Thirty-four minutes into what was meant to be a 30-minute journey, a clip of a denture-wearing Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury at Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance appeared on the karaoke screen, just as our pink-and-purple ombre bus barreled through Times Square. This was intermission, a quiet voice nearish the front suggested to everyone on board, and we were nowhere near the end of our trip. It was time to strike our light-up tambourines with the force and rhythm of people actually having a good time; to brandish our child-size plastic guitar toys, fake Freddie mustaches and disco-ball microphones as if we weren’t atop an unheated, ill-conceived double-decker bus in 37 degree weather, which felt like 27 when considering windchill. There were only two options for us brave riders: dance to keep warm, or freeze with dignity.
I’m not proud to admit I chose the former.
Bohemian Rhapsody is the highest-grossing music biopic ever, despite being critically derided for its questionable inaccuracies (such as skating over Mercury’s homosexuality) and the sexual assault allegations against film director Bryan Singer, which just last week resulted in the revoking of its GLAAD award nomination. The film cleaned house at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards and, in an ideal world, won’t do the same at the 2019 Academy Awards next month. Still, the movie is a cultural juggernaut, resonating both with a classic rock-loving baby boomer generation and—I’m just assuming here—a cadre of self-hating youth familiar with “We Are the Champions” from middle school gym class and various Disney/Pixar films (looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.) Whatever the case, Bohemian Rhapsody is massive for reasons outside of Malek’s attractiveness, popular enough to inspire the studio to launch karaoke viewings at theaters across the country. (That is exactly what you think it is: sober sing-a-longs for diehards.)
The great success of Bohemian Rhapsody has translated to the tourism market: on Friday morning just before 10 a.m., outside the only J.C. Penney inside the only proper mall in midtown Manhattan, I boarded a bright double decker, the kind usually reserved for hop-on, hop-off tours of the city, to sing Queen songs with a bunch of strangers. I thought it would be funny?
Upon arrival, press and laypeople registered inside a giant, heated tent and were handed a promotional canvas tote bags filled with a tiny thumb drive inside a cassette-shaped box; branded bright yellow ear buds; and a giant, hooded poncho the same shade as the bus’s exterior. When we entered the vehicle, most of people in front of me made a beeline for the lower level of the bus, which looked like some fabrication of a party bus, a green room, a Hard Rock Cafe, and a strip club bathroom all at once, save for the PG party favors by the entrance: the aforementioned mustaches, microphones, guitars and tambourines, but also maracas of varying vibrancy.
I, fully trusting that the rock ‘n’ roll ride would last “between 30-45 min,” elected to be the first person brave enough to hit the upper deck, silently praying some nerds would join me. They quickly did, and I was lucky enough to score a seat between the only two interesting parties on the media-heavy coach: A pair of Brits just in from Los Angeles and the only actual Queen fan among us, who introduced herself to me as Mickey. She told me she decided to get on the bus when she saw an ad for it on Instagram and that she knew all the words to Queen’s 1975 single “You’re My Best Friend” (I’m talking verses, bridge and all) because she once made a video for her best friend soundtracked by it.
The tour began with the movie’s namesake, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song that is both terrible in the traditional karaoke setting (drunk, at night, in a dark bar full of other drunk nightbirds) and in the sober light of day. Aside from Mickey’s singing, there was a lone tambo shake to be heard, a quiet foot tapping from other courageous parties. I opened the note section of my phone and wrote, “This song is far too long, and confirms Queen’s place at the heart of Target’s graphic t-shirt section.”
Eventually we made our way through the hits “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” before hitting the Malek intermission—to which the Brits next to me shared the realization that yes, this would’ve been better with mimosas and yes, we’d been on atop this thing for nearly 40 minutes and this was the first moment any sort of interactive anything had been introduced. And because no one, save for Mickey, was enthusiastically singing along, it mostly felt like a very cold drive through the worst parts of New York. Distracted, I started people-watching and checking out new businesses around town (there are now two Taco Bell Cantinas in the area, which is dope).
It wasn’t until “Radio Ga Ga” that I decided to join the slowly animating group in a pathetic sway and the guide, who up until that point hadn’t uttered a single phrase—I didn’t even realize we had a guide—told us to “look to the left, there’s Madison Square Garden!” Hungry for any sort of excitement, I found myself cheering for a building I used to work across the street from and walked inside of, daily, for three years.
When “Somebody to Love” came on at the intersection of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, I made eye contact with a pedestrian who alternated between looking at us, shaking his head in disappointment, and staring at the ground. A block later, in defiance, we sang “We Will Rock You.”
At 10:52 a.m., stalled in front of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in Times Square, which was blasting Cardi B’s “I Like It” and instilling in me the desire for a Bad Bunny version of the same tour, the karaoke playlist ended. So it started again, the same selection of six or so tracks from the movie, as we made our way back to J.C. Penney.
Delirious from the cold and the desire to get off the bus, I was reminded of a news story from a few years back that often resurfaces in my social media feed as a reliably cheap laugh. How coincidental that it would appear moments before I got on the bus: In 2014, the Tampa Bay Times reported on an epidemic of hundreds of thousands of hermaphroditic African snails that were introduced to South Florida after a cult leader, Charles Stewart, head of Hialeah, brought a few over from the continent for his followers. He believed drinking the mucus of these huge creatures was good for their health. The snails, which can grow to a frightening six inches in length, are totally toxic to people; you don’t even need to drink the pungent lubrication to get violently ill. And because they are hermaphroditic, the population quickly skyrocketed.
You see where this is going. Bohemian Rhapsody, to me, is like the snails and I am like a South Florida resident, simply trying to make my way through life without having to enter an infirmary (did I mention that the snails burrow underground and emerge, zombie-like, only when it rains?) in a world full of people ready to drink the mucus. I might’ve voluntarily hopped on the bus to hell, but as soon as it was time to depart, I ran to the nearish subway stop, and I did not look back.