“There’s something deep inside of me, there’s someone I forgot to be” so sings George Michael in Freedom! ’90, the third single off his second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. The song was released on this day 30 years ago and while it never reached number one, peaking at the eighth spot on the Billboard Hot 100, it’s arguably his most enduring and impactful thanks to its accompanying video – a sleek and sexy collision of music, fashion, supermodels, and style that made it an iconic piece of pop culture. Released at the beginning of a decade dominated by creative, boundary-pushing, wholly original, and hyper-stylized music videos, Freedom! 90 still stands out and holds up. It’s George Michael’s most legendary video and it’s a video in which he doesn’t even appear in a single frame.
Few artists were as huge as George Michael following the release of his first solo album, 1987’s Faith. Already a bonafide pop sensation thanks to his time in Wham, going solo sent George Michael into the stratosphere. The album spawned a relentless series of hits like the title track Faith, Father Figure, Monkey, I Want Your Sex, Kissing a Fool, and One More Try. Faith sold more than 20 million copies, won Album of The Year at the Grammy Awards and put George Michael on the level of other bonafide superstars of the day like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Whitney Houston. Which is precisely what George wanted, admitting as much in the illuminating posthumously released 2017 HBO documentary Freedom, saying, “I went full gusto into creating a new character. One that I thought would resonate enough to stand up there next to Madonna and (Michael) Jackson and Prince. And I guess I did that pretty effectively alongside what was a very, very commercial record.”
When it came time to release his sophomore album, expectations to repeat the massive success of Faith were high but George Michael had no desire to meet them. His second effort, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 not only veered dramatically artistically from Faith, George also refused to promote it explaining in the HBO doc, “I see that kind of hard sell promotion as prostituting myself, I can’t help it. Even if it’s a complete fallacy, that’s how I see it.” George’s refusal to market the album led to a major rift between him and his record label with George ultimately refusing to appear in any of the album’s music videos. The video for the its first single, Praying For Time, featured only the song’s lyrics in white set against a black background (long before lyric videos were a thing) But it was the video for the album’s third single, Freedom! 90 that would become a mainstay on MTV and MuchMusic and go on to become one of the most quintessential and influential videos of its time.
The Freedom! 90 video as we know it would never have happened without a magazine hitting newsstands in January of that year. That month, British Vogue featured supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Tatjana Patitz on its cover, shot by the late great photographer Peter Lindbergh. George saw the cover and, knowing he wasn’t going to appear in the video himself, had an idea. “If you’re going to say to your record company, ‘look, I’m not gonna be in this video’ I’d say that’s a fairly good consolation prize, really – five absolutely gorgeous supermodels,” says George in the documentary.
“It was a specific group of women that George wanted and that had just been on the cover of British Vogue,” Cindy Crawford explains in the same documentary. “It was like he wants you five and it has to be all of you five.” After securing his famous five, George sought out David Fincher to direct the video. Long before becoming the Academy Award nominated filmmaker behind movies like Seven, The Social Network, and Gone Girl, Fincher was known for directing a treasure trove of music videos for various artists including Paula Abdul’s Straight Up and Express Yourself and Vogue for Madonna. “I remember David and George working closely together,” revealed Christy Turlington in the 2017 documentary, “he was right there looking through the lens at times.”
While the video was visually stunning and a feast for the eyes, it wasn’t without deeper meaning. Interspersed between shots of those five absolutely gorgeous and most in-demand supermodels lip-syncing the lyrics were images conveying the true meaning behind the song. Feeling shackled and boxed in by the worldwide success of his first album and his manufactured tight jean-clad butt-shaking heartthrob image, George used the Freedom! 90 video to break free, literally blowing up the past and setting fire to the iconography from his uber popular Faith video like the jukebox, guitar and his trademark leather jacket. As he sings in the song, “sometimes the clothes do not make the man.”
“I didn’t realize that people would look at the Faith image and go, ‘fuck, that’s cool,’ George says in the Freedom documentary. “I was really, really overwhelmed,” he admits. “It’s such a fun song.” says Cindy Crawford of Freedom! 90 in the doc, “and then, when you listen to the words and the statement, it has much more meaning…for George Michael was about him saying, enough, you guys tried to pre-package me and sell me in a way that was not authentic.”
Though he remained sexually closeted for another eight years following its release, it’s easy to view Freedom! 90 and, by extension, the entirety of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 as George Michael’s coming out party – him taking control of his life, image, and artistry. And while it may not have had the same commercial success as Faith, it’s impossible to deny Freedom! 90 ultimately had the greater, longer lasting impact on his legacy. Elton John has called Freedom! 90 “a genius and revolutionary thing” while super producer Mark Ronson has said, “it’s the Mona Lisa.”
Like the Mona Lisa, the Freedom! 90 video is a work of art. Watching the video and experiencing it today is just as enjoyable as it was upon its release three decades ago, perhaps even more as it wraps us in the warm blanket of nostalgia, reminding us of a time that no longer exists, one that’s gone forever. Just like the brilliant artist behind it.