How a Queen song from 1989 gives me hope as Kansas and the world confront grim and fearful times

October 10, 2023 3:33 am
A candle with a message burns at a makeshift memorial

A candle with a message burns at a makeshift memorial near the Club Q nightclub on November 20, 2022 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Yesterday, a 22-year-old gunman entered the LGBTQ nightclub opened fire, killing at least five people and injuring 25 others before being stopped by club patrons. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The last couple of weeks have been difficult for those of us who like to temper cynicism with at least a dash of optimism.

Here in low-key Kansas, informational hearings at the Statehouse turned into wackadoodle free-for-alls, with committees supposedly devoted to strengthening education and elections doing their best to weaken confidence in both.

At the U.S. Capitol, renegade Republicans tossed Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy overboard for the sin of trying to keep the government open (Kansas’ GOP representatives voted for him, but that didn’t make much difference). Overseas, Hamas launched a brutal terror attack in Israel, forcing the region onto a war footing not seen for decades.

I’ve written about this unnerving moment, as have others: Our nation and world feel increasingly unmoored and out of control.

“All these developments are signs that the world may have fallen into a new period of disarray,” wrote the New York Times’ David Leonhardt on Monday. “Countries — and political groups like Hamas — are willing to take big risks, rather than fearing that the consequences would be too dire.”

For advice, I’m turning to one Freddie Mercury.

Yes, the lead singer of the classic rock band Queen, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar back in 1946. He’s passed on, of course, 32 years ago now. But two years before his death, he and Queen released a song that speaks to me now. It’s called “The Miracle,” from an album also called The Miracle, and it’s an undeniably silly piece of late-80’s musical trash.

Yet it eclipses those origins and has something of value to tell us today, on a couple of levels. First of all, here’s the song.

The silliness stands out at first listen. Mercury conflates the natural world with man-made wonders and scientific breakthroughs. He jams in antiwar sentiment and gauzy optimism for the future. How any of this qualifies as a “miracle” under the common definition of the word befuddles me.

Yet on second and third lessons, I think he’s hit on something disarmingly profound (although I’m not sure if he was aware of it).

That is, miracles exist separate from religious tradition. They’re all around us. The same humanity that rains down atrocities on its enemies can summon light through creativity and caring. We don’t need a god or goddess or pantheon for that; we need our better natures.

Is it so much to ask during times of turmoil that we each call upon on our powers of miraculous resilience?

As it happens, Queen released a boxed set late last year of sessions from The Miracle album. They included an alternate version of the song, one with slightly sardonic lyrics. If you’re interested in a more musically coherent experience, take a listen. It inspired me to write today’s column. But these lyrics from the final, polished version can’t be beat.

Open hearts and surgery
Sunday mornings with a cup of tea
Super powers always fighting
But Mona Lisa just keeps on smiling

In four lines, Mercury and his bandmates summarize how humans can raise their fellow man from the verge of death, enjoy a simple beverage, pummel one another over ancient grudges and fashion paintings that endure through generations. We have capacities and capabilities that would make everyone’s lives better. If only we made the choice to do so.

Here’s the most poignant aspect of the song.

When Queen wrote and recorded and issued “The Miracle,” Mercury had been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He knew, as his friends and bandmates knew, that he would likely die. He was one of many. According to the United Nations, HIV/AIDS has so far claimed the lives of more than 40 million people around the globe.

Who among us could summon a song like this in the face of his or her mortality?

Mercury did. He sang it like he meant it. And within a few years of his death, modern medication regimens revolutionised the treatment of HIV. Diagnosis no longer meant certain death. Indeed, drugs can now suppress the virus to undetectable levels and give those with HIV a normal life in nearly all respects. The same drugs can now be used as preventatives, known as PrEP, which prevent folks from contracting the virus at all.

We’ve seen modern medicine deliver a miracle. While it was too late for Freddie Mercury, he surely knew that something like that was within the capacity of humankind.

“I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease,” he wrote the day before he died.

Listen, I know a song from 1989 won’t solve our problems. I know that Hamas has stolen innocent lives and Israel will unleash retaliate. I know that Congress will limp along, aimless and paralyzed by ideology. I know that Kansas legislators can’t make it through a week without embarrassing our state. I know that the world is complicated and brutal and none of us make it out of here alive.

I know that. We know that.

Yet through the misery and gridlock I hope, against all odds, for the miracles we can do for one another.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.