

29Mercury, on the other hand, had gone a different way, namely serving both sides of the binary equally, “playing up gender stereotypes in his performances, reiterating the norms of both male and female onto a single body”43 For De Boer, Mercury’s approach also served the performance because Mercury’s

  • 44 Ibid., p. 59.

gender-play is aimed at increasing the sensuality of his performance, reveling in the sexuality of the body, rather than expressing a distant, detached, aesthetic exploration of sexuality and sensuality.44

30De Boer sees three binaries in total that are being challenged by Mercury:

  • 45 Ibid., p. 62.

It is not only the standard binaries of sex (male/female) and gender (masculine/feminine) that Mercury blurred in his costuming, but also the binary that society constructs in relation to sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual).45

The interacting layers

  • 46 Ibid.

31Promane suggests that the combination of various elements on Hot Space is responsible for its reputation. He mentions the “sexually charged lyrics” as well as Mercury’s “unconcealed physical transformation” and the singer’s change of style through his “adoption of disco”46.

  • 47 Hawkins, Queerness in Pop Music, p. 144.

32But there is more at work here than merely a combination of disparate elements. These elements not only occur simultaneously, but they interact and thereby corroborate each other. This occurs to the detriment of the song, the album, and the band in general. Through this intensification, the “sexual mystique”47 that had up to this point been constitutive of Queen’s image, is broken.

  • 48 Borgstedt Silke, Der Musik-Star: Vergleichende Imageanalysen von Alfred Brendel, Stefanie Hertel u (...)

33At this point, one could mention the model of the “image core [Imagekern]” as described by musicologist and sociologist Silke Borgstedt. This image core “provides the basis for recognizing and developing the narrative and thus makes communication possible in the first place”48. In Queen’s case, the image core was characterized by stylistically flexible and sexually ambivalent features. Queen had – until Hot Space – something like a fluid image, an image which was not unambiguous in any respect, even though there may have been a gravitational center in rock. The rest – the many divergent elements, both aesthetic and social – were in tension, not only with rock, but also with each other.

34The increasing explicitness of Mercury’s appearance in sexual terms became problematic, as already indicated above. With Hot Space, however, the case now arises that allusions and conjectures not only accumulate, but enter into a semantic exchange. These layers do not merely add up to the message, they potentiate it. The stylistics – whether funk or disco – as an expression of marginalized social cultures; the music characterized by synthesizers, with hardly any guitar; the lyrics – especially “Body Language” – laden with sexual allusions. Additional layers and ambiguities are evidenced in the video of “Body Language”, which MTV refused to broadcast. The video showed lots of skin, though no full nudity or even sexual acts. In the semi-darkness of tiled shower walls, amid occasional splashes of water, Mercury grooves and moans, while his bandmates snap their fingers in the damp steam. They are literally all “dressed up with nowhere to go”, and the sexual tension expresses itself in the blatant lyrics:

  • 49 Queen, “Body Language” (Track 4), Hot Space, Island (Universal Music), 2011 [1982].

Long legs, great thighs,
You’ve got the cutest ass I’ve ever seen,
Knock me down for a six anytime,
Look at me, I got of case of body language49.

  • 50 Hawkins, Queerness in Pop Music, p. 144.

35It is the interaction of these elements and their mutual corroboration that make episodes like this so problematic. It is not only the combination of the individual layers, but the interaction which replaces protective ambivalence by clarity. Hot Space ended Mercury’s and Queen’s “sexual mystique”50. The image core imploded. The layers verify each other’s antirock, anti-White, antiheteronormative qualities – to the dismay of the traditional fan base.

36In the US in particular, it might not have been very helpful that the album’s only veritable rock song – “Put Out The Fire”is an antigun song that questions the right of the people to keep and bear arms by quoting lines from the “Star-Spangeled Banner” and explicitly mentioning the US Constitution.

Homophobia

  • 51 Desler, “History without royalty”, p. 394.
  • 52 See Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 116; see Desler, “History without royalty”, p. 394.
  • 53 Regarding the repercussions of Mercury’s appearance as gay in the USA, see also Fast Susan, “Popul (...)
  • 54 Hawkins, Queerness, p. 144.

37Moreover, there is no doubt that Desler is right when she surmises that “an undercurrent of homophobia”51 has always been a concern. Both Promane and Desler additionally point to the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, which moved into the public eye in 1981. Promane even goes so far as to blame this for the reaction to Hot Space.52 One must contend that it is unlikely that the AIDS crisis is responsible for the diminished success of Hot Space: there would have been insufficient time for this disease, which took hold in a socially marginalized subculture, to affect the mainstream as early as 1982. However, the media perception of AIDS and the public reactions to it can be taken as a sign of a full-scale homophobia that characterized the 1980s.53 The departure from the “sexual mystique” 54 thus indeed happened at an inopportune time, and AIDS acted as a catalyst in this context.

Today’s Views

38This may explain the situation in 1982 to some extent. But what about the situation today? The ‘style battles’ that were rampant 40 years ago should be of less concern to us. Times change. The most successful biopic of all time, with a box office of nearly $1 billion, is called Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), and it celebrates Queen and Freddie Mercury without excluding his sexuality. All good then?

39If we consult current ratings of Hot Space on rateyourmusic.com, this album is still one of the worst-rated of Queen. Of those albums made in Mercury’s lifetime, only Flash Gordon (1980) is rated worse. Currently, Hot Space has a total of 3,699 ratings, of which 166 are reviews. This is a remarkable percentage of reviews considering that Queen’s highest-rated album, A Night at the Opera (1975), comes in at 15,527 ratings with only 423 reviews.

40Many of these reviews mention the rock-funk/disco conflict, often citing “Under Pressure” as the only good song and criticizing the absence of other hits. In general, it can often be read that the album breaks down into a good and a bad half, echoing the 1982 Washington Post review cited earlier. There is a “weird” and a “normal”55 side. A sense of shock is still palpable in many reviews:

[…] Body language – what the fuck is this shit? This is just another stupid dance/disco song, just like these songs which are being played in these sorry ass disco clubs. […] Cool cat – F U C K! Enough of this Body Language bullshit! Damn, is this a rock band? […] This album sucks and is NOT worthy to have.56

41Another review is no less harsh in its choice of words:

Pure fucking shit. […] I don’t hate it because it’s a disco album (though the music is horribly dated and has one strike against it right away); I hate it because the songs are bad. […] [T]his album relegated them to punchline status in much of the US: oh, weren’t they that shitty pop band with that faggy lead singer?57

42For another reviewer the album is a “cheesy, naff, a very pathetic attempt at disco and funk and soul, whatever you want to call it […] What happened to all the pomp?”58 The loss of the “distinctive Queen sound” is mourned by another: “That distinctive Queen sound was replaced full time by a bunch of crappy ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ clones”59. The next review takes the same line, stating: “Hot Space is an over-funked mess recorded by a band which really didn’t know what direction it wanted to go”60. Concisely, “Queen officially died at this point”61. One reviewer offers a particularly funny statement, rating with 3.5 of 5 stars:

Glory… then what?
“Gloryhole, darling!”62

  • 63 Desler, “History without royalty”, p. 394.
  • 64 For example, the use of the word “clone” in the one review could be mean a characterization of the (...)

43This is a small selection that only serves to show that, on the one hand, style conflicts still exist, and that the outrage over matters of style is still alive and harshly disputed. The overlap between style and sexuality is also palpable. The “undercurrent of homophobia”63 which Desler suspects is not overt but still perhaps subtly present.64

44How vital and persistent elements of homophobia still are, is demonstrated in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). The film makes use of a variety of clichés and prejudices. Freddie Mercury is seduced by the diabolical Prenter and dragged into the abyss of gay culture where he is deceived and exploited. The homosexual in this film clearly has the appeal of the antisocial, directed against the community – in this case primarily the band. Only purified by betrayal and illness does Mercury return from the dark world. He virtually whines to be accepted back into the band in a degrading scene that is a cross between a job interview and a discussion group. In this key scene, the remorseful Mercury confesses to his bandmates:

  • 65 Singer Bryan, Bohemian Rhapsody, 20th Century Fox, 2018.

I’ve been hideous. I know that, and I deserve your fury. I’ve been conceited. Selfish. But an arsehole basically […] Look, I’m happy to strip off my shirt and flagellate myself before you. […] Or rather, I could ask you a simple question. […] What’s it gonna take for you all to forgive me? […] I went to Munich. I hired a bunch of guys. I told them exactly what I wanted them to do, and the problem was, they did it. No pushback from Roger [Taylor]. None of your [= May’s] rewrites. None of his [= Deacon’s] funny looks. I need you. And you need me. Let’s face it. We’re not bad for four ageing queens. So, go ahead. Name your terms.65

  • 66 Strasser Peter, “Aids-Archaik. Das Konzept des Bös-Kranken, seine Ursprünge und Folgen”, Alkier St (...)

45The deviant offers self-punishment, seeking forgiveness. The film does not portray tolerance or even acceptance of difference as a valid life strategy. In his essay Aids-Archaik. Das Konzept des Bös-Kranken, seine Ursprünge und Folgen (2009), philosopher Peter Strasser points out the dangers of such “euphemistic counter-labeling”66 which does not correspond to reality:

  • 67 Ibid., Translation JG. Original: “Beschönigende Gegenetikettierungen zur Abwehr einer Diskriminier (...)

Euphemistic counter-labeling in order to counter a tradition of discrimination may, with reality, miss the very point of clearing up, namely the lasting emotional and ideological disarmament on the part of the others, the so-called ‘normals’. Instead, there is armament, at first in an exuberant, sentimentally sympathetic manner. In this way, a volatile, unstable form of participation is created, like the way diverse cultures, which otherwise often cannot stand each other, literally spend a night in each other’s arms at multicultural balls. The problem with this participation or sympathy is that it merely reverses the aggressive emotional states for a limited time: from the negative to the errantly positive. 67

46In such an “errantly positive” manifestation, Desler’s “undercurrent of homophobia” is hidden, but clearly present in the film, cloaked in a revisionist setting that reiterates the AIDS narrative of the first hour.

Conclusion

47The reception of Hot Space is characterized by a conglomerate of judgments, evaluations, prejudices, and stereotypes. We should take this into account when assessing the controversy of Hot Space.

48Its status as a flop is undoubtedly erroneous from an objective, empirical perspective. While it may have been less successful than The Game (1980), which set the tone in the Queen canon at the time, Hot Space was still more successful than Flash Gordon (1980). The fact that the album is perceived as a flop may be due in part to the fact that there was no veritable hit on the album – with the exception of Under Pressure, which, however, was released more than half a year before the album and thus has only a purely formal, but not conceptual, relationship to it.

  • 68 Kramarz, Warum Hits zu Hits werden, p. 40.

49The considerations so far, however, indicate that, contrary to Kramarz’s assumption, not only do “inner artistic factors”68 inevitably play a role in the evaluation as a flop, but “external social factors” do so as well. In the case of Hot Space, these are the stylistic associations brought about by funk and disco, and the increasingly sexually charged persona of Freddie Mercury, which was also reflected in the lyrics more clearly than in the past. In addition, there was the social climate of the 1980s, which was clearly homophobic.

50The classification as a flop expresses the disappointment that a band that belonged to rock degrades itself through a thematic, stylistic and social misstep and disavows the rock community.

  • 69 Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 132.

51The stylistic aspects cannot be separated from the social ones, which are manifest in their respective history and their social impact. We can correct Promane’s statement that the problem with the album was that “many rock enthusiasts could not forge meaningful associations with Hot Space”69 by saying that the rock enthusiasts’ association was, rather, too meaningful: mystical and elusive became clear; what was ambivalent became unambiguous. The base was forced into an undesirable contemplation and positioning, in which style and sexuality were mixed. Innuendo, which had once provided safety and cover, now had become clear statements that suddenly forced position-taking.

  • 70 Hawkins, Queerness, p. 144.

52What is crucial in the rejection of Hot Space is that it is not a juxtaposition, as could be seen in previous albums that had been partly eclectic up to that point. It goes beyond a mere combination as the different layers react with each other, verify and support each other and thus form something that is an artistic and personal disappointment for the common rock audience. Crucial is the shattering of the “sexual mystique”70, which in turn retroactively makes everything before appear as a lie, as if Queen had deceived and wanted to deceive the fans whom they now betray.

53If this is still perceived today as it is evident in some reviews, then we could make various assumptions. One assumption is a seeming rigidity or permanence of style: style consists not only of its musical elements and the patterns in which something is shaped musically, but integral to it is what is socially associated with that style, even if that may be on a subconscious level. The fact that the album’s stylistics are still discussed so heatedly today may be an indication that the social norms, demands, and expectations associated with certain styles, such as disco or funk, are preserved through time. An artistic work would then be the capsule that encloses all the divergent elements and preserves them. This admittedly somewhat doubtful assumption can be contrasted with a more plausible variant that the foundations of judgment of the past are still applicable today. The reviews and the latent homophobia in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody certainly support this view.

54However, the fact that an album is still a matter of contention almost 40 years after its controversial release is certainly not a sign of a lack of quality, but of its vitality, which touches on many different areas of identity. “I hate it because the songs are bad”71 certainly falls short, as well as the binary coding of flop. We recognize that the term flop does not necessarily describe a binary encoded fact, in the sense of a “sink-or-swim” of success. As soon as the flop is removed from the binary of success versus failure, it enters a field where social, aesthetic, and objective reasons for judgement mix. Therefore, flop tends to disguise a qualitative judgement as a quantitative one. Although it cannot be denied that Hot Space was less successful than many previous albums by Queen, its reputation as a flop seems mainly motivated by a sense of disappointment. As an absolute judgement, it cannot be maintained, as the album was clearly also commercially successful. A conglomerate of both aesthetic and social judgements is constitutive.

55All in all, it seems justified to apply a somewhat paradoxical formula to this album. It is not a flop, but a hit in distress.

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Bibliographie

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de Boer Jennifer Anne, “On the Margins of the Mainstream: Queen, the Rock Press, and Gender” Master’s Thesis, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1999.

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Queen, News of the World, Island (Universal Music), 2011 [1977].

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Singer Bryan, Bohemian Rhapsody, 20th Century Fox, 2018.

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Notes

1 Translation: JG. Original: “Bei der Unterscheidung von Hit oder Flop zählen also nahezu nur die betriebswirtschaftlichen Zahlen. So gesehen machen allein die Konsumenten durch den Kauf einer Musikveröffentlichung eine Produktion zu einem Erfolg. Zu einem an sich rein ökonomischen Gewinn, denn interne künstlerische Aspekte und deren Würdigung brauchen dabei keinerlei Rolle zu spielen.” Kramarz Volkmar, Warum Hits Hits werden: Erfolgsfaktoren der Popmusik: eine Untersuchung erfolgreicher Songs und exemplarischer Eigenproduktionen, Bielefeld, Transcript, 2014, p. 40.

2 Richards Matt and Mark Langthorne, Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury, Kindle Ed., London, Blink, 2017, Chapter 30.

3 Connelly Christopher, “1982 In Review: Who Won, Who Lost”, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/1982-in-review-who-won-who-lost-69510/, accessed 30 November 2021.

4 BPI, Hot Space, https://www.bpi.co.uk/award/3001-1614-2, accessed 30 November 2021.

5 Purvis Georg, Queen: Complete Works. Revised & Updated., Kindle ed., London, Titan Books, 2018, p. 134.

6 Ibid., p. 343.

7 Billboard 200 Chart, https://www.billboard.com/artist/queen/chart-history/rtt/, accessed 2 December, 2021.

8 Jones Lesley-Ann, Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography, Kindle Ed., London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2011, p. 254.

9 Purvis Georg, Queen: Complete Works, p. 684.

10 Citing from Blake Mark, Is this the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen, Kindle ed., Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 2011, Chapter 8.

Is this the Real Life?, Chapter 8, “Four Cocks Fighting”.

11 Citing from Promane Barry C., “Freddie Mercury and Queen: Technologies of Genre and the Poetics of Innovation, Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, Ottawa, 2009, p. 129.

12 Greenleaf Vickie and Stan Hyman, “With Queen, the show’s the thing”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 07/23/1982, https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/172730453/ accessed 2 December 2021.

13 Actually, Mercury was wrong about that, given that the first single from the album was not Body Language but actually Under Pressure, which had been released more than half a year before. Between the lines, Mercury’s account confirms that Under Pressure ended up on the album as an “add-on” and was not part of the actual conceptual core of Hot Space.

14 Purvis Georg, Queen: Complete Works, p. 141.

15 Ibid., p. 141.

16 Browning Boo, “A Glorious Queen, A Humble Squier”, Washington Post, 07/23/1982, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1982/07/23/a-glorious-queen-a-humble-squier/3332bcd0-8be5-45c7-9150-d0845ad4c7c7/, accessed 30 November 2021.

17 Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen: Technologies of Genre and the Poetics of Innovation”, p. 5.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Blake Mark, Is this the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen, Kindle ed., Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 2011, Chapter 1: “You Beautiful People”.

21 Hince Peter, Queen Unseen: My Life with the Greatest Rock Band of the 20th Century, Kindle ed., London, John Blake, 2015, Chapter 9: “Huge Plastic Falsies”.

22 See Fast Susan, “Rock”, Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2014.

23 Shuker Roy, Shuker Roy, Popular Music: The Key Concepts, London ; New York, Routledge, 2003, p. 270.

24 Brett Philip, Wood Elizabeth and Nadine Hubbs, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer music in the United States”, Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2012.

25 Hawkins Stan, Queerness in Pop Music, Routledge, 2015, p. 34.

26 See Brackett David, “Funk”, Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2001.

27 Morant Kesha M., “Language in Action: Funk Music as the Critical Voice of a Post-Civil Rights Movement Counterculture”, Journal of Black Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2011, p. 74.

28 As Straw puts it, “Funk remains unsettling”, Straw Will, “Consumption”, in Frith Simon, Straw Will and John Street (eds), The Cambridge companion to pop and rock, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 86.

29 Himes Geoffrey, “On the Difference Between Funk and Disco”, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/08/01/on-the-difference-between-funk-and-disco/25fcc5c6-1a13-4d64-9e99-a67dbd004b9a, 08/01/1979. Accessed 30 November 2021.

30 See Desler Anne, “History without royalty? Queen and the Strata of the Popular Music Canon”, Popular Music, vol. 32, no. 3, 2013, p. 393-395.

31 Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 132.

32 See Promane “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 5; Desler, “History without royalty”, p. 394; de Boer Jennifer Anne, “On the Margins of the Mainstream: Queen, the Rock Press, and Gender”, Master’s Thesis, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1999, p. 65.

33 Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 22.

34 Ibid., p. 49.

35 See de Boer, “On the Margins of the Mainstream: Queen, the Rock Press, and Gender”, p. 3, 34; Pattie David, Rock Music in Performance, London, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2007, p. 121.

36 Desler, “History without royalty?”, p. 388.

37 Queen, “Get down, make love” (Track 7), News of the World, Island (Universal Music), 2011 [1977].

38 Queen, “Don’t stop me now” (Track 12), Jazz, Island (Universal Music), 2011.

39 Queen, “Good old-fashioned lover boy” (Track 8), A Day at the Races, Island (Universal Music), 2011 [1976].

40 Hawkins Stan, Queerness in Pop Music, New York; London, Routledge, 2015, p. 144.

41 Ibid.

42 De Boer, “On the Margins of the Mainstream: Queen, the Rock Press, and Gender”, p. 59.

43 Ibid., p. 60.

44 Ibid., p. 59.

45 Ibid., p. 62.

46 Ibid.

47 Hawkins, Queerness in Pop Music, p. 144.

48 Borgstedt Silke, Der Musik-Star: Vergleichende Imageanalysen von Alfred Brendel, Stefanie Hertel und Robbie Williams, Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, 2007, p. 138 Translation: JG. Original: “Dieser sogenannte Imagekern verweist auf die Bedeutung permanenter Repetition der wesentlichen inhaltlichen Aspekte eines Images, die die Basis für Wiedererkennung und narrative Weiterentwicklung liefert und Kommunikation damit überhaupt erst ermöglicht.”

49 Queen, “Body Language” (Track 4), Hot Space, Island (Universal Music), 2011 [1982].

50 Hawkins, Queerness in Pop Music, p. 144.

51 Desler, “History without royalty”, p. 394.

52 See Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 116; see Desler, “History without royalty”, p. 394.

53 Regarding the repercussions of Mercury’s appearance as gay in the USA, see also Fast Susan, “Popular music performance and cultural memory Queen: Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, London, July 13, 1985,” in Inglis Ian (ed.) Performance and Popular Music: History, Place and Time, Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT, Ashgate, 2006, p. 138-154.

54 Hawkins, Queerness, p. 144.

55 JWPepper’s review for Hot Space by Queen – RYM/Sonemic, https://rateyourmusic.com/music-review/JWPepper/queen/hot-space/9696118., accessed 1 December 2021.

56 Artifical_intelligence’s review for Hot Space by Queen – RYM/Sonemic, https://rateyourmusic.com/music-review/artifical_intelligence/queen/hot-space/61057325, accessed 1 December 2021.

57 TheImpossibleMan’s review for Hot Space by Queen – RYM/Sonemic, https://rateyourmusic.com/music-review/TheImpossibleMan/queen/hot-space/9803550, accessed 1 December 2021.

58 Richrich’s review for Hot Space by Queen – RYM/Sonemic, https://rateyourmusic.com/music-review/richrich/queen/hot-space/1207327, accessed 1 December 2021.

59 Mofoking’s review for Hot Space by Queen – RYM/Sonemic, https://rateyourmusic.com/music-review/mofoking/queen/hot-space/7983921, accessed on 1 December 2021.

60 P_q’s review for Hot Space by Queen – RYM/Sonemic, https://rateyourmusic.com/music-review/p_q/queen/hot-space-22/91460498, accessed 1 December 2021.

61 Ibid.

62 Ravenaiwass’s review for Hot Space by Queen – RYM/Sonemic, https://rateyourmusic.com/music-review/Ravenaiwass/queen/hot-space/143292708, accessed 1 December 2021.

63 Desler, “History without royalty”, p. 394.

64 For example, the use of the word “clone” in the one review could be mean a characterization of the entire band as gay.

65 Singer Bryan, Bohemian Rhapsody, 20th Century Fox, 2018.

66 Strasser Peter, “Aids-Archaik. Das Konzept des Bös-Kranken, seine Ursprünge und Folgen”, Alkier Stefan and Kristina Dronsch (eds), HIV/Aids-ethische Perspektiven, Berlin, De Gruyter, 2009, p. 139.

67 Ibid., Translation JG. Original: “Beschönigende Gegenetikettierungen zur Abwehr einer Diskriminierungstradition verfehlen mit der Realität möglicherweise gerade den Punkt der Aufklärung, nämlich die dauerhafte emotionale und ideologische Abrüstung aufseiten der anderen, der sogenannten ‘Normalen’. Stattdessen wird aufgerüstet, zunächst in einer über- schwänglichen, sentimental mitfühlenden Manier. Derart wird eine flüchtige, instabile Form der Teilnahme erzeugt, etwa so, wie sich auf Multikultibällen diverse Kulturen, die ansonsten einander oft nicht riechen können, eine Nacht lang buchstäblich in den Armen liegen. Das Problem dieser Teilnahme oder Sympathie besteht darin, dass sie die aggressiven Gefühlslagen bloß für eine gewisse Zeit umpolt: vom Negativen ins irrlichternd Positive.”

68 Kramarz, Warum Hits zu Hits werden, p. 40.

69 Promane, “Freddie Mercury and Queen”, p. 132.

70 Hawkins, Queerness, p. 144.

71 TheImpossibleMan’s review for Hot Space by Queen – RYM/Sonemic, https://rateyourmusic.com/music-review/TheImpossibleMan/queen/hot-space/9803550, accessed 1 December 2021.

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Référence électronique

Jan Giffhorn, « Over the Flop. Queen’s Album Hot Space (1982) and the Sways of Disappointment »Transposition [En ligne], 10 | 2022, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2022, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transposition/7433 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transposition.7433

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Auteur

Jan Giffhorn

Jan Giffhorn studied music theory from 2000 until 2005 at the Folkwang University Essen. In 2014, he received a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (MDW) for his dissertation Zur Sinfonik Leonard Bernsteins – Betrachtungen zu Rezeption, Ästhetik und Komposition. Since 2017 he is a research fellow at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna (MUK) at the Centre For Science and Research (ZWF).

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