On this day in 1991, the world lost an icon. Not only a trailblazer in pop-rock music, but an outspoken public figure and advocate, Freddie Mercury revitalized the music scene then and continues to inspire artists today.
Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946 in modern-day Tanzania, and exhibited musical talent when he began playing piano at the age of 7 after moving to India. Following the eruption of the Zanzibar Revolution, Mercury’s family relocated to Middlesex, England, where he began to form bands, influenced by the Bollywood artists that he listened to as a child. After joining a string of bands that failed to break into the spotlight, in April 1970 Mercury joined Brian May and Roger Taylor; the trio would go on to form one of the most influential rock bands of all time: Queen.
Many of Queen’s most influential tracks, including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” and “We Are The Champions” were written in full by Mercury, who commonly merged various musical styles within a single song (such as the operatic and hard rock elements of “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Known for his flamboyant stage performance and extensive vocal range, Mercury made waves in the music industry as Queen’s frontman by embracing femininity and dispelling any and all preconceived notions about rock music, such as hyper-masculinity. Mercury further challenged social norms by having male and female lovers, and by being open about his sexuality, which he in turn funneled into his music and stage presence, which mirrored theatrical productions rather than rock shows.
Though his music is his most notable and recognizable work to date, Mercury was also quite the public icon in the 1980s, appearing on various talk shows and living a lavish, partying lifestyle that was heavily reported by various media outlets, though Mercury was reportedly shy and private. An understandably wealthy man following the international stardom of Queen, Mercury was known to partake in expensive hobbies, such as art collecting and traveling the world. In the late 1980s, this fast-paced lifestyle came to a halt, and the media took notice. Rumors began to swirl that Mercury had possibly contracted HIV, which was public enemy No. 1 during this time, as it had recently been clinically observed for the first time in the United States. HIV contraction was viewed as another facet of the “homosexual lifestyle,” so the public assumed that a sexually liberated man like Mercury was bound to become ill eventually, diagnosing him against his will.
Mercury took notice of these rumors, and denied his diagnosis for over 4 years. Then, on November 23, 1991, Mercury publicly acknowledged that he had contracted HIV, which had since developed into AIDS. Just over a day later, he passed away from bronchopneumonia, a complication brought on by his illness.
In the 24 years since his death, Mercury still continues to have an impact, both musically and socially. He became an icon for the gay rights movements of the 1990s and early 2000s, exemplifying that even in a committed, long-term relationship, HIV contraction is possible. The remaining members of Queen also established The Mercury Phoenix Trust in his honor, raising awareness for the disease as well as money to put towards scientific research. A memorial concert was also held, featuring performances from Elton John, Metallica, David Bowie, and more, drawing over 1 billion viewers across 76 countries.
Mercury’s groundbreaking musical stylings have also inspired many high-profile artists of the modern era from different genres, including pop’s Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, grunge’s Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl of Nirvana, and rap’s Lupe Fiasco and Wiz Khalifa. Queen’s songs are still played around the world, at sporting events (“We Will Rock You”) or even on television (Glee covered countless songs over the years). Queen still occasionally plays shows, most recently using Adam Lambert in place of Mercury; and of Queen’s 35 million album sales in the US alone, half have been purchased since Mercury’s death.
So, although it has been almost a quarter of a century since Freddie Mercury’s death, he lives on in every way possible: he is present in Top-40 singles, in social rights movements, in television shows. One of the greatest singers, frontmen, and overall people of all time, Elizabeth Taylor said it best when she called Freddie “an extraordinary rock star who rushed across our cultural landscape like a comet shooting across the sky.” And though that comet passed us by long ago, his light is still shining bright.