A Case For “Freedom ’90”

posted in: Art, Paean 1
George Michael, looking off into space that didn't suck as much as the space he was in at the time.
George Michael, looking off into space that didn’t suck as much as the space he was in at the time.

Yuri saw George Lucas on Broadway the other day! He had bushy hair and was wearing a pink shirt. George Lucas! How about that.

This post is about a different George: George Michael.

When I was in junior high school, I had a poster of George Michael on my closet door. It wasn’t life-sized — I would’ve been weirded out by an actual man-sized photograph, which says something important about a fourteen year-old girl’s sexuality — but it was full-sized, which I was very happy about. I had to cut a small chunk out of the poster on the right side to allow for the doorknob, that’s how big the poster was.

My sisters and I absolutely adored George Michael, like everyone else did at that time. He was one of the biggest stars on the planet back then and we hung on every syllable we heard him speak on the radio in that British accent (insert insane giggling and squealing here.) The five o’clock shadow, the leather jacket. The aviator shades. The song “Faith” was loved so much by me and the other girls I knew, at some point it ceased being a song and became a person — and that person was the most beautiful, perfect, fun, happy, popular person who had ever existed, ever. We conferred this strange relationship with the song onto the actual person who sang it; ergo, George Michael became the golden calf of the Winterset School System’s entire female population, at least for awhile. This phenomenon was not unique to small town Iowa; this was a craze that swept the nation, this George worship.

But all that time, George Michael was not being himself.

As we would later learn, he hated the pop idol stuff not just because it was extremely weird, but also because he was wearing a terrible, goofy mask while he endured it. A gay man, Michael not only had to pretend he was straight, he had to pretend he was the straightest man who ever lived; a real “lock up your daughters” kind of guy. He had to be a straight girl’s sex symbol rock star, for heaven’s sake, and all he really wanted to do was kiss his boyfriend and sing a duet with Elton John. (That happened later, much to George’s delight.)

After Faith sold 20 million copies and the mask hardened into something truly untenable, George Michael decided to do something about it. Enter Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1., released in 1990, when I was about to enter high school. The album is a total 180 from Faith. There are gospel choirs, acoustic guitars, great lyrics, a Stevie Wonder cover, and plenty of downtempo tracks that even I liked at as a jumpy fifteen year-old. Michael refused to use his face on the cover of the record, nor would he allow his face to be in any videos that were released for singles. Crazy, I know. Crazy and awesome.

Freedom ’90 is a track from that album and I believe that it is a perfect song. They do exist, you know, perfect songs, and this is one of them. You can sing to it. You can dance to it. It’s got highs and lows. It’ll give you goosebumps when it hits the bridge, but when you hum it to yourself later, washing the dishes, you might find you’ve got a little frog in your throat because the lyrics are so touching, so real. Look what he says:

“All we have to do now/is take these lies/and make them true, somehow
All we have to see/is that I don’t belong to you/and you don’t belong to me.”

That’s a sincere cry from a man wearing a mask, coming to terms with his life, and that’s a sentiment can get maudlin and lame real quick. But Freedom ’90 is a celebratory wild yawp, sonically. You’ve got a tambourine, cymbal crashes, a dirty “wonka-chika-wonka-chika” funk guitar on it, and “dunk-a-chika-dunk! dunk-a-chika-dunk” beat that from the instant it starts, your booty is moving. It’s the opposite of maudlin, miles and miles away from sog or pity. It’s a great, great song. I watched the video again tonight and was a little bummed that it didn’t hold up quite as well as I thought it would, but the 90s supermodels are lovely in their prime and it’s still awesome to see the guitar, leather jacket, and jukebox from the Faith video blow up a bunch of times.

Interesting note: I have had several boyfriends in my life who had Freedom ’90 in “favorite songs” lists. A boyfriend of mine in college was fond of ska and punk music, bands with names like Choking Victim and Rancid. But I think he knew how good and honest Freedom ’90 really was and he liked it because of that. If punk rock is about saying “I don’t have to be like you, at all” then George Michael was totally punk rock with that song and the whole Listen Without Prejudice album.

You should listen to it. Watch the video later; just listen to Freedom ’90 first, loud as you’re able to. Then listen to Faith. Then sing Freedom to yourself while you wash the dishes and think about what lies you can make true, somehow.

I did that today, and it felt pretty good.

  1. Gay Barrett
    | Reply

    I go through phases in my life when Freedom ’90 becomes my theme song. I sing it constantly–driving, working out (great workout song!), making dinner, etc. It really becomes quite a production that no other human should ever witness. During these times I will develop a misbegotten notion that I am one of the supermodels from the video. And given what I am envisioning that I look like, I need to apologize to my dogs.

    Regardless, the song is one of my favorites in his catalog. Thanks for reminding me that it is pivotal to reclaiming my life when it becomes chaotic. “Freedom!!! You gotta give for what you take.” Philosophical. Deep. Great to dance to.

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