I’ve mentioned* here and there that to a certain point, I was a fairly sheltered child. I spent many formative years living in a large condo building near the University of Hawaii (where Mom and Dad worked). I had one friend in the building because our moms were pals, so we never hung out without supervision and it was hard setting up playdates with friends from school, so through age 8, I had three main cultural influences: my parents, peers at school (most of whom I didn’t really get along), and network television.
*My favorite story about my sheltered early childhood was when my mom took me to see Labyrinth in the theater. She mentioned David Bowie was in it. She should have known better and I asked “who’s *that*?” And she paused for long enough that even at 7 years old, I could tell she was searching for an appropriate and adequate answer before responding, “he’s...a rock star.” That’s the punchline, but I will add to this retelling that I was SO TITILLATED by this response, I could hardly wait to feast eyes upon this “rock star.”
In the middle of second grade, we moved to a middle-income condo complex in Hawaii Kai, a very ritzy* suburb. This was a great move for me. We lived right on the water and I learned how to lay out crab traps and pull them right out of the marina. As nice as Kaimuki was, I was happy to be around more nature (even if it was just suburban landscaping). I actually had neighborhood kids to hang out with and among other major revelations such as swearing, my new friends and I watched VH1 together, mostly to catch the Miami Sound Machine, Whitney Houston, Eric Carmen, and my first favorite song ever, “Rock Steady” by the Whispers (it did not make this list because it’s only sort of good to my adult ears).
*I was curious as to how ritzy in 2020 dollars, so I looked on Redfin in that entire zip code for houses and condos under $500k and only one popped up and you had to be eligible under some special affordable-housing program to qualify.
Oft discussed in hushed tones, but rarely pursued was a sexy, dangerous motherfucker who went by the name of George Michael*. Because we were goodie-goodies, we didn’t watch MTV regularly, so at first, he was just kind of this mysterious and taboo figure we gossiped about and maybe heard occasionally on the radio, but I don’t think I saw the “Faith” video until much later. I remember my then best friend April telling me that he actually had a song called “I Want Your Sex,” which was so scandalous to us and I was actually pretty angry. How dare he?! At the same time, part of me was super interested in how you could write a song like that. My artistic instincts thought it was a bit too obtuse a turn of phrase to be used in a song. Looking back, this was a true and pretty impressive evaluation for an eight year old. But I was secretly pretty fascinated. One time me and April went to Castle Park** and were about to get started on the Gravitron. As we were getting strapped in, April nudged me and pointed to the sky, indicating I should listen to the song being played. It was “I Want Your Sex!” I looked at the monitors that were playing music videos along with the songs being played over the loudspeaker and I swear on a stack of bibles that the screen was STATIC! I thought to myself “well, yes, they couldn’t make a video for this song, it would be too lurid.” Of course, he would later release “Father Figure” and “One More Try,” fairly safe ballads and I got into “Faith” accordingly and while I pale at the thought of not having George Michael in my life, the thrill of the scandal kind of wore off at that point too. I don’t think I’ve ever told my George Michael Origin Story to a single other human in as much naked detail as I’ve provided here, so I hope you feel privileged to read it.
*We were too young for Wham! I discovered “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” well after its time and got into it because we had a keyboard at home and the demo was “Wake Me Up.” I can’t figure out why that happened.
**I take a little pride in the fact that Honolulu had a mini version of Class Action Park. Castle Park was a bit of a death trap and reading up on news articles from the late 80s, a ton of kids got hurt there and it eventually became a gang haven. It was kind of inconvenient to get to, so I think I only went a total of two times, so of course in my mind it was the funnest place ever, and this is coming from a kid who regularly visited Disney World.
By 1990, things were as different as they could be three years later. I was older and wiser, I’d moved to a new neighborhood where I’d gathered new pals who were marginally badder girls and in addition to the Disney Afternoon lineup, we’d watch Golden Girls, Empty Nest, GLOW, and MTV during slumber parties, which were a near-weekly occurrence. We were very into money-making schemes, VERY SERIOUS crushes on boys at school, and very glamorous future career plans. Oh--another thing we were very much into was going to the mall, where we really didn’t have any money for very much unless we saved up a few weeks to buy a pair of grown-up heels at Payless. We also discovered this extremely shady jewelry store which was in this weird building across the street from the mall that sold extremely cheap jewelry. You could get a pair of earrings for a dollar. They were probably made out of lead, but we were so thrilled we could *just buy* these tacky, ostentatious 80s (even though it was 1990) earrings without consulting with our parents.
In October of 1990 when “Freedom! ‘90” was released, I was in 6th grade but for some reason, I remember very clearly seeing it more often the following summer, leading up to 7th grade. I spent a lot of time at home that summer and between episodes of USA High and California Dreams, I’d put on MTV to catch pop videos from Boyz II Men, Madonna, Wilson Phillips, Amy Grant, and OF COURSE, George Michael. George Michael had changed a lot in three years, too. I would not have been able to pinpoint the reason for the change, but I now know that he had an existential crisis, parted ways from his record company and decided he was going to be a serious artist. I didn’t think there was anything cheesy about his solo stuff in the 80s, but looking back there’s a stark difference between GM ‘87 and GM ‘90 and I’m struggling for the words to describe it. He was clearly marketed as a teen idol in 1987 and we all know that for the videos he released from Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 and hence he refused to even appear in many of his music videos. He was still making pop music, though. It was just that it went from extremely competent teen-idol stuff to extremely competent pop legend stuff. It’s like 1990 Mariah Carey vs. 1995 Mariah Carey. Without that turn, he’d be a national treasure. With it, he’s a god.
While I loved “Freedom! ‘90” in its time, it honestly wouldn’t have made my top 100 list if not for the growing appreciation I’ve had for it in the last five-or-so years. I think it’s my mature ears that have more recently raised my assessment of classic R&B and Soul from the ‘60s and ‘70s and “Freedom! ‘90” belongs in that class. It’s fucking incredible. I’m listening to it now and it’s bringing tears to my eyes. The rolling percussion it starts with (a sampled backbeat from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”), the now-classic piano riff. The vocal performances are what make this song a classic though. The backup vocals feature George Michael himself but also like--an entire fucking gospel choir, significant and innovative enough at the time where when identified by genre on the world wide web, I’ve seen it categorized as pop/gospel. Gospel!
Lead vocals during the verses are groovy and soft and you’re with him until the glissando* when he gets louder and choppier and it’s musically almost a break-down. This part climaxes at “I just hope you understand sometimes the clothes do not make the man!” Then we switch into a more gospelly and soaring second lead in to the chorus, “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” AND THEN we get the “freeeeeedoooooom, freeeeedoooooom” and all is well.
*The glissando, also known as the “piano thing” is one of my favorite features in pop music (will appear again in the top 20) but I can never remember what it’s called, so I texted my good friend Emily for a reminder on what the term was and she lauds its use in this particular song as “a falling glissando, very emotional.” Thank you, Emily!
The “freedom” in this case references a relationship. And he addresses the object of the song as “boy,” which must have been a very *freeing* thing for him to do. Part of the existential crisis he had between his 1987 personna and his 1990 one resulted from the stifling experience of being a teen idol of young girls. According to the internet, he was out as bisexual back in his Wham! days, but I feel like among girls my age, we didn’t really know or understand. I watched Full House last night and was reminded how pervasive his teen idolness was in the late 80s. And they made such a thing about his jewelry, I find it really hard to believe that his bisexuality wasn’t mostly a secret. Americans were so conservative about sexuality at the time, the poster of George Michael on (the other) DJ Tanner’s bedroom wall is a stark juxtaposition. There’s also some pretty obvious subtext about his being liberated from the role and as I understand it this had a lot to do with his leaving his record company and taking greater artistic control over his music and general career.
This brings me to the music video, which is famous for featuring a half dozen of the biggest supermodels of their time and NOT featuring the man himself. His ambivalence about his success particularly in the MTV sphere is spelled out pretty clearly in the song:
I was every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy
And I guess it was enough for me (said I guess it was enough for me)
To win the race? A prettier face
Brand new clothes and a big fat place
On your rock and roll TV (rock and roll TV)
He hated it! It was so weird! After all that time in Wham!, I feel like this is like one of the top ten most puzzling public artistic crises of our time. The video seemed to be the thing bothering him most, but he was smart enough to know he absolutely had to put one out, so he himself asked models to show up in the videos in his place and they said “ok” and the rest is fucking history. The video was directed by David Fincher. David Fincher! That’s less impressive when you consider that’s basically where he started directing, but jesus fucking christ, how is every aspect of this song a master class in the best things in their place and time falling right into place? Fuck, I love this song. It famously does not include George Michael himself and he apparently wasn’t even there when it was shot. He went with a version of this formula again in an underrated video and song released from his subsequent album. In “Too Funky” he used supermodels again but this time in their natural habitat, with George Michael playing the camera man. I like it, but I acknowledge he was asking lightning to strike twice.
I remember the day George Michael left us. He wasn’t a young man and it wasn’t suicide or anything, so it’s not like a Kurt Cobain thing where we all remember where we were or whatever. But all of us remember hearing about his death because the fucker DIED ON CHRISTMAS. You can’t write this stuff. Because of the enduring Wham! classic “Last Christmas,” I think a lot of us think about George Michael more around Christmas because of the welcome Wham!-related repetitiveness that comes with the season. I happened to be at Pete’s cousin’s house, getting ready for Christmas dinner, saw the news alert on my phone and gave Pete the news. Pete immediately went to his cousin Katie, a few years older than us, was this family’s George Michael obsessive in the 80s. “Katie,” he said. “George Michael has died.” Katie’s eyes got big. She was visibly shaken by this news. She’s not a disingenuous person--this was legitimate. She jokingly said “I think I need to sit down,” but I think she really wanted some time to herself for quiet reflection.