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The Evolution of Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now': How a Minor Hit Became One of The Band's Most Beloved (And Inescapable) Songs

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Freddie Mercury and Brian May of Queen perform at the Forum in 1978 in Inglewood, Calif.

Despite Queen's legacy of chart smashes and classic rock standards, it's a No. 86 hit from 1979 still ignored by radio that's everywhere in 2019.

If you tuned in to watch the Oscars late last month, you might have noticed a new commercial promoting the new season of American Idol. It was a 90-second music video featuring a dozen or so bright-eyed contestants, all of whom gleefully belted lines from a beloved song that has felt particularly ubiquitous as of late.

No, it wasn’t “Shallow,” or “Thank U, Next” -- it was Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” a classic-rock energizer that has, in the last six months alone, also been featured in commercials for Toyota, Silk almond milk, Amazon and L’Oreal. In the latter spot, Camila Cabello lip-syncs to the 41-year-old song as she dances and applies her lipstick.

This recent boost in exposure for “Don’t Stop Me Now” -- originally released on the group's 1978 album Jazz, and released as a single the following year -- makes sense, considering the blockbuster success of Bohemian Rhapsody, a global sensation that now holds the mark of highest-grossing musical biopic of all time. After all, the Rami Malek-starring film sent Queen’s 1981 Greatest Hits set back into the top 10 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and even pushed “Bohemian Rhapsody” onto the Hot 100 for the first time since Wayne’s World used the track in 1992. And “Don’t Stop Me Now” was used as a sort of encore in the film; an original-band video of Queen performing the tune blares over the rolling credits.

Still, this song’s evolution runs much deeper than a one-off bolstering from a popular movie. This propulsive cut has grown steadily and rather miraculously in public favor over the last 15 years, despite a modest introduction in the U.S. upon its late '70s release, when it only reached No. 86 on the Hot 100. It fared better in the U.K., hitting No. 9 on the singles chart, though that peak pales in comparison with many of their other signature hits, as Queen scored 22 hits in their native country that charted even higher. 

Here’s an example of just how inconsequential this song was viewed in 1978: When Queen’s Jazz Tour visited U.S. arenas in the fall of ‘78, “Don’t Stop Me Now” was never performed. Despite being scheduled as Jazz's next single after “Fat Bottomed Girls” / “Bicycle Race,” it was instead left off in favor of now-obscure album tracks like “Let Me Entertain You,” “If You Can’t Beat Them,” and “Dreamer’s Ball.” In fact, Freddie Mercury -- the song’s sole composer -- never performed “Don’t Stop Me Now” on American soil. (The song’s intro was played during a Chicago concert in ‘78, but never played in full).

Yet four decades later, “Don’t Stop Me Now” is not only one of the band’s most treasured cuts, but one of the most popular songs of its entire era. On Sunday, March 3, it eclipsed 500 million plays on Spotify — nearly double that of any Rolling Stones, U2 or Led Zeppelin song on the service. It’s the highest streaming figure for any Queen song not called “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which holds the record for the most streams of any tune released in the 20th century. It’s also become an indispensable part of Queen’s “Plus Adam Lambert” live iteration; the song has been played on every tour for the last five years and is one of the most electrifying moments of the set.

So, what happened? How did “Don’t Stop Me Now” morph from a cheeky afterthought to a widely revered, universally uplifting track that refuses to fade into irrelevance?

After a period of pop-culture dormancy through the ‘80s and ‘90s -- “Don’t Stop Me Now” was not among the 19 songs played at the star-studded Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in 1992, following the singer’s 1991 death --  it appears that the song’s rebirth can be initially traced to, of all things, a horde of reanimated bloodthirsty corpses.

Perhaps the most famous scene from the 2004 horror-comedy Shaun Of The Dead features “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which blares from a pub jukebox while stars Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Kate Ashfield bash a zombie with pool cues to the song’s hurtling beat. Shaun became something of a cult classic among millennial comedy and horror lovers alike, introducing the song to a whole new generation of listeners. (The song’s audience ballooned further in ‘04 as California punk-rockers The Vandals recorded a well-received cover of “Don’t Stop Me Now” for the band’s 2004 LP, Hollywood Potato Chip.)

From there, the song’s visibility began to snowball. Viewers of the British TV show Top Gear ranked “Don’t Stop Me Now” as the “Greatest Driving Song of All Time” in 2005, and a year later, the pop-rock group McFly topped the U.K. singles chart with a bright cover of the tune.

On like this it went, with mounting commercial appearances and revamped versions flooding YouTube — see Katy Perry cover the anthem live at a German festival performance in 2009. It was boosted further in 2013 when Glee delivered a brilliant rendition — via a leather-clad and piano-plinking Darren Criss — during a Season Four episode. The timing was fortuitous; yet another new audience was keyed into the decades-old song just as the use of smartphones and perpetual access to virtually every song in existence was becoming universal consumer behavior. It even felt a longtime swell on the karaoke circuit; “Don’t Stop Me Now” is currently the No. 9 most-requested song on the popular karaoke app Healsonic.

The song's recent (and seemingly continual) surge in popularity can also be seen through its growing download and stream totals over the years. From 2008 to 2013, the song averaged around 47,000 downloads a year, but from 2014 to 2018, that number has jumped to 65,000 on average -- with 2018's total (81,000) being the highest of any of those years measured, all per Nielsen data. The song's year-by-year on-demand stream totals since 2013 tell an even clearer story: 

2013: 7.04 million
2014: 13.6 million
2015: 24.3 million
2016: 38.1 million
2017: 63.8 million
2018: 115.6 million

Of course, those numbers are also reflective of streaming's overall boom over the last half-decade. But even considering that, those spikes are stunning for a four-decade-old song. (For some context, that 2018 number is about on par with the on-demand streams last year for lovelytheband's "Broken," one of the year's biggest rock hits.)

This is all well and good -- but the Internet has re-introduced plenty of classic songs to modern listeners. Why has “Don’t Stop Me Now” in particular been so exceedingly successful?

“It’s a song that I can put on whenever I need motivation,” says Lydia Night, singer for The Regrettes, an up-and-coming punk-rock band from Los Angeles that released its own rumbling tribute to “Don’t Stop Me Now” in January. “It’s a timeless song, it’s a timeless message, and I think it will always feel fresh and important.”

Rachel Steele, an on-air DJ for SiriusXM’s Classic Rewind and Classic Vinyl radio stations cites the song’s universal positivity as the key to its longevity. “People use it as this personal anthem, and it’s so catchy to begin with and it can be used in so many different scenarios,” Steele says. “It fits everything, from your baby learning how to walk to an 80-year-old running a marathon and that has helped it stay relevant through all these years.”  

While the high-octane aesthetic of “Don’t Stop Me Now” might very well be the key to its prosperity, it was that same cataclysmic vibe and its relationship to Mercury’s lifestyle during its time of release that caused some apprehension for other Queen members.

“I thought it was a lot of fun, but I did have an undercurrent feeling of, 'Aren't we talking about danger here?' Because we were worried about Freddie at this point,” guitarist Brian May said in a 2011 interview with Absolute Radio, referencing Mercury’s well-documented drug use and sexual promiscuity around the time Jazz was written. “It's become a massive, massive track and an anthem to people who want to be hedonistic. It was kind of a stroke of genius from Freddie."

That said, the true meaning of suggestive lines like “if you wanna have a good time, just give me a call” and “I am a sex machine ready to reload” seems to have faded for listeners over the years. “I think as time goes on, you forget what it’s really about and just listen to the fact that this is a song about having a really good time,” Steele says. “I think it’s so relevant now with today’s empowerment movement, and being an individual and not letting anyone get in your way.”

Yet Steele admits that, for all its popularity online and in mainstream media, neither of her classic-rock-focused stations keeps “Don’t Stop Me Now” in regular rotation, noting that the song’s relentless pace and lively aesthetic is better suited for SiriusXM’s more pop-aimed 70s On 7 channel. The same goes for Jeff Rafter, program director for 107.1 The Boss, a classic rock station in New Jersey.

“It’s not in the top eight or 10 Queen songs we normally play,” Rafter says.

Therein lies a bit of irony -- a song that didn’t receive much airplay on American radio when it first dropped, causing it to fade into relative obscurity for the better part of 25 years, ended up bypassing the format altogether to conjure one of the most fascinating second acts of any rock song ever released.

“I can sit here and name a whole bunch of songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s that aren’t relevant anymore, that people don’t even remember,” Rafter says. “I think Freddie Mercury would be pretty tickled to see ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ doing as well and being as popular as it is today.”