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Queen and HIV: One Whole Step Forward

By Chris Lavery

January 7, 2014

About a month ago, a good friend of mine named Doug informed me that he'd be playing bass guitar in an upcoming Queen tribute concert alongside the guitarist Alex Skolnick of (kind of) famed '80s thrash metal band Testament. After frantically assaulting him with questions of how this was possible, what their setlist would be and when I'd "get to hang out with Alex," I set off to mark it down in my calendar, prepared to bulldoze whatever preexisting plans I may have had to make room for this once-in-a-lifetime event. This opportunity.* Sure enough, Dec. 1 was just a blank square, waiting to be filled.

Working at, it's a little embarrassing for me to admit that, until the day of, I thought it was nothing more than a Dec. 1 Queen tribute concert. Maybe I've begun to associate my coworkers so closely with HIV writing, activism and research that the idea of being part of World AIDS Day without them just never occurred to me. So, to my delight, this seemingly innocuous "Queen thing" turned out to be a really energetic and emotional, all-night long HIV fundraiser. Really fun, really tiring, and Doug's band actually closed the night with "We Are the Champions." Predictable? Yes. Fantastic? Of course!

Now, to get nauseatingly specific. As a perennial music student, I find that the really great thing about listening to Queen, even if I'm not in a Queen mood necessarily, is that so many of their songs are so tight from a theory standpoint, not because of their complexity, but rather their elegant simplicity and adherence to rules. These songs are so ingrained in us now, but there's enough depth hidden in "Killer Queen," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and "We Are the Champions" alone to fuel an entire year of music education (or at least get you off to a very good start). That said, Doug's performance that night reminded me of one aspect of "We Are the Champions" that always bothered me.

You know the part where Freddy Mercury says, "I consider it a challenge before the whole human race that I'll never lose," and then there are those four vocal hits leading into the chorus? The fourth one of those chords is a whole step higher in pitch than the previous three and forces a key change in a way that I always thought was very unsavory, very un-Queen. It's as if they ran out of ideas at that point and decided, "Well, this will shake things up!" But in a song that I otherwise find very well crafted and cleverly written, that key change always came off to me as a meaningless, last-minute addition and a wrinkle in the classic anthem.

Hearing it live changed my opinion.

Something about the World-AIDS-Day-generated pathos of that night and the sheer energy of hearing a real, live band so expertly belt out that tune gave the one whole step key change new meaning for me. Suddenly, it no longer sounded like a random twist, but an act of intentional, triumphant defiance. Freddy Mercury's ace in the hole wasn't his ability to pen such classically informed, timeless anthems; it was his willingness and authority to do things like take what may be his most finely crafted tune and alter it with that extra little leap into the chorus. Now, I hear it as a reaction to complacency and the potential excess of virtue. Without that key change, "We Are the Champions" would be flawless. With the change, it's even better, because it demonstrates an urge to step forward and ask questions regardless of what comforts the status quo may provide.

Read this way, "We Are the Champions" reminds me of the HIV epidemic in the U.S. today. At first glance, it echoes many of the positive developments that have occurred this century -- new combination drugs with fewer side effects, lower viral loads, higher CD4 counts and greater access to information, for instance. More importantly, though, it demands that we keep moving forward, appreciating what's been good, but focusing on what still isn't so good. Everywhere, stigma continues to have a real effect on disclosure and therefore on treatment, not to mention its emotional ramifications. In many areas of this country, people remain ill informed of basic information about HIV. In many other parts of the world, people living with HIV have less, if any, access to treatment. In some communities, new HIV infection rates are on the rise. And focus on HIV issues at large, both in the media and otherwise, seems to be experiencing the opposite trend.

To think of that song as a celebration and nothing else, I think, is wrong. To the contrary, it warns us of our victories and their ability to blind us to what challenges remain. It conjures up thoughts of pride, reverence and perseverance, but also gives us that extra nudge, that whole step up, that key change, reminding us that we can always do more.

* Admittedly, I've never listened to Testament. I just thought it was awesome that Doug would be collaborating with a semi-famous dude.

Chris Lavery is the web producer for and

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