BY MIN CHEN
In the late ‘80s, George Michael was in the process of swiftly and successfully conquering America. He’d sold upwards of 18 million copies of his terrific debut solo album Faith, which contained no less than six chart-smashing singles, toured the world over, and picked up a Grammy Award, among other accolades, for his efforts. By all accounts, he was a massive hit, commanding the love and attention of a fanatic worldwide audience. But in quick order, Michael had enough of that. He tired of the lengthy tours, the award ceremonies, the video making, and the entire promotion cycle that kept him away from home and studio. The pop star was done being a pop star. “The only thing that distresses me is the idea that people think I’m a star star,” he told Rolling Stone. “I do like being a celebrity—it’s good to get into clubs for free and stuff. But genuinely, I am only passionate about my music.”
It is a common enough lament among pop singers who’ve felt their talent glossed over in the rush to move units, sell tickets, and garner adulation. But for Michael, this agitation was especially acute. After all, he’d left behind Wham!, the wildly loved English duo that sprung him into the spotlight, for exactly this reason: to be taken seriously as an artist and songwriter (and to attract an audience that could not be described as “prepubescent”). And there’s no doubting the range of Michael’s creative capabilities; he was a master of the pop form and songcraft, and played a host of instruments on his records, which he also produced. Naturally, he aimed for success, but the unequivocal triumph of Faith far exceeded even his own ambitions. As he put it then, “I was very confident that I would become a successful musician, but I had no idea I would be a celebrity.” So for his next act, he thought, he’d turn the focus back on the thing that mattered, subtracting the trappings of pop, fame, and sex symbolism, to get people listening without prejudice.
Indeed, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 presented a more introspective Michael, largely accompanied by an acoustic backing, crooning slow-burners like “Waiting For That Day” and “Cowboys and Angels.” If his record company Sony Music was unimpressed with this leftfield follow-up to Faith—which it dubbed George Michael’s Nebraska, in reference to Bruce Springsteen’s spare and somber 1982 record—it was further irked by Michael’s refusal to promote the album (thus initiating what would become a bitter legal battle between Sony and the singer, who protested his “professional slavery”). While he did eventually kind of tour the album, he flatly refused to make any music videos to accompany it (he’s also absent from the record’s cover); and if videos had to be made, there was no way he would appear in them. “I would like to never step in front of a camera again,” he told Q in 1990. Accordingly, first single “Praying For Time” got a suitably solemn lyric video, while second single “Waiting For That Day” got no video. As third single “Freedom! ‘90” was being lined up, Sony implored Michael to allow a video, if only to service MTV’s needs. The singer eventually capitulated, producing a beautifully shot video that belied his rage at the entire pop machinery.
As promised, Michael does not show up in the video for “Freedom! ‘90”; instead, he handpicked five of the most in-demand supermodels then—Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz, Cindy Crawford, and Christy Turlington—to take his place. Calling it “one of [his] better ideas,” Michael noted, “If you’re gonna say to your record company, ‘Look, I’m not going to be in this video,’ I’d say that’s a fairly good consolation prize.” Definitely: directed by David Fincher, the film is a gorgeous, cinematic piece of work, featuring the five models lounging, writhing, and lip syncing to the song in a moodily lit warehouse (male model John Pearson and photographer Mario Sorrenti also put in appearances). Each time the chorus of kicks in though, the action shifts to three items, a leather jacket, a jukebox, and a guitar, that take turns exploding or going up in flames. These objects are meaningful and symbolic, having being prominently displayed and worn by Michael in the video for the world-shaking “Faith”; and the acts of arson are significant too for reasons that are apparent.
Upon its release, the video entered heavy rotation on MTV (never mind that the track sideswipes “the boys on MTV”), and set the tone for pop videos to come. Naturally, the pretty faces made it a sure-hit, though its sly, bloody-minded humor went largely unheeded. Cindy Crawford, remembering the shoot in 2016, thought they were simply making “a really cool video.” But of course it had to be cool; it was a pop product, even as it packaged some manner of career sabotage. George Michael clearly intended that dichotomy: accompanying the video’s sensual scene-setting were such lines as,
I think there’s something you should know
I think it’s time I stopped the show
There’s something deep inside of me
There’s someone I forgot to be
Take back your picture in a frame
Don’t think that I’ll be back again
I just hope you understand
Sometimes the clothes do not make the man
If Michael could often be cheeky with his videos (also see: “Outside” or even the shorts showcase “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” which he once described as “two guys really making asses of ourselves”), they also harbored his tense relationship with the whole image making industry. Working in the context and vernacular of pop, for one, the singer wrestled continually with its expectations and perceptions. “People have this perception that if all you write is pop music, as opposed to something that reveals a far deeper character, it’s because that’s all you can do, not because it’s all you choose to do,” he said in 1988. And for another, he’d had to reconcile his video-necessitating obligations with his weightier artistic impulses. As the chorus for “Freedom! ‘90” described that compromise, “You’ve gotta give for what you take.” Pointedly, then, the gesture of refusal contained in its video came veiled by a five representatives of camera-friendly femininity.
Fact is, this film was not his first attempt at subverting pop frivolity in favor of something seemingly more substantial. “Faith,” his first solo single, opens with a snippet of Wham!’s 1984 single “Freedom” played on a church organ—a melodic echo as much as elegiac farewell—before its video reframed the once-bubbly pop singer in the image of a rugged, guitar-wielding rock ‘n’ roller.
Ultimately, for all his exertion, George Michael effectively and brilliantly straddled the roles of pop star and artist. As he articulated in 2004, “I just wanted people to know that I was absolutely serious about pop music.” So he did. It’s no small boon that his negotiations between those polarities have produced such iconic visual artifacts (or promotion material, as Michael would’ve viewed it). Not least the video for “Freedom! ‘90,” which ticked the boxes for beautiful models and glossy surfaces, while sneaking in a lyrical and meta-commentary about beauty and gloss. In pop’s perceived shallows, he buried something deep. And that’s pretty serious.